Kris-taps Por-zingis. Kris-taps Por-zingis. The name, in that sing-song cadence, has been ringing in my ears for weeks now.
The name belongs to a 20-year-old 7-foot Knicks rookie from the formerly Soviet republic of Latvia with a baby face and a gentle touch. The cadence belongs to a track by the Latvian rap duo Transleiteris. It's called, appropriately, "#PORZINGIS."
When Transleiteris dropped their song, Porzingis had yet to play a minute in the NBA. He was an unknown European prospect, which meant he was suspect: the list of guys who’d come into the league as unknown European prospects and ended up as busts was long and sad. (Most infamously: Darko Milicic, drafted one spot ahead of Porzingis’s current superstar teammate Carmelo Anthony, and now washed out of the league altogether). For this peculiar bit of bug-eyed overconfidence to emerge from Porzingis’ native land felt like somewhere between a bad joke and an ominous curio.
And then the season tipped off.
It started with the putback dunks. Over and over, Porzingis would find himself in the position to scoop up a miss and flush it back with a refined kind of monstrosity. Then there were the blocks that came so easy—long and lean arms outstretched, he barely had to lift off the ground—and the gobbled-up rebounds, and more neat little things: his natural defensive positioning; the slick quick passes in the lane out of the low post. Best of all: seemingly from anywhere on the court, this gangly fellow just past his teens could release a jump shot that looked smooth and true.
On the road against Charlotte, he even got the call to pull up for the game winner. It came a touch too late. But, my goodness, he swished it.
From the infamous back covers of the New York tabloids, the call rang clear: goddamn, the kid can hoop. Just 20 games into his professional career, and Kristaps Porzingis was nearly a folk hero in the city.
Transleiteris, it turns out, is a parody act. Despite whatever initial assumptions one might have had, these goofy Latvian bros do not think they are the Mobb Deep of Riga. But that only makes all this even better. Because so far, at least, "#PORZINGIS" is not a joke, not a curio - but an appropriately Homeric hymn to Latvia’s new national hero, and an absolutely prophetic banger. Kris-taps Por-zingis. Kris-taps Por-zingis.
The kid can hoop—it all starts there. But there's something else in Porzingis that has resonated with a particular slice of NBA consumers.
These are the kids who came of age in the NBA’s hip-hop era. They love Jordan, sure, but in their own, unsanctified way: for them, Jordan is a treasured icon, yes, but also one that often wears funny pants and should be taken to task for it. Jordan V’s and Jordan crys. For those kids it’s the mighty, tragic Allen Iverson—the tattoos, the ruthlessness—that changed the world. And Porzingis is one of those kids.
He was born in 1995, four years after the fall of the USSR—four years after Latvia claimed its independence. After the Cold War, the former states of the Iron Curtain were open to feast, if they so desired, on American culture. Finally, our pop music was making it to Latvia. And by the time Porzingis was of culture-consuming age, in the mid 2000s, his country had had enough time to shake off nearly all of its former Soviet autocracy and the commensurate repression of information.
Porzingis had the internet. And he could use the internet to consume this American youth culture. And when I say American youth culture, I trust you know that I mean American rap culture.
Just a few weeks back, he told Michael Kay that he listens to Future to get hyped before games. Before the draft, a former teammate revealed to the Wall Street Journal that Porzingis basically binges on WorldStar. Look at his Twitter background: Jordan in funny pants! Is it not safe to assume he grew up on SLAM and XXL and perhaps even this very publication?
Now check out this prepubescent photo of him with cornrows that was unearthed after his hot start, and has quickly became part of his lore. It’s a good joke, one he’s played into: "I loved the look and the girls loved it," he’s said. But I see it and can’t help but think of a minorly iconic AND1 commercial, featuring Latrell Sprewell—then fresh off an infamous incident in which he choked his coach PJ Carlesimo during practice—getting his hair braided.
"I’ve made mistakes, but I don’t let them keep me down," Sprewell says, as a knockoff Jimi does the Star Spangled Banner on the soundtrack. “People say I’m America’s worst nightmare. I say I’m the American dream.” Can you not imagine young Kristaps pulling this up on YouTube and nodding along with great, solemn import? And then forcing his mom to drive him to the barber?
Playing off his jersey number, 6 God shirts have popped up online. Playing off said number and the Most Dangerous Posse Ever, a nickname has been bestowed: Three 6 Latvia. This is not the rapping grandma trope, or the cluelessness of some awful sub-Karmin YouTube parody: look at this harmless white person do rap stuff! No. This is earned. All the way in Latvia, Kristaps Porzingis grew up obsessing over the same rap minutiae as the latter-day NBA nerds on Twitter. And, now, we are here. Tell me I’m crazy when I say there’s a natural confluence between Kristaps and hip-hop.
Funnily enough, simultaneously, Porzingis has been embraced by the previous generation: those mustachioed old men still peddling the stiff prose of the hot take in newspaper sports sections throughout the land.
Because while the loving hysteria was swirling around him, he did what those traditionalist columnists have an absolute hard-on for: he stayed humble. Even as MSG chanted his name—Kris-taps Por-zingis! Kris-taps Por-zingis!—he waved away the attention and deferred to teammates. He was, by all accounts, a hard-working and appreciative kid. Just a giant sweetheart.
But every once in awhile, the life force of Latrell Sprewell has splashed through him.
Left alone under the basket after one early, gorgeous clean-up dunk against San Antonio, he turned and glared out past the stanchion and he flexed and he screamed and his entire body seized with glee. In his classic high school basketball book The Last Shot, Darcy Frey describes a moment in which the young Stephon Marbury has been "rendered momentarily insane by the sheer, giddy pleasure of playing this game to perfection." That insanity was there, in that pose from Porzingis, just briefly.
And then, almost immediately, Porzingis remembered himself. He was a young man an ocean from home, left completely alone to bear the inchoate burdens of moneyed expectations. He shut his mouth, unclenched his fists, turned back politely, and hustled back on defense.
But in that moment, there was communion. Because it felt like all the other post-Iverson kids could make a pretty good guess as to what was running through his head. In his native Latvian, in his adopted English, or in some hip-hop influenced mishmash of the two, it could well have been some approximation of Yo, I just dunked. In the NBA. That was dope.