My Russian Dinner with Opec and Harvey Grant
Oleksiy Pecherov's father, Vladimir, is about 6-feet-2-inches tall. His mother, Olga, is maybe 5-8. His younger brother is about 6-3 or 6-4. Pecherov, of course, is the Wizards' 7-foot-tall former first-round draft pick, who will start his first NBA season next fall. Why, you might wonder, is he so much taller than all his relations?
"Eat a lot," he says, winking, before shoveling more cabbage salad in his mouth.
Which is why the ordering stage of our meal at Restaurant Eliseevsky--dubbed Las Vegas's "Best Other Ethnic Restaurant" by the Las Vegas Review Journal--took approximately as long as the Orange Revolution. After thumbing through the English menu, Wiz director of player development Harvey Grant and PR ace Zack Bolno finally gave up and told Pech to do all the ordering in Russian, and he did, at great length, with repeated animated exchanges with our waitress.
Finally the waitress--Elena Shokhina--explained that Pech wanted to order one of everything for everyone, and she was trying to convince him that we didn't really need four side plates of fried home style potatoes with onions and mushrooms for four people. But Mr. "Eat a Lot" wasn't easily dissuaded--"ok, let's do like he says," Elena said, giving up--and so the table soon filled to capacity.
(Before I forget, speaking of the Orange Revolution, Pech attempted to explain recent Ukrainian geo-political history to our table, discussing the differences between the party of Viktor Yanukovich, represented by the color blue, and the party of Viktor Yushchenko, represented by the color orange.
"They painted themselves orange?" Harvey asked.
"Orange t-shirts, orange arm bands," Pech said. "It was crazy."
"I bet it was," Harvey said. "That sounds like the Crips and the Bloods."
"It was serious," Pech said.)
The menu Thursday night, near as I can tell, consisted of black bread, Stolichny Salad (turkey meat, vegetables and mayonnaise), potato vareniki with sour cream and dill, borscht with puff pastry, Shashlik kebabs (Russian style grilled pork with fresh vegetables) and many mounds of those fried potatoes. Plus Pech ordered a bowl of cabbage salad for himself, and ate some of my kasha.
Plus there was a fruit compot beverage, and fruit punch, and rapidly arriving complimentary shots of horseradish-infused vodka, which I downed, and which Harvey and Zack sipped, to Pech's displeasure--"you don't drink like wine, you need to 'Whoosh,'" he said, pretending to throw a shot back.
"Are you serious???" Harvey said after his sip, and began slapping himself in the face. "Oh my God!!"
"I should get you a fire extinguisher?" Elena asked.
"Could I have a Corona please?" Harvey replied, but instead three of us settled on Baltika, a Russian beer. Harvey took away Pech's shot glass--"none for you, we've got to box people out," he said--but it was unnecessary, because this Ukrainian doesn't drink.
"It's bad, you know?" he said. "Some people [back home] drink like crazy, like crazy. You never know if you could control yourselves. Some of them, they start drinking, and just 'Whoosh,' 'Whoosh,' 'Whoosh.' And it's bad. So I don't want to try, because I don't know who I am."
"That's good," Harvey said. "Win me a championship; then you can drink Champagne."
If it isn't evident, Harvey Grant has become something of a mentor for Pecherov, working out with him constantly at the Verizon Center, taking him to Chipotle, and so on. Pech--who hardly knows anyone in D.C. and hasn't met many Russian speakers--likes the food at Chipotle, but not the attention.
"It's always so many people," he said, "and when you stand in this line, people all the time, they ask you something: 'Are you a basketball player? Can I shake your hand?'"
"Get used to it, brother," Harvey said.
"What about shake hands?" Pech asked. "Some of them smell bad, it's difficult to give him hand."
"You shake their hand, then you go in the restroom to wash your hand," Harvey explained.
"But some of them, I say hello, he say give me your hand, I want to shake your hand," Pech said, demonstrating the techniques of the ardent hand-shaker. "What's wrong with him? What about Gilbert, he walk around?"
Zack and Harvey described Gilbert's enthusiasm for meeting fans and strangers.
"You know what, it doesn't cost anything to be nice," Harvey said. "It doesn't cost anything to smile....Always be nice. Always be nice. Kill them with kindness. If people be mean to you, just smile."
"It is the key to friendship," Pech agreed.
"It costs nothing to smile," Harvey repeated. "It costs nothing to smile."
"It cost me a lot to smile," Zack said. "My braces," he explained.
"I love smiling," Harvey said. "It takes something very bad for me not to smile. Like, if he doesn't box someone out or doesn't rebound, then I can't smile," he said, pointing at Pech. "This is good," he said, spearing another vareniki .
Pech's current weight is 235; Harvey said not to worry, that he weighed just a buck-ninety-five when he came into the league, that the weight would come.
"How long you play?" Pech asked.
"Eleven years," Harvey said. "I was good, too. I played offense and defense. I had to go against the bets players for the other teams. You know who Larry Bird is? I had to guard him."
"How many he score?" Pech asked.
"Uh, a lot," Harvey said.
As for the food, I had a lovely Slavic salad and some vegetable stew in a quaint little pot, Pech--slouched over the table, wearing an Air Jordan t-shirt and Air Jordan shorts--devoured everything in sight while Harvey and Zack loved the turkey salad and the vareniki and the meat and the potatoes. Zack liked the kasha and the borscht, which Harvey did not.
"I'm not a beets guy, I thought there was some meat up in here," he said after his first taste of borscht. "I'm gonna try it one more time for my man Pech, but that's it."
He tried it again. "Nope," Harvey said, closing the bread-bowl lid on his borscht for the last time. "Sorry Pech."
And meanwhile, we watched Russian music videos on the flatscreen, and Pech occasionally sang along, and we talked Summer League basketball and what you should eat at Ben's Chili Bowl and Russian food; Pech insisted that Russian food in America doesn't taste quite right, because the produce and potatoes are different. We talked about Vegas shows--Harvey has seen "O" twice and caught "Zumanity" earlier this week ("off the chain," he said), while Pech spent Wednesday night at "KA." We talked about vacations--Pech hasn't had one in four years; he'd like to go home this summer but thinks he'd have to play for the national team. And we talked about which U.S. cities have the most Russian girls (Chicago and New York), and what it's like to move to a new country at the age of 21 without hardly knowing a soul.
"You're alone," Pech explained. "You don't know nobody when you come here. You don't have friends you can talk to. It's difficult. Say you have Americans who come to Kiev to play basketball, they're bored there. It's difficult to be alone anywhere."
"If I was 21, I'd hang out with you," Harvey said. "But I'm not 21. I'm 22."
"How old are you?" Pech asked. Harvey whispered that he was 42. "You look like 32 or 33," Pech said.
"I love him," Harvey said. "I love you. That's why I love this dude."
By the end, the music changed from understated Russian pop to Russian dance music, and Zack, Harvey and I were sort of picking at the edges of our meals, while Mr. "Eat a Lot" kept shoveling his way through the piles of food. He left nothing, after having lunched on turkey and chicken and mashed potatoes and chicken salad and fruit; "I take a lot of stuff," he assured us. He likes to eat.
"For me, I'm happy to be here," Pech said of the restaurant. "For last month I didn't eat Russian food. Finally I eat something Russian."
"If he gets 20 and 10 tomorrow, we're eating Russian before every game," Harvey said.
And before we left we were posing for photos with Elena--who remembered Pecherov from when he came to Eliseevsky three times last summer--and chatting with Svetlana Basova, the wife of chef Oleg Basov, who promised to put Pech's picture on the wall alongside celebs like Russian pop star Philip Kirkorov and figure skater Evgeni Plushenko. Harvey and Zack agreed that you know you've made it when restaurants want your picture for their walls.
Some fans are already worried that Pecherov won't work out in D.C., that he'll be another European bust, that he's too soft or too slow or too unskilled. We didn't really talk much basketball, but when we were leaving the restaurant Harvey started whispering to me about the potential he sees, and saying that fans need to relax.
"They'll fall in love with him," he promised. "He's a great kid, man. He works too hard not to be good."
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