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Rookie Tales ... Timofey Mozgov

Timo's Journey from Moscow to Manhattan to the Mile High City
Timofey Mozgov
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

When Timofey Mozgov entered the NBA with the New York Knicks – who the Wine and Gold welcome to The Q this Wednesday – he was a shy 24-year-old who could barely speak English. If he had the personality, confidence and sense of humor he sports these days, he’d have been the biggest thing to hit the Big Apple since Cloverfield.

After working his way through the Russian pro basketball ranks as a youngster, he signed a deal to join the Knicks before the 2010-11 season. But just as he started finding his way with Mike D’Antoni’s squad – and becoming a crowd favorite at the Garden – he was dealt to Denver at the Deadline as part of a three-way blockbuster deal that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York.

"I go to the restaurant and look at the menu and I’m like: ‘I don’t know anything:’ I know ‘steak’ and ‘french fries.’ That’s all I know."

Timofey Mozgov - Cavaliers Center

He spent the next three seasons in the Mile High City before the Cavaliers acquired him in a trade almost one year ago. He was inserted almost immediately into Cleveland’s starting lineup and remained there as the Cavs made their dramatic run to the Finals.

After a slow start this season, he’s been very good over the past two weeks. Including his eight-point, eight-rebound performance in Sunday’s blowout over Philly, the Russian big man has gone 26-of-36 from the floor over his last seven contests.

Now a seasoned veteran on a team full of seasoned veterans, the man James Jones describes as the team’s “goofball” can look back and have a laugh about those early days in New York – which he did after practice on Saturday when he sat down with for today’s installment of Rookie Tales …

Before you signed with the Knicks, had you ever been to the States?

Timofey Mozgov: One time, I think in 2007. It was called the Global Games. So I go with national team. I think I was 20 years old or something like that. It was in Dallas and Russia won. We played in the Finals against United States, I think.

I don’t play a lot this time. I was more on the bench.

Where did you live when you first moved to New York? In the city?

Mozgov: No. White Plains, like everybody. I think when I was there, only Roger Mason lived in Manhattan.

For me, it was a good thing. I come with my girlfriend. (My wife now.) So it wasn’t crazy for me.

How difficult was it getting traded halfway through your rookie season?

Mozgov: For me, if you look back, it was like two trades.

Including my signing in the NBA with the Knicks, I am now understanding: any trade, any new coach, you gotta to prove to him you are a good player and you have to show him. It’s like a new stage. You could take it almost personal, but it’s like, something you gotta do anyway. That’s how it was for me.

After not getting much playing time in your first few weeks, you finally had a huge game at the Garden (23 points, 14 boards) against Detroit. What was that like?

Mozgov: That was like funny. I don’t play in 10 games straight. Not any seconds. Then I play like 40 minutes!

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It was nice. But I was shy. All the fans were screaming: “Hey, Mozzie, Mozzie!” Teammates were like: “Hey, Mozzie!” – smacking me and stuff. And I was like: ‘OK, can I go to the locker room now, please?’

How much English did you speak when you made it to the States?

Mozgov: No English at all.

Did you have a translator?

Mozgov: No. The first week I have my friend, he speaks Russian and English – so he was with me. But then he leaves and I’m like: ‘Damn, what am I going to do now?!’

I go to the restaurant and look at the menu and I’m like: ‘I don’t know anything:’ I know ‘steak’ and ‘french fries.’ That’s all I know.

(On the menu) I’m like: ‘What the *% is that?!’ I had no idea. I’d just point to the menu and say: ‘I’ll take this one.’ And they bring it to me and I don’t like it and point again to the menu and say: ‘OK, can I take this one?’

But you start learning. And you learn.

Was there a veteran who helped you out?

Mozgov: Gallo (Danilo Gallinari) – he was my teammate, and my teammate in Denver too. He’s a guy who helped me a lot, for real.

Did the veterans haze you at all – make you get donuts, carry their gear, anything like that?

Mozgov: Not really. Home games, I have to do the towels. So I take the towels from here and move it two feet and give it to guys. That’s all I do.

But it was funny. I remember we had (rookies) Andy Routins and Landry Fields. They are every time running to get water, bring it to the bus. And I never do it. One day, I’m sitting on the bus, we’re headed to airport after practice. Amar’e (Stoudemire) comes on and says: ‘Hey, Mozzie. You go grab me some water.’ And I mean, I was not good in English, but I understood. But I would say: ‘What? What? I don’t understand.’

So that was funny.

Even though Sasha Kaun is pretty Americanized, he’s still a rookie from your home country. Do you help him out?

Mozgov: He is more American than me. But still, the NBA game is a lot to learn. And I tell him a few things.

I don’t want to be, like, a teacher because I am not in NBA for, like, 20 years. This is my sixth year. I need to learn a lot of stuff.

But there are some things I am telling him to do. He asks me: ‘Why is this like that?’ ‘How does this work?’ But it’s not much. It’s not like every day I have to tell him something, but I try to help him. Because I know how it was important when I came to NBA, guys help me. And when I come to Cleveland, guys help me. I know how it is to be on a new team and new system and I know it’s important.

You don’t have to do it every day, talking hours and hours. No, it’s not like that. But it’s somebody that you can ask a quick question and can answer to you and say the right way to do things. That’s all you need.

When you got traded to Denver, J.R. Smith was already there. What was he like then and how is he different?

Mozgov: All I heard about Swish, all I hear about is how bad he is, about all the wild things he does. And I was like: ‘Damn, I gotta see this dude!’ And when you meet him, he’s just a nice, normal guy. He is understandable and he’s a cool guy.

And I ask: ‘Why do people say this about you?’ And he said: ‘What you see on the outside is really not what’s really happening on the inside.’

So it was cool. But I mean, it was still a lot of tattoos.

Does it make you want to get some ink yourself?

Mozgov: I don’t have any now, but we’ll see. Maybe 10 years from now, I’ll get one.

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