|Georgia big man Nikoloz Tskitishvili has been playing for the national team for as long as he can remember, but EuroBasket 2011 will be the pinnacle of his career|
By Jeff Taylor
Nikoloz Tskitishvili was not wearing a smile on his way to the team bus after playing in what turned out to be his last game for Spanish club Lagun Aro GBC, at Power Electronics Valencia on Sunday.
None of the players from the San Sebastian team were after their 84-75 defeat, a fifth consecutive loss.
Tskitishvili's demeanor changed instantly, though, when a certain subject was raised.
"Nikoloz, are you looking forward to playing for Georgia at the EuroBasket?"
The 27-year-old stopped, grinned and began chattering like there was no tomorrow.
"Unbelievable," he said to Basketball World News.
"I've been in the national team for 12, 13 years.
"I started when I was like 15 years old.
"We kept trying hard and hard and we were close, but never made it.
"Then, out of nowhere - boom!
"We hear ‘You guys are in the EuroBasket' and everybody was happy."
Georgia did come very close to qualifying last summer but finished second in EuroBasket Division A, Group C to Belgium with five wins in eight games.
It wasn't good enough to make it to Lithuania, but then FIBA Europe announced they were increasing the 16-team field by eight.
It was as if the sun had finally broken through the clouds.
"We got a little big lucky with the FIBA Europe decision," Tskitishvili said.
"Now there are 24 teams.
"But we've been fighting for this for a long time."
Hard Games Ahead
There will be no easy games in Group D, with Slovenia, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Belgium set to compete with Georgia for a top-three spot that will clinch a place in the next round.
The Georgians had better not be taken lightly.
|Tskitishvili is not fazed by the strong opposition Georgia will face in EuroBasket Group D and has every faith in the strength of the team led by Zaza Pachulia|
Atlanta Hawks center Zaza Pachulia led the team last summer in scoring at 15.8 points per game while Viktor Sanikidze was the team's leading rebounder at 9.4 per contest.
Manuchar Markoishvili, Gran Canaria's Taurean Green - a naturalized Georgian - and George Tsintsadze also got big minutes last year for Georgia.
"We're good," Tskitishvili said.
"We have a lot of talent.
"When we get together, we work hard. We have a good coach also, Igor Kokoskov.
"Okay, we have some tough games like Russia, Slovenia, Ukraine and Belgium, but at least we've got a chance.
"It depends on us and what kind of shape we're in. We're going to try our best."
The NBA experiment
Tskitishvili has something in common with Pachulia.
He also played in the NBA.
Tskitishvili was the fifth overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft but his career across the Atlantic didn't evolve as he'd hoped.
He returned to Europe before the 2006-07 campaign and has had stops in Russia, Spain and Italy.
"I really enjoyed America," he said.
"I had some hard times as a rookie.
"I was disappointed in myself because I thought I could do better but, other than that - I loved living there.
"I want to go back and visit in the summer.
"When I look back, I'm always thinking I should have waited to go until I was older and had developed more.
"But the opportunity was huge and you could never say no."
Tskitishvili turns 28 on April 14.
He had some good games this season for Lagun Aro but didn't play much in their last three outings.
"Things could be better," he said.
"I'm working on my game now and hopefully next year, I'll be somewhere where I can contribute and play more."
On Tuesday, club and player decided to part ways.
Lagun Aro announced in a statement: "GBC and the player Nikoloz Tskitishvili today reached an agreement to terminate the contract of Georgian player. The club wishes him well in his future career."