Here’s what then-Nugget Timofey Mozgov said to a Russian news agency last summer, in the wake of LeBron’s announcement that he was returning to Cleveland: “I would like to play with LeBron. But even though playing for a contender is cool, you got to understand that I want to be part of the team and not just join a contender and ride the coattails, being a burden.”
Perhaps to be Russian entails a certain solemnity of expression, but I love the seriousness of that amending phrase, “being a burden.” It seems to carry with it the knowledge that one’s honor and pride are only preserved through the kind of personal responsibility that’s pitted against the threat of abject failure. Of course, since coming to Cleveland in January, Mozgov has been anything but a failure. Before his arrival, the team was hovering around .500 (they lost center Anderson Varejao to a ruptured Achilles in late December); afterward, they went 34-12.
Some of that success is simply due to new teammates learning to play together. The trade for top defender Iman Shumpert and mercurial pipe-enthusiast J.R. Smith – who found his game much improved without the distraction of the New York club scene – certainly helped. But it’s also worth noting that Denver’s season diverged in a parallel, downward fashion.
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Mozgov, a once awkward project pick of the Knicks, is playing the best ball of his career. The match couldn’t be better. Cavs coach David Blatt worked with him on the Russian national team and remembers first meeting a 17 year old who “looked bald” and was “very uncoordinated” – but also, “enormous.” At 7-foot-1, 250, he still is, only now he’s got an oddly intimidating Lloyd Christmas hairdo, a surprisingly good mid-range jumper and a burgeoning career as a local-television pitchman.
More reasons to like him: Through some godly prank/inspiration, his neck is actually wider than his head; he’s a noted Redditor; and my three-year-old niece can pronounce his name. As the Cavs get ready for Game 3 of their NBA Playoff series with the Boston Celtics, Moz gave Rolling Stone the lowdown on train hopping in Russia and learning the finer points of driving in America.
What was it like growing up in Russia?
I don’t know – it’s hard to say. It’s not America, for sure. But I love it. It was a different time than right now, with the phones and the Internet. Now if you wanna go walk in the street wherever you’re going, you call your friend and say, “Come.” We had to go like two miles to their house, and then ask, “Do you wanna go out?” And he’s gonna say, “No, no. My mom won’t let me go.” So we’re walking like two miles, but you know, me and my friends, we enjoyed the time. It was one of the best times.
What did you and your friends do for fun?
When I was 15, in the summertime we’d spend all day in the courts. A lotta people. The same way as you in the United States. When I was 15, 16 years old, it was all about basketball, but before that, it was every day hanging out, doing stupid stuff – I don’t know what you guys do here in the United States, but me and my friends we just jump on the train, go on the train for a little while, jump off, all this crazy stuff like that. Fight.
Were you into music as a kid?
Growing up, I was not really mature enough to like some music, but my brother was older than me by five years, and he used to listen to music. And you know, the younger brother always follows. Some of it, the sound of the music, I liked it. But some of it was ugly. It was all Russian music. Russian rock music [laughs].
Has your taste in music changed since you’ve been in the NBA?
I listen to everything, like most of the players. Before I used to download all the music – You know, “I don’t want to pay.” But now, you know, a guy comes to the game, he pays for the ticket. So I think there should be some respect for the guys who make it.
Did you ever play any instruments?
Oh, no. I tried, like, piano, whatever. But it’s too late. Maybe not too late, but you’ve got to spend a lot of time. You really have to. I wish I could play the piano, I’d really like to. You have to spend hours and hours. I don’t have the luxury.
What’s your favorite food?
Well, I’m Russian. So in New York, I go to one of the best Russian restaurants I’ve ever been to, called Mari Vanna. You gotta try it. When I’m going with friends, everybody who try it, they all love it. Have the borscht, it’s a kind of soup.
What kind of movies do you like?
I like fantasy, the fantastic stuff. Like Interstellar. But one of my favorite movies [is] an old Russian movie – you won’t understand it if you don’t live in Russia and if you’re in the latest generation. I’m 28, so I’m probably like the last generation who can really enjoy the movie. Say you’re 20, you think, “What kind of movie is that?” You’re not gonna like it, because it’s stupid stuff sometimes.
What’s it called?
Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession. They make a time machine and go back in time. It’s funny though.
Do you have a favorite car?
I love cars but I don’t spend all my money on them. My toy is a Chevy Camaro, 1,000 horsepower. It’s my favorite. But this 1,000 horsepower in the United States – they’re going to pull you over and you’ll spend the night in jail. In Russia, it’s different.