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Hey There, Georgi Boy : Bulgarian Center Georgi Glouchkov Is the Newest Thing Under the NBA Sun

Times Staff Writer

Already, he is being called the Balkan Banger and Air Georgi.

Is the National Basketball Assn. ready for a new cult hero? One from Bulgaria?

“I don’t care if he’s from Villanova,” said the Suns’ Alvan Adams.

Georgi Glouchkov (pronounced YOOR-gee GLOOSH-koff) is from a place farther east. He speaks only a few words of English, but the Phoenix Suns are gambling $375,000 that the presence of this 25-year-old Bulgarian will translate into a few wins.

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Perhaps he will help their burz probiv. That is Bulgarian for fast break.

Georgi has already been taught “pretty girl” by Rick Robey and “soul food” by Walter Davis, two of his teammates with the Suns.

Glouchkov seems to be picking up the language quickly.

“We went out to eat and he kept saying ‘Tabasco,’ so he sure knew that word,” Robey said.

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Later, presumably after Georgi’s palate had cooled, Robey ordered a beer and Glouchkov said, in English: “Vodka, Coke, no ice.”

Something else that Glouchkov already understands is that he is in a unique position. Never before has an East European played for an NBA team, which Glouchkov will do when the Suns activate him for next Wednesday’s game with Atlanta.

“First of all, I have to become a good player,” Glouchkov said through an interpreter. “After that, then I can claim to be a pioneer.”

Glouchkov is an eight-year veteran of the Bulgarian national team. Dick Percudani, a Sun scout, spotted him at last season’s European championships and recommended him to Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangelo.

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The Suns drafted Glouchkov in the seventh round last summer and eventually signed him to a two-year guaranteed contract, after paying a $100,000 “license transfer fee” to the Bulgarian Basketball Federation.

So, for the next two seasons, Glouchkov will be a capitalist. The Suns are paying him $175,000 this season and $200,000 next season.

What they are getting is a 6-foot 8-inch center who will play power forward for Coach John MacLeod, who is studying Bulgarian in his spare time.

“Probiv, Probiv,” MacLeod said, repeating his lesson in the Suns’ coaching office.

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“He is very, very strong inside, but the most impressive thing to me is that in spite of the communications difficulty, he catches on quickly.”

In 22 games of international competition last season, Glouchkov averaged 23 points and 19 rebounds. Playing for the Akademik Varna Club, Glouchkov averaged 33.7 points and 23 rebounds in 39 games.

Regarded as one of the top five players in Europe, Glouchkov was Bulgaria’s player of the year in both 1984 and 1985. Glouchkov and 7-2 Arvidas Sabonis of the Soviet Union are considered to be the best big men in Europe.

The game that has taken Glouchkov from Bulgaria, a country about the size of Ohio, to the Arizona desert was not a part of his life until he was 15. Glouchkov showed enough promise to be recruited for the sports section of his school.

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Glouchkov studied the same curriculum as the academic section, but he was being cultivated for his athletic ability.

Colangelo, who spent several days in Bulgaria working out a deal to buy Glouchkov’s license, knew little about the country.

“I knew where it was,” Colangelo said. “There were a lot of military police and tight security, so going into that kind of culture is one kind of shock. But when you have a guy come into a country where there’s so much freedom, it’s probably going to be a different kind of shock. A welcome shock.”

At least Glouchkov will have some help adjusting. For the next 30 days, a past president of the Bulgarian Basketball Federation will act as Glouchkov’s interpreter and intermediary.

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The interpreter said he isn’t worried that Glouchkov might become too Americanized. This is the opinion of Bozhidar Takev, who has taken the nickname of Bo.

When Glouchkov sat down for an interview Thursday afternoon in the Suns’ office, Takev served as interpreter.

Glouchkov acknowledged that he might be taking a risk, but he said he was not afraid of failing.

“Bearing in mind that I always wanted to grow up and become a good player, I decided to take the risk,” Glouchkov said.

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Of course, there is also a degree of risk involved for the Suns, but they prefer to think of Glouchkov in terms of the skills he might be able to add to a weak rebounding team.

Scouts say that Glouchkov is primarily a post-up player whose best moves are those of a center with his back to the basket. In the NBA, however, Glouchkov is too short to play center, so the Suns are working on his low post moves and teaching him to score facing the basket, as a power forward.

“He’s a good rebounder, a good shot-blocker and he’s a big, strong kid,” Robey said.

Glouchkov said he does not mind playing a physical game.

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“I think I will find pro players very fast, faster than me,” Glouchkov said. “But when it comes to pushing around, I’m as good as they are or even better.”

Glouchkov is not yet used to fast-break basketball, nor is he accomplished at driving to the basket, but he has also had a few problems with the traditional kind of driving. Two of his rental cars have broken down, said Glouchkov, who has an international driver’s license but plans to get an Arizona license as soon as he learns enough English to take the test.

Until then, Glouchkov is content to work on his game and politely answer the questions of the press. The Suns are sending Takev and the team’s director of public relations with Glouchkov to face the press on the team’s East Coast swing.

Adams said that so far, Glouchkov seems to have handled everything pretty well, but he is reserving judgment.

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“Wait until we get to the Big Apple,” he said.

Glouchkov said he enjoys television movies, but hates commercials.

Glouchkov doesn’t care for rock ‘n’ roll or pop music, but he loves slow, soft songs. His favorite U.S. movie stars are Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson. He has no plans to buy an American car, but he certainly has other plans.

“People are interested in me now, at this moment,” he said. “I understand that. But what I’m really interested in is becoming a good basketball player. When I do that, then I can think about being the first and unique.”

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Adams said there really isn’t any novelty about having a Bulgarian on the bench. The Suns made a business decision about a player and it should be left at that, he said.

“I don’t think this has anything to do with the Geneva talks or anything,” Adams said.

Glouchkov said only his close friends call him Georgi and that everyone else calls him Glouchkov. But if this thing works and the Suns are right, the NBA may never be the same.

Move over, Air Jordan, Air Georgi is here.

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