Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
As a boy growing up in the nation of Georgia, Zaza Pachulia honed his low-post moves on the dilapidated courts of a windowless gym. In the winter, with no heaters available, he wore hats and gloves during practice.
“We had just separated from the Soviet Union,” Pachulia recalled after a recent Warriors practice. “Life was miserable.”
Basketball rivals soccer and rugby for the top spot in Georgia’s sports hierarchy. As the country’s only active NBA player, Pachulia is an icon to its 4.5 million residents. Last January, thanks to Georgians stuffing the online ballot box, Pachulia came within 15,000 votes of becoming an All-Star starter. The longtime role player received more votes than Draymond Green, Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins.
To prevent a similar situation, the NBA expanded All-Star voting to players and media this season. Pachulia viewed the switch not as a slight against him, but as more evidence of the power of his support base.
“Every single Georgian should be proud because their efforts have been felt, right?” Pachulia said with a chuckle. “I never asked anybody to vote for me last year. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the special part of it.”
The son of a former Soviet women’s basketball team player, Pachulia picked up the sport at age 8. He was a 6-foot-8 14-year-old when he accepted an invitation to train with Istanbul’s Ulkerspor, a team in Turkey’s top professional league. It was only five years later that Pachulia went to the Orlando Magic in the second round of the 2003 NBA draft.
Today, he is one of five Georgians to have played in the league. Perhaps the biggest name outside of Pachulia is Nikoloz Tskitishvili. The fifth overall pick in the 2002 draft by Denver, he averaged 2.9 points per game over four NBA seasons before heading overseas.
Pachulia has used an understated playing style to last in the league 13-plus years. Though a below-average athlete by NBA standards, he is an intelligent player who excels at setting screens, hustling for loose balls and passing to the perimeter. His toughness, a trait forged in that frigid, windowless Georgian gym, has earned him a reputation as one of the league’s low-post enforcers.
Throughout a career that has spanned five NBA teams, Pachulia has made a point to visit his hometown of Tbilisi, Georgia, every offseason. He has played with the Georgian national team 15 of the past 16 summers, sitting out only in 2013 because of surgery on his right Achilles tendon. An avid businessman who is working toward his MBA online, Pachulia owns two hotels and a fitness center in Tbilisi.
In the summer of 2015, the Athletic Federation of Georgia offered him the opportunity to run his own basketball academy in Tbilisi. The program, which now boasts more than 500 members, is housed in the same complex where Pachulia once practiced while wearing a hat and gloves.
These days, the facility features four basketball courts, locker rooms, a weight room, a restaurant and dorm-style living. One of the courts is the same hardwood Pachulia used to run on at the Bradley Center when he played for Milwaukee (he had the floor shipped in 267 pieces).
“What basketball gave me in my life, it’s amazing,” Pachulia said. “I want other kids to have my kind of career, at least.”
Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Con_Chron