In Latvia, Spurs vs. Knicks equals must-see TV
NEW YORK — For Davis Bertans, nights in Spain could get long. Like many professional basketball players, he had trouble falling asleep after games.
To get himself through the wee hours last season with Laboral Baskonia, Bertans would often fire up New York Knicks games on his tablet and watch the only NBA player that shares his Latvian heritage.
Kristaps Porzingis wasn’t what Bertans would call a cure for insomnia.
“I would stay up late and watch all of his games I could,” said Bertans, now a rookie forward with the Spurs. “He was doing really good and playing a lot, so it was fun to watch.”
When the Spurs face the Knicks on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, Bertans and Porzingis will make international history.
It will mark the first time two players from Latvia have shared the floor in an NBA game.
In sports-loving households from Liepaja to Valmiera, it ought to constitute must-see TV across the ocean.
“It’s a big deal,” Bertans said. “In Latvia, there’s going to be people staying up all night to watch.”
Though they are the only two Latvians active in the NBA, Porzingis and Bertans form a veritable wave from a county not known for his basketball exports.
There have only been two other Latvians to appear in an NBA game.
Gundars Vetra was the first, having played 13 games with Minnesota in 1992-93. Andrins Beidrins is considered the godfather of Latvian basketball, logging 10 NBA seasons between 2004 and 2014, nine of them with Golden State.
At 7-foot-3 and 21 years old, Porzingis is the new face of Latvian hoops, having taken New York by storm since his arrival last season.
Bertans and Porzingis are not particularly close, though they text occasionally. Porzingis left Latvia at age 14 to play professionally in Spain, so the top two Latvian basketball players in the world did not meet until two years ago.
“We’ve never played with or against each other before,” Bertans said.
Though Porzingis arrived on American soil a year ahead of Bertans, the Spurs forward is three years older.
When Bertans first heard of Porzingis, the younger Latvian was a teenage prodigy playing for Seville in Spain.
“Since then, the hype kept going around him,” Bertans said. “A tall guy like him, who can shoot threes and is athletic and quick — you knew at some point he was going to be in the NBA.”
In league parlance, Porzingis is a “unicorn” — a player with a seldom-seen collection of skills, especially in a package his size.
He has become a folk hero in New York, a bright spot in an otherwise dismal Knicks season while averaging 18.5 points, seven rebounds and almost two blocks per game.
If Bertans saw Porzingis’ rise to stardom coming, the rest of the league did not.
When the Knicks made Porzingis the No. 4 overall pick in 2015, the highest position ever for a player from the Baltics, fans booed.
Even European NBA players didn’t know what to expect of Porzingis before last season.
“He came out of nowhere a little bit,” said Tony Parker, the Spurs’ French point guard. “He’s a lot younger than me. I didn’t play against him with the national team, because he was not playing with Latvia.”
Coming off the bench for the Spurs, and playing in a market much smaller than New York, Bertans is not yet the household name Porzingis has become.
The Spurs, however, view him as a key component of their future.
A 6-10 sharpshooter, Bertans is averaging a modest 4.4 points in 11.7 minutes per game, while hitting almost 40 percent from 3-point range.
He has had his moments of brilliance, including a 21-point game in a Jan. 7 win over Charlotte that saw him make 4 of 5 3-pointers.
“He is somebody who has a really bright future,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He just needs minutes and experience.”
Parker views Bertans as a potential weapon in the postseason, something the lottery-bound Knicks cannot say about Porzingis.
“I think he’s getting better and better,” Parker said. “You can see his confidence growing. He’s just trying to find his place on the team.”
What the Spurs enjoy most about Bertans is that he appears unafraid of big moments.
“He’s Latvian,” guard Danny Green said. “He’s fearless.”
Friday night, the NBA’s second-most famous Latvian left the Palace of Auburn Hills after beating Detroit with plans to call Porzingis.
He was hoping to set up dinner Saturday night in New York before they make history at Madison Square Garden.
“We’re going to have to try to go somewhere low key,” Bertans said. “He’s kind of a big deal.”
Game live on kzingis.com