Heidi góre, heidi góre," Phoenix coach John MacLeod mumbled to himself after the Suns lost 103-93 to the Knicks in New York last week. Sorry, Coach, never heard of her. "It means 'come up' in Bulgarian," MacLeod explained. "Georgi was right in front of me, but I just drew a blank."
Late in the fourth quarter, MacLeod had tried to yell for Georgi Glouchkov, the first player from an Eastern bloc nation ever to compete in the NBA, to "move up" on his man. But since the Bulgarian speaks almost no English and is used to playing zone defenses, the next sound heard was a whistle signifying a technical foul for illegal defense.
It's one of those things the Balkan Banger—a handle that appears to have won out over Air Georgi, Georgi Boy and Glue—will laugh about later in the season when he probably will speak English as well as the next wild and crazy guy. Right now, most of the Suns seem to be having as many problems following English instructions (the team is 1-10 in its worst start ever) as Glouchkov does. The point is, no matter what his immediate difficulties—a new language, a new position (he was a center in Europe but is now a forward), the fast pace, different rules, a propensity for fouling—Georgi Glouchkov (pronounced GYOR-gey GLOOSH-koff) belongs in the NBA.
Glouchkov is a broad-faced, broad-shouldered 25-year-old who lives in Varna, a city on the west coast of the Black Sea. He smiles easily, though he is said to be shy even around countrymen. Next to 7'2" Arvidas Sabonis of the Soviet Union, Glouchkov had been considered the best big man in Europe for the last two years. Last season he averaged 23 points and 19 rebounds a game in international amateur play. At 6'8", 235 pounds, Glouchkov cuts the figure of the prototypical NBA rebounding forward, reminiscent of Dave DeBusschere or Rudy LaRusso. "Georgi is very resolute, very keen on excelling," says Bozhidar Takev, the avuncular 65-year-old Mr. Basketball of Bulgaria, who has been made an assistant trainer with the Suns to help Glouchkov in his first month in the league. "In this way, he fits in your country, where there is so much competition."
Glouchkov and Takev, who had only minimal contact in Bulgaria, have grown close since coming to America. "I consider him my second son," says Takev. Glouchkov, when he was asked if he was homesick, caused his translator to smile warmly at his answer. "He says he is not homesick now, but he will be when Mr. Takev leaves."
For now, Glouchkov seems to be having too much fun. He has even done a TV commercial for the Suns. In it, he and the team's general manager, Jerry Colangelo, are shown in a locker room.
Colangelo: "Hi. I'm here with Georgi Glouchkov discussing the big game with the Trail Blazers tomorrow."
Glouchkov then rattles off something in Bulgarian, but the subtitles that appear on the screen say: "I don't understand a word you're saying, but I really like Mexican food."
Colangelo, slapping Glouchkov on the knee: "Isn't his knowledge of the NBA incredible?"
The other Suns look at the novelty of Glouchkov's situation as a welcome distraction from losing. Alvan Adams, the veteran center-forward, has spent the most time with Glouchkov. "It's fun to go out to eat with Georgi," says Adams. "When the bill comes and he asks what his share is, I say, 'Let's see Georgi, it's $93. I'll pay $7 and you pay $86.' "
Adams, who comes from a multilingual family but does not understand Bulgarian, has taken an interest in Glouchkov's language development. "We compared alphabets, conjugated a few verbs," said Adams. "He's really very bright. I did notice that his English book had the Gettysburg Address in it, so I guess we'll know he's fluent when he starts using 'four score' in a sentence."
In the meantime, MacLeod and assistant coach John Wetzel have developed with Takev a list of more than 50 useful Bulgarian terms. They range from da (yes), to Kapàn Vav zashtitna Polovina (half-court trap).
From a performance perspective, getting Glouchkov as the 148th player chosen in the draft has been the best thing that has happened to the setting Suns this year. "No question Glouchkov is a high-to-middle first-round-caliber player," says the Detroit Pistons' G.M., Jack McCloskey. "I know we've made our reservations for Europe next year. Phoenix made a helluva deal."
The Suns had to put together a unique package to land Glouchkov. Besides giving him $375,000 over two years, the Suns paid the Bulgarian Basketball Federation a $100,000 "transfer fee." They also picked up expenses for Takev, who translates for Glouchkov on the Suns' bench and everywhere else. The Suns also agreed to host the Bulgarian team on a tour of the U.S., to send promising Bulgarian players to American basketball camps and to set up demonstration clinics in Bulgaria during the off-season. "We have made a big investment in money and time," said MacLeod, "but we think there will be a big return."
So far, Glouchkov's stats after seven games don't reflect it—4.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in an average appearance of 12 minutes. But his ability to maneuver and make space for himself inside the lane prompts MacLeod to predict that Glouchkov will be among the league leaders in rebounds if he can play 30 minutes a game. Georgi has also impressed opponents. Bill Walton, who was victimized by a surprising Georgi reverse-scoop shot in the Celtics' 125-101 trouncing of the Suns, said, "He has a creativity and all-court play that big men seem to develop in Europe. He'll make it."
Glouchkov was spotted by scout Dick Percudani at the European championships last season, where he more than held his own against NBA first-rounders Detlef Schrempf and Uwe Blab. Colangelo was looking for a power forward to replace Maurice Lucas and played a long shot by using his seventh and final pick to claim Glouchkov. "I was bowing to pressure from the Bulgarian community in Phoenix," Colangelo jokes.
To negotiate, Percudani and Colangelo went to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, where they were received like diplomats at a summit conference. For three days they sat across a long table from eight Bulgarian basketball officials. The first day was notable for several toasts of Nazdràve! (To your health!), accompanied by a shot of pliska—a brandy—with a cola chaser. "After about four Nazdràves things loosened up quite a bit," said Colangelo. But on the second day, the Bulgarians "came out like they had talked to Howard Slusher all night." They wanted a four-year guarantee for Glouchkov, stressing that he would never again be able to play for the national team. On the third day, the Bulgarians agreed to the two-year guarantee. "We shook hands, but before I could leave the country, I had to pay $600 for four phone calls home," said Colangelo. "I thought, O.K. guys, Nazdràve."