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As Rajon Rondo’s heave at the buzzer fell short, streamers rained down from the Philips Arena rafters on May 3, 2008. Marvin Williams danced at half-court as the bulk of the Atlanta Hawks’ roster celebrated just in front of their bench.
Amid the mayhem, Zaza Pachulia found his way to then-Hawks TV sideline reporter Rashan Ali for a postgame interview, beamed live on the stadium’s Jumbotron. “That interview, it’s pretty funny,” Pachulia told SI.com. “But when you hear the story behind it, that’s one of my most memorable moments that I’ve had.”
The Hawks began rebuilding in 2005, at the conclusion of head coach Mike Woodson’s first season. Atlanta’s 13–69 record during the 2004–05 season was the worst in the franchise’s 67-year history. The Hawks then acquired Joe Johnson from the Phoenix Suns that August, two months after drafting Williams No. 2 overall in that June’s draft. Atlanta improved in the standings over the next two seasons before drafting Al Horford in 2007 and returning to the playoffs that spring for the first time since 1999.
“It took a lot of work and growth,” Pachulia said. “You always remember firsts, right? First girlfriend, first kiss and first playoff series.”
Atlanta snuck into the postseason. The 8th-seeded Hawks earned a date with the historically dominant, top-seeded Boston Celtics, enjoying the momentum of the modern Big Three’s first season in New England. “Nobody was giving us any chance. Every was saying, ‘Sweep! Sweep!’ and ‘4–0,’” Pachulia said. “If you asked 10 people, 100% would say we had no chance.”
Games 1 and 2 in Boston reaffirmed those widespread predictions. The Celtics clobbered the Hawks by 23 and then 19 points before the series shifted down south. Atlanta somehow claimed Game 3, each of its starters scoring in double figures and Josh Smith and Johnson combining for 60 points to erase Kevin Garnett’s game-high 32.
The Hawks players’ confidence, as well as the Atlanta crowd’s bravado, grew following the victory and crescendoed just under five minutes into the second quarter of Game 4. As Atlanta nursed an eight-point lead, Pachulia and Garnett battled for a rebound underneath the Hawks’ basket. The officials whistled Pachulia for a loose ball foul and, as the referee signaled the call to the scorer’s table, Garnett delivered a sharp elbow into Pachulia’s throat.
“I really felt disrespected. I really felt bullied,” Pachulia said. He charged back at Garnett, meeting the legendary trash talker nose-to-nose and spitting junk in return. He headbutted Garnett as well. “It was so natural, for a moment I forgot we were playing basketball. It kind of felt like we were in the street,” Pachulia said. “Thank God nobody got ejected or suspended.”
A full-blown scuffle ensued. Just in his rookie year, Horford peeled Pachulia out of the pile as the Georgian continued hurling insults at Garnett. The Atlanta crowd roared as the two big men returned to the home bench, encouraging the fans. “The crowd got fired up after that, I was just trying to get ‘em going even more,” Horford told SI.com. Atlanta road the wave, eking out a 97–92 victory in Game 4. “When Zaza made that stand, I felt like it set to the tone for the rest of that series,” Horford said.
The Celtics won Game 5 in Boston in convincing fashion, though, setting up a possible elimination for Atlanta in Game 6. “Whenever I walk into the game, I can always feel how the building is,” said Ryan Cameron, Atlanta’s longtime public address announcer. “On that particular night, I just felt that it was really, really, electric. Almost to the point where you thought the building might actually move.”
During a timeout, the Hawks streamed a montage on the Jumbotron that intermixed Rocky footage with Pachulia’s Game 4 fight with Garnett. And with the Rondo miss, the Hawks escaped 103–100.
After every Atlanta win, Hawks TV interviews a player in front of the crowd. The Hawks’ Game Night staff scrambled to capitalize on the riotous energy that filled the stadium. Boston had completely retreated to their locker room, yet the entire Atlanta crowd remained screaming. Ali could barely discern her producer hollering, “Hey, you’re getting Zaza! You’re getting Zaza! in her earpiece.
Cameron sent the call over from the scorer’s table onto the court. “Zaza had almost taken on a cult-like persona. He was the enforcer,” Cameron said. “He had a special intro. Instead of being like, ‘6' 11", from the Republic of Georgia, Zaza Pachulia,’ it was like, ‘6' 11" from the Republic of Georgia: Za! Za! PACHOOOOOLIA!’ It was almost like you were introducing a superhero character.” Naturally, there was only one player Hawks TV wanted to interview after the victory. “It was kind of like, if we’re gonna hear from somebody, we need to hear from the man,” Cameron said.
Ali asked Pachulia an opening question, but he couldn’t hear a single word. “So I thought, you know what, who cares what she asked. We just won Game 6 and we tied the series and we’re going to Game 7, so here we go! This is my time right now!” Pachulia said “I was hyped too. I come from overseas and now this is probably my first interview on TNT, so it was a big deal. So I grabbed the mike. I want to tell you guys how I feel right now! I was yelling. I was trying to make everybody hear what I’m saying because obviously I have an accent.”
A typically reserved postgame interview morphed into an internet sensation. “I didn’t even think about him taking the mike out of my hand,” Ali said. “Obviously that’s a big no-no, but who cares?” Pachulia’s emphatic speech reverberated throughout the gym, shouting “Nothing easy!” in reference to the Celtics’ expected walk through the first round.
“Ten-foot tall and bullet-proof? That interview was that,” said Mike King, the 10-year in-game host for the Hawks. “I can remember Rashan Ali’s face, her big smile.”
Pachulia first checked his phone when he finally returned home. It was flooded with well wishes. “I have kids, I got married, I’ve had good days after that in my career and in my life, I never got that many congratulations messages than I got that night,” Pachulia said. Atlanta, of course, fell in Game 7, as the Celtics continued their march to the championship. The Hawks have reached the postseason every year since, currently riding the second-longest streak of playoff appearances in the league. “I felt like that team brought basketball back to Atlanta,” King said. “The attitude at that point changed from, if we were winning in the third, you thought, ‘How are we gonna blow this?’ to, ‘We’re not giving up.’”
Pachulia left Atlanta in free agency for Milwaukee in 2013. Last July, he was traded to the Dallas Mavericks, where he started 69 games alongside Dirk Nowitzki, who he now calls one of his best friends. Free agency looms for Pachulia and the 32-year-old’s future is unclear. No matter where he plays next season, his legendary speech will follow.
“That interview is my signature,” Pachulia said. “Every time [I] make a steal or do something positive on the court, fans are yelling, ‘Nothing easy!’”