<
>

Hang Time: Disneyland, the Knicks and life in America with Kristaps Porzingis

play
Porzingis realizes childhood dream (4:31)

Kristaps Porzingis fulfills a childhood dream by having fun visiting Disneyland in California. (4:31)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 26 / Jan. 2 Issue. Subscribe today!

ON A CHILLY December evening in Anaheim, California, Kristaps Porzingis points to his soaked crotch and bursts with joy.

"Look, I peed my pants!" yelps the 21-year-old big man, a Pooh Bear hat atop his head, furry ears and all. Porzingis is kidding, of course -- his unfortunately positioned wet spot is a souvenir from Grizzly River Run at Disney's California Adventure Park. The ride was the first stop on his rookie sojourn to Disneyland, on an off-day for the Knicks sandwiched between road wins in Sacramento and over the Lakers in LA.

The Latvian import has taken to the Happiest Place on Earth like a big kid with his hair on fire. But unlike every other kid, the 7-foot-3 Porzingis has, in fact, been deemed too tall for several rides. "It must be nice to be short," he tells this 5-7ΒΌ reporter.

Still, Porzingis wanted as much magic as possible on our trip, and so magic we will find -- including stops at the Cars-inspired Radiator Springs Racers and the venerable teacups at Disneyland's Mad Tea Party. There was also time to shop for gear (he carefully selected Stitch's ears for me), break into song ("Porzingis peed his pants, Porzingis peed his pants!") and partake in a wide-ranging chat about the charmed though not trouble-free life of the Unicorn.

ALIPOUR: I told you we could meet anywhere and do anything in America for Hang Time. So why are two grown men at Disneyland today?

PORZINGIS: It's been a long journey of mine, wanting to come to Disneyland. As a kid, I always wanted to experience this. Now I'm 21, but I still wanted to do it. So we're here!

I feel ya. When my family moved here from Iran, we all but sprinted to Disneyland. I'm still a regular, actually. What is it about the Disney magic that captured our imagination halfway across the world?
It started with cartoons. My first memory is -- how do you call it, Mickey Mouse? I was in Latvia when I saw Mickey on TV. And oh, Winnie the Pooh! That's my guy. You want to see them in real life. That's why it's a dream for kids to come here. And look what they built -- we're grown men, and we're still having fun here. It's unbelievable. That's one thing about Americans: They know how to have fun.

Apparently, there's a height limit on fun today.
Every day. Low ceilings, low doors. I hate that. Oh my god, it's the worst. This world is too small for me.

You're the tallest NBA player now, right?
I might be, yeah. You're in the top 5,000 tallest reporters?

Roughly. How do you feel about thrill rides?
As a kid, I used to love roller coasters. I love adrenaline, love going faster. But it's been a long time, so --

You're not gonna puke on me today, are you?
I can't promise anything. While my teammates are just chillin' at the hotel, bored, I'm out here in these teacups spinning around.

What's the best Disney movie ever?
Lion King, of course! That's a classic. As a kid, I got a little emotional watching it. Even now too.

You know what Disney movies taught me? English. Farsi was my first language, but Disney got me caught up. Feel me?
That's how you learn. Every time you watch a movie, you pick up more stuff. I watched a lot of John Wick and Dinner for Schmucks, with the guy from The Office. I watched that over and over.

First American curse word that you learned in a locker room?
"F---." But since I've been in New York, my favorite is [in a New York accent], "The f--- outta heeeya!"

As an immigrant, you have a fresh perspective on America. What do you think?

People are friendly. Not everywhere. New Yorkers aren't that friendly, but they're still pretty friendly, and they're hardworking, passionate people. Another thing I like is that here in America, you can go somewhere else and nobody knows who you are or your past. In Latvia, everybody knows everybody and word spreads quickly, whatever happens. It's a small place.

So what's it like, as a 21-year-old kid from Latvia, being a big star in the Big Apple and arguably the most popular Knick?
Honestly, I don't understand what is going on around me. New York is a big stage, but I just play basketball, and I try to stay the same. That's why it's good to have my family around, so I don't fly away.

Do you feel like a New Yorker yet?
I'm getting there. My vocabulary is getting there too. Some slang that I say, the guys just laugh like crazy.

What's your favorite New York slang?
"Dead a--, B!"

Awesome. But do you hate Reggie Miller yet?
Of course! [Laughs.] I know everybody hates him in New York, so I got to hate him too.

Have you been yelled at by a cabbie yet?
Yes! When I cut him off the road. Hey, I was just trying to fit in. [Laughs.]

You've come a long way since draft night, when your selection by the Knicks led to boos and famously made a kid cry. I mean, literally, he's famous now.
[Laughs] I saw it on social media right away. I laughed about it. You know, a European gets drafted, [the kid] has no idea who he is, so he follows his dad's reaction and starts crying. But I always see him before games. It's funny, now he's my biggest fan.

Can you blame them for booing? More than a few tall Euros have busted.
Nobody wanted a risk with a skinny European. But I knew that with my work ethic, at some point I would prove myself.

It was reported that even Carmelo Anthony was unhappy with your selection. Did he ever tell you that?
No, he never told me that. He said from the beginning to me that he really liked my game, but he didn't really know me. Now he's a big brother, a mentor. He's a really experienced player who knows the details of the game. Whatever I needed, I asked him, and he helped me out.

You had a solid first year, finishing runner-up for rookie of the year, but your production dipped toward the end of the season. Did you hit the proverbial rookie wall?
It's not a real thing. What is it? You have a few bad games, you hit the rookie wall? Late in the season, of course it's going to happen -- you're tired. Who doesn't get tired? There's a sophomore wall, veteran wall. Happens to everybody.

You're the rare big man with the ability to pick and roll, pick and pop and put it on the floor, all while protecting the rim. What part of your game needs the most work?

Everything, starting with my post game, getting stronger and defense. Offensively, I need to keep working on my ball-handling and shooting. My 3-point average dropped a little bit - it might be at 37-38% now. I should be around 40%.

You forgot the weakest part of your game-your mean-mug, as seen against Detroit.

[Laughs.] I need to work on it, I agree. I'm not a mean guy, you know? I don't know if I'm capable of it. Every time I try to look mean, it kind of looks funny. Maybe I need to work on my facial expressions a little bit.

Was making the All-Star team a goal for the season?

It's not the main focus, but of course I want to be there. I put team success first. And the team goal is to make the playoffs. We don't want to go too far and think we have to make it to the Finals. After the season we had last year, I think the next step is the playoffs. And if your team is winning, you have a bigger possibility of making the All-Star team.

You're having an All-Star-worthy sophomore campaign. What's the biggest difference between this year and last for you?

I have one year of experience, so I know the players and teams better. But I'm also trying to have more fun. Sometimes I catch myself putting too much pressure, not enjoying the game. Coaches tell me to just smile a little bit. That reminder is important. When I'm enjoying myself, I play better and I have more swagger.

Among your peers, who's the guy you measure yourself against, your Magic to his Bird?
Hopefully, me and Karl-Anthony Towns can have long, successful careers and a long rivalry. But we're cool. We're friends.

Who's got the best nickname? Joel [Embiid] gave himself a pretty good one.
The Process. That's pretty funny. I like that one.

Of your 42 million nicknames, which is your personal favorite?
I like to keep it simple: KP. The Unicorn is pretty funny, but I don't see people calling me that. "Yo, Unicorn!" That won't work. But just don't call me Zinger. Oh my god, I hate that name.

Everybody loves debating your ceiling. So I'll ask you: what does your ceiling look like?

I don't like putting limits on myself. It all depends on how much work I put in, but I don't see any limitations for me. I love high-ceilings, remember? [Laughs.]

There have been obvious comparisons to imports Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki. Among Americans, you've been compared to everyone from Lamar Odom to Kevin Durant. Look ahead five years. Whose game will yours most resemble?

Maybe I'll gain 100 pounds and play like Shaq. [Laughs.] Obviously, I love Dirk's game. I love Pau, Lamar, KD, all those guys. And, of course, Kobe - I love his killer instinct, mentality and work ethic. But I want to have my own journey, live my own experience. I'm going to be my own player. I'm going to be unique - a unicorn. [Laughs.]

What career goals have you set for yourself?

The ultimate goal is to win a ring. And I do have a thought in my head: a quadruple-double in a game -- points, rebounds, assists, blocks. That'd be unbelievable. As I said, I don't want to put limitations on myself. So maybe one day.

Could you average a triple-double someday?
Yeah, for sure. With 10 blocks. Why not?

Ten blocks per game is crazy. Averaging 10 assists is more realistic, no?
For me, 10 blocks is more realistic. I got seven blocks a couple of times. I'm not there yet where I'm dishing the ball out to get 10 assists, but you never know.

With Christmas upon us, let's imagine Santa appeared and said, "Kristaps, my boy, you can have one gift for Christmas -- anything in the world." What would you ask for?
A championship ring.

And if Santa said, "Sorry, dude, I don't do miracles"?
[Laughs] Then I'd ask Santa to change my hair on NBA 2K. It's pretty ugly. I understand I don't have the greatest hair, but on 2K it looks terrible. Santa, please make them fix it!