In a city like New York where “Topless Parades” and “Naked Bike Rides” barely raise an eyebrow, Kristaps Porzingis can’t even walk down the street without causing a stir. In truth, it would be hard to fault anyone for staring. The Latvian-born basketball player, who was selected by the New York Knicks as the fourth overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft, stands at a towering 7-foot-3 and has a wingspan that could rival a small jet.
So, understandably, Porzingis doesn’t wander the city streets much. And he definitely doesn’t take the subway. “I just can’t,” he explains in near-perfect English, one of three languages he speaks fluently. “For one thing, because of my height. And you know, because now people start to recognize me.”
Life in the public eye is something Porzingis is slowly getting used to. He moved to the U.S. just three months ago (following a three-year stint playing professional basketball in Europe) and, in short order, he’s amassed an impressive fan base across the country. The appeal, it seems, isn’t entirely owed to his staggering height and athletic ability—it’s the endearing charm of a wide-eyed 19-year-old whose home country is half the size of New York.
Despite his youth, Porzingis has been compared to basketball greats like Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki. But still, there are critics—including Knicks President Phil Jackson—who fear he might just be “too tall for the game.” Porzingis, for his part, is trying not to let the pressure affect him. “The best thing about New York is the fans,” he says. “If you can prove yourself, they will respect you and they will love you forever.”
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