There is a new Mecca for New York Knicks basketball, and it is located in Northeastern Europe, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. The sovereign nation of Latvia exploded into our collective consciousness when the Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis in the draft. To love Kristaps is to love the land that gave us Kristaps.
But what do we know of the country itself? Our lack of knowledge on the Porzingis motherland is appalling. We need to go back to school. And who better to drop some Latvian knowledge on us than Ojārs Ēriks Kalniņš, member of the Latvian parliament and chairman of the country's Foreign Affairs Committee.
Like all Latvians, Mr. Kalniņš has lived a bad-ass life. Born in a refugee camp in Germany after WWII, he moved to Chicago as a child, living there until 1985. From 1993 to 2000, he was Latvia's ambassador to the United States. A longtime Bulls fan, Mr. Kalniņš has fully embraced the Porzingis phenomenon.
"I first heard about [Kristaps] two years ago," Kalniņš explained, "from a young legislative aide here in the Latvian parliament. He told me to remember his name because he was destined for greatness. My friend was right. I also had faith in Kristaps' potential because it was Phil Jackson who picked him. As a Bull fan during the great Jordan/Pippen years, I had a special respect for Jackson and his intellectual/philosophical approach to athletes and the game."
Over in Latvia, legislators are scouting the best young basketball prospects while our Congress sits around dreaming up new schemes to default on our national debt. I weep for America.
Mr. Kalniņš was kind enough to answer a few questions about Latvia. Pay attention, boys and girls, because this may show up on your Latvian citizenship test.
What is the most important, non-Porzingis-related thing you would like foreigners to know about Latvia?
Latvia is one of the greenest and cleanest countries in the world; half of our territory is covered by pine and birch forests, and our air and water is pristine. Latvians worship nature and our biggest national holiday is the Summer Solstice, which we call Jani. Between June 21-24, when the sun sets for only a few hours, Latvians stay up all night, gather around bonfires, sing songs, dance, drink beer and celebrate life. They also jump over the bonfires around midnight. Be sure to ask Kristaps whether he learned how to jump by leaping over bonfires during Jani celebrations.
And people worried about Kristaps handling the center position; kid grew up jumping over fire for fun! How popular is basketball in Latvia? Are other sports more popular?
The number one sport in Latvia is ice hockey; we have one of the top ten teams in the world and have had several players in the NHL. After that, our bobsledders and lugers are regular Olympic champions. And Latvian Maris Strombergs became the first Olympic champion in BMX cycling in 2008, and took the gold again in London in 2012. However, basketball is n also extremely popular. In fact, Latvians won the first ever European basketball championship, the EuroBasket 1935. We shocked everyone by beating Hungary, Switzerland and Spain. Recently a film was made about this remarkable story, called "Dream Team 1935" (2012).
The Knicks have also inspired a major motion picture. What was the reaction in Latvia when Porzingis was booed by Knicks fans on draft night? (Please understand that the booing is a dumb Knicks fan tradition; they have booed every draft pick for the last 20 years.)
We took the booing in stride. Like Latvia itself, Kristaps was an unknown commodity and we are used to skepticism or blank stares when we are introduced to strangers. But Latvians have a quiet confidence that overcomes all kinds of obstacles. That just gives us a greater incentive to prove our critics wrong. We had faith in Kristaps and he came through, just as we hoped he would.
Are the Knicks now the most popular team in Latvia?
Without a doubt. At least in basketball.
Voting for the 2016 All-Star Game has begun. How confident are you that your fellow citizens will get out and vote?
Latvia has one of the fastest internet speeds in the world, and we are avid cyber fanatics. Latvians will vote early and often. A few years back we made our capital, Riga, the second most popular city in the voting for the World Edition of the Monopoly game. It's back in 3rd place in the 2015 edition.
I'm still a bit worried that Kristaps could be named prime minister. What is the minimum age requirement for that office?
No minimal age for prime minister, but don't worry. We'll wait until he finishes his NBA career.
I would appreciate it if I could get that promise in writing. What are the best tourist destinations in Latvia? Knicks fans will start making pilgrimages there soon, I think.
I think it was a USA Today poll that recently selected Riga as the prettiest city in Europe. Riga is Latvia's top tourist destination, has 8 centuries worth of outstanding architecture and culture, and has some of the best restaurants in all of Europe. But after partying in Riga, you have to go out to our fields and forests and mingle with our wildlife: we have a huge deer, fox, and beaver population, and are one of the top destinations for bird watching, especially storks. Our tourism slogan is ‘Best Enjoyed Slowly.' Latvia is a place to come and relax, chill out and become one with nature.
I don't know about y'all, but I wish I was in Latvia right now. We should be honored that this great national lent us their favorite son. Go Kristaps, go Latvia, go Knicks!