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Pachulia aches while his homeland burns
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— While war raged in his homeland, Zaza Pachulia ached from afar.

He was a Georgian stuck in American Georgia, unable to return to his native country after the Russians invaded over the summer.

"My mom, cousins, grandparents, friends ... they’re all back there," said Pachulia, the Atlanta Hawks’ rugged center. "It’s especially tough when you live in a country like Georgia. It’s a small country. Everybody knows you."

When someone asked how his loved ones were doing, he shot back: "The whole country is my family."

Imagine his anguish as he watched the Russians rout the outgunned, outmanned Georgians, causing widespread destruction in the tiny nation of 3« million people before an uneasy peace prevailed. Pachulia, like the rest of the world, saw disturbing television images of a country going up in flames.

His country.

"I was here this summer when that was going on and Zaza came into my office," Hawks coach Mike Woodson recalled. "He was almost in tears. You could tell he was hurting. There was nothing he could do. He was pleading for help."

Stirred to action but prevented by travel restrictions from getting home, Pachulia went on Atlanta-based CNN and its worldwide audience to appeal for an end to the conflict. Never one to pay much attention to politics, he took part in a downtown rally that drew Georgians from both his country and the U.S. state that’s now like a second home.

"I’m not going to judge what happened," he said. "I just want peace."

The Hawks opened training camp this week, and the 6-foot-11 Pachulia insists that he’s firmly focused on helping them get back to the playoffs. The team is counting on him to follow up on his feisty play in the postseason, when he stood up to Kevin Garnett and helped Atlanta go seven games with the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics.

Away from the court, Pachulia still keeps tabs on the folks back home.

"At least people are not dying anymore," he said. "That’s the main thing. I’m not a politician. Of course, I am worried about my country, but I can’t do anything about it right now."

He’s eager to see if the Russians follow through on a planned pullout next week, especially with tensions running high on both sides and new developments emerging almost every day.

Patrols by the European Union have brought a sense of normalcy to the devastated country. Then again, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused Ukraine of aiding Georgia during the brief war, potentially drawing another nation into the dispute.

"The conflict isn’t over," Pachulia said. "They call it a cold war now. The troops are still there. I know the 10th of October is the date the Russians have to leave Georgian territory. I’m just going to wait and hope. They’ve said a lot of times they were going to leave. I don’t know ..."

His voice trails off.

"I wonder," Pachulia said sadly, "if there’s any houses left that have not been bombed."

While unable to get home, he did join the Georgian national team, which was forced to play entirely on the road during qualifying for the 2009 European championships. The inspired squad won three of four games, the only loss by two points to Sweden.

"It was very special for me," Pachulia said. "We wanted to show Europe and the rest of the world that we were still alive. There’s bombing going on and people are dying in my country, but we’re still here."

He holds no hard feelings toward the Russian people. Pachulia has formed a bond locally with Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov, Russian-born hockey stars who play for the Atlanta Thrashers.

"This shouldn’t affect our friendship," Pachulia said. "I’m sure they want the same thing I do. They want peace also. It doesn’t matter if it’s Russians or Georgians. Human life is very important."

He’s coming off a disappointing regular season for the Hawks, his playing time taking a big hit at the hands of rookie star Al Horford. After averaging 12.2 points and 6.9 rebounds the year before, Pachulia managed just 5.2 points and 4.0 rebounds in 2007-08.

But Pachulia came alive in the playoffs. In Game 4, Garnett threw an elbow going for a loose ball. Pachulia got right in his face, going forehead to forehead with the Celtics star. No punches were thrown, but the fired-up Hawks went on to even the series.

After stretching it to a seventh game, the Hawks were blown out in Boston. But Pachulia seemed to regain the trust of Woodson, who’s ready to hand him a bigger role off the bench.

"I shortened the rotation last year, and he was part of that rotation. He probably felt like he didn’t get the minutes he wanted to get," Woodson said. "As a coach, I’ve got to help him, stay positive with him, because we’re going to need Zaza to help us win basketball games at a high level. He’s always been a big part of what we’ve done here. I want him to know that."

For his part, Pachulia worked harder that usual over the offseason. He actually knocked off a few pounds, but improved his strength. The Hawks want the 24-year-old to become more physical in the lane and take some of the burden off the 6-10 Horford, a bit undersized for a center.

"I know Zaza can do that," Woodson said. "It’s just a matter of him getting in there, feeling good about himself and getting the job done."

Pachulia is certainly in control of what he does on the court.

His homeland is a different story, but he hopes others will heed the lessons of this summer’s brief but brutal war on the other side of the world.

"It might be my country today," he said. "Tomorrow, it might be somewhere else. It doesn’t matter. People are people."

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