Sagarejo is not known for its basketball. In fact the city in eastern Georgia of about 12,000 residents is home to some of the world’s top freestyle wrestlers. Yet, U18 Mega Bemax Belgrade big man Goga Bitadze also calls Sagarejo home. The 2.11-meter big man is a major reason why Mega reached the ADIDAS NEXT GENERATION TOURNAMENT Qualifying Tournament Belgrade championship game and was awarded a wild card for the ANGT Finals in Istanbul at next month’s Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four.
“It’s really a big thing for Mega. We have a really talented team and we will do our best and I hope everyone will be healthy again,” said Bitadze, who averaged 16.5 points, 12 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 2.8 blocks in Mega’s run to the final in Belgrade. “It means a lot for this team, a lot.”
Basketball means a lot to Bitadze’s home country Georgia too - a country of around 4 million people. “We have a guy who was drafted with the number five pick in the NBA Draft (Nikoloz Tskitishvili to Denver in 2002) and a guy who plays for the Golden State Warriors and is a starter (Zaza Pachulia). We also have guys who are on leading teams in EuroLeague, Liga Endesa and other competitions. And we made four straight FIBA EuroBaskets and played well in those,” Bitadze said. “So I think that’s a lot for such a small country.”
Located about 60 kilometers east of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Sagarejo, however, isn’t as well known for its basketball. “One of the best things about Sagarejo is that it’s such a beautiful region. There are a lot of mountains, and a lot of good sportsmen have grown up in this region. There are such warm and hospitable people and the food is good too.”
Sagarejo native Levan Tediashvili is a two-time Olympic freestyle gold medalist and four-time world champion and Arsen Mekokishvili won the freestyle wrestling Olympic gold in 1952. Bitadze did not grow up watching basketball, but his height led him to the game when he was 6 years old. “I was so active and tall, so my parents decided to let me try basketball,” Bitadze said. “No one influenced me because I wasn’t watching basketball a lot, but then I started loving basketball and watching it.”
Bitadze said he mainly liked fellow Georgian Tornike Shengelia, now playing for Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, as well as Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol from the NBA. “Shengalia because I liked to watch this big athlete move so quickly, while the other two dominated the game in the NBA,” Bitadze said.
Bitadze starred at the FIBA U16 European Championship Division B 2015 for Georgia with 14.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks and then began hitting radars further west in Europe while he played for Vita Tbilisi in the VTB League in the 2015-16 season. And he landed with Mega in December 2015.
“There was a good league in Georgia and a good club, but I saw that Mega was really a good team for young players and I saw some guys were getting drafted in the NBA [from Mega], so I thought that I could be one of these guys someday,” he said. “The Serbian league and everything about basketball is so well run and that’s why I came here.”
Bitadze played his first ANGT qualifier late in 2015 after just a couple of weeks with Mega and averaged 7.8 points and 4.0 rebounds as Mega won the ANGT Rome title. He was worth 4.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks at the ANGT Finals in Berlin. Those numbers jumped drastically in Belgrade in late February.
“It was a little easier because I understood my coaching staff and teammates a lot more and I put in a lot of hard work with my team and I improved myself. So hard work pays off,” said Bitadze, who had three double-doubles at ANGT Belgrade, including 21 points and 18 rebounds in the final against U18 Crvena Zvezda MTS Belgrade. The big man was named to the ANGT Belgrade All-Tournament Team.
“It’s a really great experience to play against these great players, to challenge them and to learn some things from them,” he said. “My role is to get an advantage in the paint and lead the team in tough moments, to make my teammates better, and to motivate the team.”
Bitadze has also been averaging 10.6 points per game in the Serbian KLS league on loan at Smederevo as a 17-year-old. He has also posted 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 rebounds.
“I just try to do my best every game, to be ready to play against older guys than me, and to be a competitor,” Bitadze said. “I’m working on getting my body ready for some of the better leagues and working on my post game as well as trying to get my shot better and use my height advantage.”
Bitadze and his teammates learned a valuable lesson in the ANGT Belgrade final - losing 74-61 after Zvezda jumped out to a 25-2 lead after eight minutes: “I learned that one quarter can change the whole game.” Just like he is doing his best to help change the face of basketball in Georgia.