Photo by Reggie Hildred for The Sports Capitol

Gortat leaves Wizards, Wall in peace while fight for respect rolls on

BY BEN STANDIG | SEPT. 18, 2018

ORLANDO — Marcin Gortat knows this season, perhaps one of his last in the NBA, is about a professional transition. The change hangs on his body. A red t-shirt, while the predominant color of his former team, is not Washington Wizards paraphernalia. The large “202” across the chest makes its origin clear. The black mesh shorts with a Los Angeles Clippers logo emblazoned on the side offer more specifics. The “Polish Machine” is off to Los Angeles in the final season of his current NBA contract.

Preparation for a 12th campaign includes pickup hoops at a suburban community center against current G-League players and former college athletes. After the day’s basketball work, Gortat holds court standing before a small riser filled with resting players along the far sideline. The exchange is conversational and filled with laughter. The young ballers listen intently. Gortat has always been forthcoming, which he is again here. It’s clear the 6-foot-11 man and his clean-shaven head are the center of attention.

His car of a choice, a burgundy-and-silver blend Rolls Royce, stands out in a parking lot of ordinary rides. After leaving the gym, Gortat folds his hulking frame into the shiny vehicle and brings it to life. The ride is comfortable, he claims, even with his knees hugging the steering wheel at 3 and 9.

The Rolls navigates city streets before entering the 408 expressway, which cuts through the heart of Orlando, Gortat’s offseason U.S. hub. Open roads offer the chance to show off the car’s power. The man in his mid-30’s passes. A post-workout lunch will have to wait for the speed limit.

He’s had a lot to think about this summer after 11 years in the NBA, a journey that has made him rich if not fulfilled. Gortat’s $13.565 million salary this season bumps his career earnings over $95 million. Celebrity status in his native Poland provides entrepreneurial opportunities.

The Rolls Royce working through Orlando serves as an example of toys afforded by his paycheck. However, it’s clear what Gortat wants most is something money cannot buy.

“I want to get back and fight for my respect like I’ve been doing for the past 12 years,” Gortat told The Sports Capitol. “My feeling is the last year that opportunity was taken away from me, to fight for my respect, to fight for my name. That’s just how I feel.”

This quote, should it reach the often tone-less Twitter or get turned into a graphic along the lower-third of a TV screen, reads harsher against the Wizards organization than intended. That’s often the case with many of Gortat’s statements through the years. His candor delights reporters looking for story boosts and fans thirsty for honest players. It’s also what led to the occasional stink eye from team officials or teammates. Gortat cannot always tell his brain to shut off that direct talk. He combated the limitation after home games last season by exiting the locker room before the media arrived.

Gortat understands his lack of filter can cause problems. The 34-year-old admits he does not know what follows the 2019 season. That’s a combination of free agency, age and the league’s shift away from interior bigs with his old school arsenal. Gortat won’t decline another massive payday. He just knows the primary lottery ticket cashed already, which makes this season all the more important and his time in Washington all the more distant.

***

Steering clear of reporters postgame isn’t rigorous. Avoiding social media potholes often proved as challenging as defending Al Horford or Joel Embiid for Gortat. His now infamous “team” win tweet, which came during a period where the Wizards surged despite John Wall’s knee injury, came to serve as an example of team chemistry concerns.

The prevailing belief is that beef with Wall led to Washington trading Gortat in June to the Clippers for combo guard Austin Rivers. That assumption isn’t entirely wrong, even though Gortat dismisses reports of outward dislike between the long-time pick-and-roll partners. “Now, things were blown out of proportion between me and John,” Gortat said.

During the lengthy conversation, the primary source of Gortat’s frustration from Washington’s 43-39 season, which ended with a muted first-round playoff exit against top-seeded Toronto, becomes more explicit.

Gortat averaged 11.6 points and 9.2 rebounds during his five seasons with Washington while playing in 400 of 402 games. In his second season with head coach Scott Brooks, Gortat’s role diminished. Though he started all 82 regular season games for a second consecutive season, his minutes (25.3) and shot attempts (6.8) were his lowest since his days earlier in the decade with Phoenix.

 Backup center Ian Mahinmi remained healthy. Brooks used power forward Markieff Morris in those small-ball lineups Gortat loathes – and the kind former head coach Randy Wittman avoided (Gortat said he didn’t love Wittman’s constant yelling, but later realized his system “was just perfect for me on top of being with John.” He told his former coach, who served as a consultant with the Orlando Magic, as much last season when the two reconnected during a road game).

The center’s own limitations as a shot blocker and, at times, shot maker, also factored into the statistical drop. Gortat’s annoyance bubbled over on occasion. Yet he tried keeping one of his large feet planted in reality.

“I can’t blame coach (Brooks) for anything,” Gortat said. “That’s a system he runs. I’m 34. He ain’t going to change the system because Gortat needs that. That the system he came in (with). That’s what he sees, that’s what he feels. The team is going to be successful that way, and you have to accept that. Me as a veteran, as a big man, I just have to accept that. Bottom line. Shut your mouth and work. I had many opportunities under the basket to score, and I was coming up with bullshit ass (missed) layups and shots. I can blame myself for things, too. I can’t complain.

“At the end day you come to the gym where you get paid millions of dollars a year, you should be fine. I think there was a need. Somebody had to pay the price for what happened last year. Somebody had to pay the price. It was me. I accept that. I move forward. I wasn’t really hurt. It’s not like they traded me to Antarctica. In December I’ll have sun. I’m cool with that.”

***

Gortat is anything but chill when it comes to those exaggerated reports about his relationship with Wall.

“Did we have arguments? Million times, but it’s a normal time situation on the court,” Gortat said. “People talk to each other, people yell at each other. We [had situations] where we yelled at each other, he poked me or even pushed me or whatever in a game. Then 30 minutes after the game we’re in the cold tub freezing and then we’re laughing about what we’re doing tonight, what we’re doing for dinner, what club we’re going to hit. Yet people are writing articles on the internet about how we had a huge argument. I’m reading it on Twitter. John is standing next to me reading that. It’s all blown out of proportion.”

Nothing about the Wizards’ 2017-18 season was blown out of proportion more than the idea that Washington was a better team without Wall, who missed precisely half of the regular season with injuries. The reality is the Wizards did play their best ball of the season immediately after Wall sat following a Jan. 25 loss at Oklahoma City. As he underwent and recovered from a knee procedure, his teammates won five in a row and eight of 10. The surge eventually ended.

Washington lost 14 of its final 21 games including a 2-2 stretch with Wall.

By that point the “better without” narrative took hold including the notion Wall’s teammates were among the believers. Reporters peppered Wall with questions about Gortat’s “team” tweet and the meaning behind Bradley Beal’s “Everybody Eats” comments following an assist-heavy win. That Wall reacted with annoyance fueled additional buzz of locker room strife. Now Gortat is with the Clippers.

Rather than let resentment build over the months, Gortat provided explanation assistance to the man who fed him layup-generating passes over the years.

“The that stuff happened with John doing interviews after our comments, my ‘team’ victory and Bradley’s ‘everybody eats,’ I think it was a situation where the whole team failed. We left John on the side. I think the leaders of the team, we failed at that point. Because we knew he was going to be out for almost the rest of the (regular) season, we completely forgot about him. It’s not cool to be injured and being the franchise guy, and you’re sitting on the side while the team is winning without you, and they’re talking like you’re not on the team anymore. The biggest fuck up we did was after surgery; nobody even sent him a message. I think it was our fault. I take part of the blame. I have a feeling that’s why he came out kind of defending himself.”

The next time Gortat sees Wall on the court, he will be defending the point guard in pick-and-rolls rather than joining forces. Washington replaced Gortat with Dwight Howard, a perennial All-Star-turned-vagabond. Howard helped mentor Gortat when the two played in Orlando. “Super ironic,” said Gortat, who defended Howard’s character from persistent attacks over his locker room presence yet isn’t sure about the on-court fit with Washington.

“[Dwight] wants to do what he wants to do. You’re not going to do this with John and Brad. I’m telling you. Just watch, watch what’s going to happen,” Gortat warned.

As for what happens with the Clippers, Gortat believes a deep roster combined with coach Doc Rivers can make noise in the deep Western Conference. As for his fit, while Gortat accepts the current big man reality, “We (centers) are not the scorers anymore. We are just fillers,” he says, Gortat still hopes for more.

“I truly believe in myself. I’m a very confident person,” Gortat said. “I truly believe if I get the opportunity to play normal minutes like I used to play my entire life which is 30 minutes, I’m going to be as effective as I was the last three, four, five years. … Whatever is going to next year, life will show.”

That life will now play out in Southern California. Gortat settled on a rental home in the Hills rather than a spot on the bench. He started a production company even before the trade to the movie capital of the world. Dating a Polish actress helped him learn the industry. One future project on the docket, his biography. “I won’t be afraid to tell things that will burn the bridges behind me. I won’t be afraid of that. I will tell a lot of truths,” he said.

Gortat’s fondness for the last five years in Washington endures despite an inflamed ending. He cited playing a small part in the development of Wall, Beal and Otto Porter among his favorite memories with the Wizards, and the loss of Nene, his interior tag-team partner for three seasons, during the summer of 2016 among the team’s bigger missteps.

He cherished the relationship with Washington’s VP of Basketball Operations Tommy Sheppard, whom he called, “One of the most positive people I’ve seen in my life and he’s definitely a very loyal guy.”

Gortat also specified the chance to train with Wizards basketball skills coach David Adkins as “The best thing that happened to [my career] in the past four years.”

Now comes a new team with new challenges and thoughts on a new contract next summer, though he’ll wait until after the season for those conversations. As for Washington and Wall, the man dressed in Wizards red and wearing Clippers’ shorts hopes the outsiders understand reports of arguments and dressing-downs, even when some truth exists, didn’t outweigh the good.

“I have no hard feeling to anybody in the Wizards organization,” Gortat said. “We worked together. We had a lot of battles, me and John. We had a quick (text message exchange) after my trade. We had our ups and downs, but we had a lot of great moments. We had more great moments than the bad moments. We both made each other better. I’m leaving in peace. There’s no bad blood between us. Now it’s a new chapter for me, a new chapter for him.”

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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