Are You Surprised That Dallas Mavericks Star Kristaps Porzingis Owns A Unicorn Costume? Neither Are We.

Kristaps PorzingisPhoto Credit: Steven Visneau

BY LAURA SCHREFFLER
PHOTOGRAPHY STEVEN VISNEAU
SHOT AT KRISTAPS PORZIŅGIS’ DALLAS HOME

Let’s face it: adulting is hard, and nobody really wants to do it. But there comes a time when each of us is faced with the fact that a Peter Pan complex is not a real thing, and we must grow up. For NBA All-Star Kristaps Porziņģis, that day came when he moved to Dallas.

The 26-year-old had been riding high on his magical moniker the Unicorn, a nickname bestowed on him by fellow player Kevin Durant in his early days (a nod to how rare 7-foot-3 rim protectors are in the league), his youth, and maybe a little bit of blissful ignorance when a torn knee ligament derailed him in 2018 and — after some disagreements with the team’s front office — eventually facilitated a transfer from the New York Knicks to the Dallas Mavericks on February 1, 2019.

The trade was certainly humbling, as was the fact that he had to sit out the remaining 10 games of the 2018-2019 season with his new team due to the breakdown of his body. His 24-year-old young body. But Porziņģis is resilient, and he soon found that — as much as he loved Manhattan — Dallas was where he truly needed to be for both professional and personal growth, and agreeing to re-sign with the Mark Cuban-owned Mavericks for a five-year maximum contract valued at $158 million was a step in the right, most sensible direction, wouldn’t you say?
I first spoke to Porziņģis in 2017, two years into his tenure with the Knicks. He was a different person then: more controlled, much greener. Now he seems laid-back and loose, the benefits of time, league experience and, yes, a pre-interview power nap, which was preceded by an impromptu yet apparently draining game of pickup. Still, the differences are visible, and I say so.

“It’s like day and night,” he agrees over Zoom from his newly customized rental apartment in Dallas’ Arts District area. “With each year, I kept realizing, ‘Oh my god — I was so dumb a year ago. You grow so much, you learn so much, especially at my age. I think that maybe when I hit 30 I’ll be like, ‘OK, now I finally know something real.’ But then again, maybe not! Each year I’ve been like, ‘What the hell was I thinking last year?’”

When I ask him to explain the changes he sees in himself, he says, “In the last four years, I’ve definitely grown as a person. I grew the most when I was out with my injuries — that was really when I had the time to think about things. While I was playing, everything was great, but once I had to slow down and understand that my basketball career is not going to last forever, it put things into perspective. It made me much more grateful for the things I have, you know?”

How could I not? And this appreciation runs deep. It can be applied to pretty much everything: his strength, his resilience, his lack of current injuries, his health, his family, his friends, his team. “Anything can happen on any given day,” he notes. “But the more grateful you are for your surroundings and the good things around you, the more good things will come your way. That’s how I look at it, at least. Having a positive outlook has helped me through many difficult situations and helped me stay levelheaded.”

There’s a long list of things he’s lucky to have, and surprisingly, one of those is location, location, location. New York was exciting and mysterious, the perfect spot for a hot young player. But the Big D is a better fit for the guy who knows his limitations, is aware of his skills and is open to both personal and professional growth. Its laid-back vibe has fostered a similar one in him.

Kristaps PorzingisPhoto Credit: Steven Visneau

“I actually love this city,” he declares. “The people here are extra nice. The weather is good. Everything is a 10-minute drive, no matter what you need to get to. My practice facility is two minutes away; the arena is three. It’s super convenient. There are a ton of great places to eat, and that’s one of my favorite things to do.” Plus, he adds, “I come from a coastal city where people are super laid-back, and it’s more like that here than in New York, where are people are more aggressive and everything is more intense.” (This is not a dig at New York, which he credits for his seriously sublime personal style: he dressed himself for our photo shoot. Bravo!)

And while you’ll never see him sporting a 10-gallon or cowboy boots — it isn’t like he needs the additional height, thanks, and are those kind of kicks even made in a size 16? Which begs the question, are any shoes made in that size? — but he does appreciate the fans who wear them. “I’m not super into cowboy culture, but I do find the fans to be wonderful,” he says. “The loudest arena I have ever been to was ours [American Airlines Arena] when we played at home during the playoffs last year. I mean, the noise they made when we ran out during warm-up can’t even be explained. It sounded like everything was amplified on speakers. I thought, ‘There is no way that people can make this much noise.’” Even better, Mavericks fans let him be. They respect his privacy, which he deeply appreciates. “A lot of people might recognize me because, hey! I can’t hide. I’m 7 foot 3. But they’re polite; they don’t bother me while I’m eating. The people here let me have my space.”

The concept of space is one we riff on for a bit: how his own need for distance has changed dramatically during the pandemic. He needs less of it and thrives on one-on-one interactions more now, sees the value in a handshake. He reminisces about the NBA bubble — the Walt Disney World isolation zone of the 2019-2020 regular season and playoffs — which he said he enjoyed simply because it forced camaraderie between teammates. In addition to all the days of practice, there were nights of smoking cigars, watching UFC fights and talking shit. Getting to know one another on a personal level helped the Mavericks perform as a cohesive unit on the court.

Speaking of space, that concept changed in relation to his home life, too. Instead of continuously renting, he decided to put down roots and buy a home, a preventative measure in case the country goes into lockdown yet again. He and his girlfriend, Latvian dancer and model Laura Vizla, aren’t getting down and dirty with the DIY — at the time of our interview, the 2021-2022 preseason is just two weeks away— but they’re overseeing and approving the changes, and that’s enough. “I’m making the apartment as if there would be another pandemic,” Porziņģis explains. “I want to have my own little office. I want the rooms to be separated, to be bright and with earthy tones everywhere so it feels almost like you’re outdoors. “I’m a big fan of that emptiness, big, wide, open roads. It’s what I love about Texas the most.” Kristaps PorzingisPhoto Credit: Steven Visneau

I’ve put Kristaps Porziņģis on the spot. He’s lethargic, and I’m trying to get him to play games. Two Truths and a Lie? Nope. Never Have I Ever? Damn. Didn’t try it. The Most Surprising Things About Me? Nailed it. Kind of.

After some poking and prodding, he shares that he’s a die-hard UFC fan (and does deliberate a beat about getting in the ring with Conor McGregor, though ultimately and wisely decides he’s a baller, not a fighter); he needs at least 10 hours of snooze time (and wears a silky sleep mask for power naps); and, last but not least — a nugget procured purely on my own — he speaks three languages fluently: Spanish, English and his native Latvian.

He was born in Liepāja, Latvia, to parents with basketball in their blood. His father, Tālis, had competed semiprofessionally before becoming a bus driver, and his mother, Ingrīda, had been on the Latvian women’s youth basketball team. Similarly, his older brothers, Janis and Mārtiņš, both played professionally in Europe.

It’s almost as if his future was predetermined, though of course it was his choice to make. And it was the right choice, because he discovered very early on how good he could really be. Porziņģis was only 16 when signed with Eurocup team Sevilla in 2012, becoming its figurehead by 2013 and subsequently winning the Eurocup Rising Star Award in 2015 at age 18 (becoming the youngest-ever recipient of said award). The following summer, he declared for the NBA Draft, where he was selected fourth overall by the New York Knicks. In his rookie season, 2015-2016, he finished second in the NBA Rookie of the Year Award voting and earned NBA All-Rookie First Team honors. He played for Latvia at EuroBasket 2017 and became an NBA All-Star in 2018.

So yeah, he’s good. But he’s not arrogant enough to think his game is perfect. “There is continuous work, continuous progress, and I’m always trying to get better, stronger and more mobile. It’s up and down. I’m working to be an overall better basketball player every day. What’s happened in the past I can’t change, so I just try to be the best version of myself that I can be right now,” he maintains.

He refers back to our earlier conversation about personal growth and applies it to his NBA life. “Early in my career, I was having some success and I was like, ‘Man, I’m so good.’ But I didn’t realize how much better I could actually get. Up until the day I finish playing, I’m going to try to keep on improving. There’s always going to be limitations, especially as I get older, but I know that I always have to be in that learning kind of mindset. If you think you know everything, you’re not going to keep on growing.”

This year, his growth area appears to be the muscular variety. He has major plans to hit the gym hard. “I think the physical aspect is extremely important for me. As long as I feel good on the court, everything else will be fine. I put in the work with shooting, and I know what I need to be able to perform. But I’ve got to make sure I’m doing the work in the weight room, that I’m feeling good and feeling strong. As long as I do that, everything else will fall into place.”

He’s already got a solid team locked in, with support from top players like Jalen Brunson and the Slovenian-born Luka Dončić. Of the latter, he says, “Luka is unbelievably talented, just naturally talented, and makes everybody around him better. I’m excited for this season. We have a good new coaching staff, which is going to be a breath of fresh air around the organization, and I think that’s going to help us a lot. It’s going to be a fun year.”Kristaps PorzingisPhoto Credit: Steven Visneau

His expectations are simple, and entirely possible. “My goal is for us to take the next step in the playoffs. We’ve been in the playoffs the two years that I’ve been here. Last year, we were really close. Our first season, we were really close, too; we made some noise in the first round. I believe this year is the year that we take another step forward and become really good.”

Winning is predominantly his focus, but in the last few years — especially since sustaining his injuries — he’s been thinking in earnest about the future and what comes next.

“That’s something that hit me when I was hurt with my torn ACL and out for such a long time,” he says. “I think a lot of us athletes have a problem in that we identify ourselves only as athletes, and when that’s taken away from you, you’re like, ‘Man, who am I if I can’t play?’ And you have an identity crisis. But at that moment, I went, ‘Hold on. There’s more to life than basketball. At some point, this is going to end anyway, so I better start thinking about the things that I want to do after I’m done, and the earlier the better.’ So I’ve changed my mindset and started to learn more about things outside of basketball. Obviously, my career is my priority and I’m putting my current energy there, but I’m also trying to make sure that any energy I have left over is for learning new things and learning what I like for the future.”

He began aligning himself with businesses across a multitude of verticals. He and his brothers invested in Latvian water company 885; Zone 7, an injury prevention tech company that helps athletes; Black Sheep Coffee; a slew of real estate investments with Texas-based real estate magnate Ari Rastegar; and some investments in the Silicon Valley tech space. “I’ve got so many things going on, honestly,” he says. “At some points I even forget what we’re doing, because I have to focus on basketball at the end of the day.”

Although his interests are diverse, they do have a common thread. “I’m only with people and brands that that I enjoy. I don’t do anything just to make money,” he explains. “It has to be something that I really like, or people that I connect with. And all these things take time. You don’t want to invest money in something you don’t really believe in or don’t know enough about. We have taken our time and hopefully made the right decisions in the long term with brands and with people that we trust, and that we like. Every opportunity has to feel natural, authentic.”

But sometimes, even something that doesn’t automatically feel like the right fit becomes one. Like his famous nickname, for example. He did not initially love being compared with a magical, mythological beast.
He admits, “I didn’t love the nickname, but it has grown on me, honestly, and I think it explains my game a little bit also. Bottom line, there’s not a lot of seven-foot-three guys who are capable of doing what I do. So in my opinion, the Unicorn is a pretty dope nickname.”

He even has the costumes to prove it. No word of a lie, horns and all. Methinks they don’t always just come out for Halloween, either. So I’ll leave you with this magical image in mind: Kristaps Porziņģis, seven-foot-three NBA All-Star, romping around his Dallas apartment in a unicorn costume. I think he may have actually figured out the secret to adulting.
Kristaps PorzingisPhoto Credit: Steven Visneau