CHAMPAIGN — An hour after practice, 6-foot-9 Illinois freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili was back on the State Farm Center court, where the Southern Illinois women's team was about to practice for that night's game against the Illini.
Suddenly, Bezhanishvili was on bended knee before Salukis coach Cindy Stein, whom he had never met, begging her to dance with him to the salsa music playing over the loudspeakers. Stein laughed and protested as he pleaded: "You'll be fantastic. You'll love it. Let's dance."
Her objections eventually allowed her to escape. But in an instant, Bezhanishvili's size-16 1/2 Nikes rapidly wound around each other, and he was guiding Illinois graduate assistant Jenn Dynis -- wearing a winter coat -- as she attempted to keep up.
He had planned to show a reporter some of his dance moves, but like most days in Champaign, everyone became Giorgi's audience. And nobody is a stranger in Giorgi's world.
Before leaving the arena, he stopped to chat with a security guard he knows by first name. He reminded a befuddled student manager about the importance of eye contact. His teammates laugh at the mere mention of his name.
After only a few months at Illinois and just 12 games into his college career, Bezhanishvili might be the most popular man on campus. He certainly seems like the happiest.
"It's all about your emotions," he said. "It's all about expressing yourself. As long as you feel good, that's all that matters."
He was describing how to learn salsa dancing.
But these have also been the instructions for Bezhanishvili's life, imparted by his mother, Lali, who lived in a different country than her children for nearly a decade to ensure their survival.
"My mom," Bezhanishvili said, "is my hero."
'Family is everything'
Dance was as central as basketball to Bezhanishvili's upbringing in Georgia, a former Soviet republic at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, bordered to the west by the Black Sea and famous for its fertile wine regions.
He excelled at both hobbies -- he placed second in classical dance in a national competition at age 10 -- and they became outlets for him, conduits to joy as life around him crumbled.
When Americans ask about his homeland, Bezhanishvili frequently replies, "Family is everything in Georgia."
Even when it meant sacrifice.
Giorgi was 3 and his brother Davit 5 when they moved in with grandparents after Lali fled to Europe as a refugee, desperate to find work.
Rustavi, Georgia, was an industrial center during the Soviet era. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the nation saw economic collapse, high unemployment and shrinking population.
Lali had earned an economics degree and played basketball at a university. She worked for a large corporation.
"Then everything was upside down," Lali said in a phone interview from Vienna. "My education was nothing. My diploma was nothing. People lost their jobs. Companies closed. The government was changing (every) two, three months. I saw my teachers selling their clothes at the market. All of my friends were educated, had jobs, but were all lost."
Giorgi, now 20, remembers his childhood home without heat. The family boiled water in a kettle, mixed it with cold and poured it over themselves. "That was our shower," he said.
Crime rose. Power outages were frequent and food sparse.
"It's basically a ghetto town. It was a gray city," he said. "There was nothing to do. You can't imagine."
Lali was at a breaking point. Stay with her children and struggle together? Or leave and inflict emotional pain but provide a future for her sons?
Her husband, also unemployed and from whom she later divorced, brought firewood inside to heat the home one winter day. Lali burned her finger. "That was it," she said.
"I had to go. There were no jobs, no money. I was just worrying about the future of the kids. I was depressed at that time. I love my children, but I had to go somewhere. In Georgia, we have no chance."
She met with a travel agent, scrimped together money and left for the Czech Republic in 2002 with temporary paperwork but no solid plan.
"I went to nowhere," said Lali, who was 33 at the time. She knew nobody. She didn't understand the language.
She placed trust in strangers, connecting with former refugees who had found their way and absorbing their advice.
"I can't believe this happened to me," she said, pausing her story to laugh and cry in disbelief. "It's like a movie. I really paid a high price for everything."
She stayed in the Prague refugee center for a month before being advised she could find employment easier in another country. She paid a smuggler to drive her and another refugee to the border.
Across the street, the driver said when he stopped the car, is Austria.
With only $100 in her pocket, Lali made her way to an Austrian refugee center that allowed residents 3 1/2 -month stays. On a tip from another woman there, she asked a shop owner in a nearby market for work.
"I'm ready to do anything," she said she told the woman. "Please help me." She secured a job as a housecleaner, initially earning only 2.5 euros per hour.
Lali lived in a tiny, unheated apartment and cleaned homes seven days a week, saving money to send to Giorgi, Davit and her parents, Lida and Amur. Despite lacking the proper paperwork, she said she couldn't worry about the risk. Eventually she made 7 to 10 euros per hour.
She quickly learned German and English in addition to Russian and Georgian. (Her sons now know all four languages too). She was later hired as a receptionist at a hotel, where she still works.
"I only want to make money for family," she said
Lali saved to mail puzzles and toys home. She said she'll never forget the day she was able to send 250 euros.
She didn't have access to a computer, so she bought a camcorder with VHS tapes she mailed to her mother. Lida recorded the boys for hours at a time, swimming, dancing, playing basketball, goofing off.
The recorded images temporarily filled holes in Lali's heart with glimpses of the lives she was missing. Giorgi instantly loved the camera, lighting up when he saw it was on.
"He's just a happy kid and always dancing," Lali said. "He likes entertaining."
His grandparents kept him occupied so he would stay out of trouble. At 6, he enrolled in dance lessons and was hooked. He learned salsa, rumba, jive, cha-cha, waltz, tango and foxtrot, earning high marks in competitions.
"I loved it," Bezhanishvili said, putting his arms in a frame and shimmying.
Around the same time, he began playing basketball. The professional team BC Rustavi is a draw for the community and a source of pride.
By 12, he had grown so tall that his frame was too uncomfortable for a dance partner. He focused solely on basketball.
His grandfather, who drove a truck for work, would drop him off at the gym where his club team practiced. Sometimes Bezhanishvili took a city bus and practiced alone from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., when his grandmother would show up and order him home, disbelieving he spent an entire day in the gym.
The Rustavi gym was far from gleaming. "There was no heat," he said. "We wore hoodies over our jerseys. It was very cold." But he excelled quickly.
At home, he and neighborhood kids played basketball in the street.
"The playgrounds?" he said, throwing back his head to laugh. "Oh, it was nothing like here (in America). It wasn't even a playground."
New balls were quickly stolen, so they used old, flatter ones. A hoop? What a luxury that would be. Kids marked two lines with chalk on an overhanging pipe. Hit between the stripes and that's a basket. They did the same on a tree branch in an empty lot.
By the time Bezhanishvili was 13, Lali could afford a larger apartment. She endured the seemingly endless bureaucratic hassle of securing the proper paperwork. Her sons could join her in Austria.
"The day I had dreamed of, to bring my children to me," she said.
But it was difficult. For nearly a decade, their mom was just a voice on the phone. They knew she loved them, but still ...
"When I saw them, it was the shock of my life," Lali said. "You work, work, work. Suddenly time passes. I had lost so much in my life. One year we needed to get to know each other. We are just strange people for (each other)."
The living conditions of their new home in Vienna, while humble compared with many of the lavish homes in one of Europe's more affluent cities, seemed like luxury to Bezhanishvili. When clear water flowed from the faucet instead of the murky liquid he was accustomed to, his jaw dropped.
"It was two different worlds," he said. "I couldn't believe it."
He and Davit didn't know German (Austria's primary language) or English yet. In school, they sat confused and silent. Bezhanishvili recalled a teacher berating him for not understanding instructions and sending him to the principal's office, where he was harshly reprimanded again in a foreign language.
"I just cried," he said. "We came home and passed out."
The stress was unbearable, and despite Vienna's wealth and opportunity, the boys wanted to return to Rustavi. Lali scheduled therapy sessions and enrolled them in basketball.
"Basketball helped a lot," Bezhanishvili said. "You make friends. You learn the language."
He adjusted to life in Vienna, thrived in basketball, made "hundreds of friends" and bonded with his mother.
"My mom, we laugh now all the time," he said. "We always knew she was doing all of this for us, to give us a better future. She is the strongest woman I know."
Their time together was short-lived again. Five years after Giorgi and Lali were reunited, he departed for the United States to pursue basketball on a grander stage.
'Who's this kid?'
"Basketball was everything for him," Lali said. " 'If you are not afraid, go.' I didn't push him. He could come back if he didn't like it. I told him, 'If your mama did it, you can manage.' "
Bezhanishvili had some American teammates in the Austrian Basketball League. One was former Lehigh player Michael Ojo, who unbeknownst to Bezhanishvili sent video of him to then-Pittsburgh assistant Sam Ferry.
Ferry called Bezhanishvili, who told him he was still a year away from graduating. Through more global basketball connections, word got to a coach for the New York AAU team Jayhawks, and he told his friend Chris Chavannes, who coached at the Patrick School in New Jersey.
Chavannes trusted his sources and arranged for Bezhanishvili to play for the high-profile program that produced Kyrie Irving, Al Harrington and Samuel Dalembert.
"It all happened very fast," Bezhanishvili said.
Despite bouts of homesickness, he was determined to stay the course.
"The biggest adjustment was just the daily grind," Chavannes said. "How intense it is, the immediate attention. He went from playing once a week to playing three times a week in front of large audiences and traveling. It was a big hurdle. But he's the same person, not a shy person. He gets along with everyone."
While Bezhanishvili received attention from college programs such as Hofstra, it was Illinois that zeroed in after seeing him play against another athlete the staff was recruiting.
"About five minutes into the first quarter, I said to (assistant) Orlando (Antigua), 'Who's this kid?' " Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. Bezhanishvili averaged about eight points as a senior but scored 18 that day and held LSU-bound Naz Reid to single digits.
"I said, 'How come you don't score more?' " Underwood recalled. "He said, 'I have more appreciation when I pass.' It was such a mature way of thinking. His IQ stood out. I said (to Antigua), 'We're offering him the first opportunity we get.' "
When Bezhanishvili visited Champaign in March, he committed on the spot. His mother joined him for the quick two-day trip. Both were impressed.
"There was just so much love," Bezhanishvili said. "Everyone was like a family."
At Illinois, Bezhanishvili rides around campus -- even in rain or snow -- on his $100 Walmart bicycle he named "Lambo," as in Lamborghini. Between games at the Maui Invitational, he became a sensation for his dance moves in a competition among opposing players, wildly kicking his legs to each side.
"Giorgi surprises me every day with his antics," teammate Kipper Nichols said.
On the court, Bezhanishvili is a work in progress, but he provides a versatile big-man presence that suits Underwood's scheme. He averages 9.9 points and 4.9 rebounds while shooting 49 percent from the field and scored a season-high 22 points in a loss at Notre Dame.
Underwood envisions what a developed Bezhanishvili could look like as a point forward once he has honed his natural passing and dribbling.
"I think he's an Ethan Happ-caliber guy," Underwood said, referring to Wisconsin's 6-10 All-America forward. "The kid has a big upside. His skill set is ridiculous."
Bezhanishvili's emotions are visible -- sometimes too visible -- on the court. He says that's the Georgian way, and he's adjusting.
He received a technical foul against Georgetown for "talking too much" to a referee. He has fouled out of three games and picked up four fouls in five others.
"His love for the game speaks volumes. It oozes out of him," Underwood said. "He's so genuine with it. There's no false bravado or false intent meant with any of it. It's a pure passion. We do have to control his emotions sometimes, but it's a nice problem to have. It's very contagious."
Teammates laugh about how often he swears in foreign languages or when he breaks out in dance before practices.
His mom came to Champaign again to see him play against Georgetown on Nov. 13, bringing him Georgian and Austrian treats and savoring their time together with walks around campus. She and Davit wake at 3 a.m. sometimes to watch livestreams of Illini games.
Watching him play in college is validation for Lali, who has found comfort in her own life with bike rides and jogging during her spare time in Vienna.
"When I see my kids successful and my parents alive, I know," she said. "Maybe I didn't achieve euros or dollars. But I did something in my life. I did something for my family."
Every day, Bezhanishvili said, he calls his grandparents, brother and mother. He hopes to one day open a basketball center in Rustavi, similar to the academy in the capital city of Tblisi that NBA veteran and fellow Georgian Zaza Pachulia started.
"With heat," he said with a wink.
He aims to make the NBA but won't pressure himself. "Look at this," he said. "Illinois has everything I need. There is more than I need here."
Bezhanishvili raised his arm and smiled. He glanced behind him at a glowing orange Illinois sign not far from the locker room.
"Look where I am now," he said. "Just look."