How a global journey has brought Saba Gigiberia to Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech incoming freshman Saba Gigiberia putting down a dunk for Prolific Prep this past season. (Rick Manahan Photography)

Georgia Tech incoming freshman Saba Gigiberia putting down a dunk for Prolific Prep this past season. (Rick Manahan Photography)

Saba Gigiberia can tell you about life in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. He moved there from his home in Tbilisi, Georgia, at the age of 14 to train with a club. He lived with two other promising Georgian basketball players and a woman from the club who took care of them.

He enjoyed the basketball, he said, “but outside that, people were really kind and they kind of looked like Georgians.”

To further pursue his basketball development, he left Spain at 16 to enroll at a prep school in Las Vegas. He didn’t speak much English and lived with four other teammates and a coach.

“In the movies, and whenever you watch anything about Las Vegas, you think it’s going to be crazy good, but when I went there, I was like, ‘Oh, this is not like that,’ ” Gigiberia said.

When the school closed, he transferred to a basketball academy and its partner private school in Napa, Calif., living with a host family.

“It’s a small city near San Francisco,” he said. “They love wine, all wines.”

Gigiberia’s journey now brings him to Atlanta and Georgia Tech. The 7-foot-1 center will be a freshman at Tech whenever it is deemed safe enough to come to campus. His truly international adventure continues, learning new cultures, languages and styles of basketball.

“All this, it’s been different, but I’ve been used to living alone in Spain and here, so I really got used to it, and I’m loving it here,” Gigiberia said.

Tech associate head coach Eric Reveno was drawn to Gigiberia (pronounced ghi-ghi-beh-REE-ah) for more than his polyglot acumen when he first watched him play for Georgia at a European junior tournament in Bulgaria in the summer of 2017. Gigiberia runs well, plays with toughness and has a good skill level for his size.

“So the size, athleticism, playing hard are what jump out,” Reveno said. “And you say, ‘O.K, those things will translate at our level.’ Then you throw in the skill level and all of the sudden, you’re saying, ‘O.K, this could really (work well).’ ”

Georgia Tech incoming freshman Saba Gigiberia playing for Prolific Prep this past season. “He’s got a pretty good feel for the game,” coach Joey Fuca said. “He just needs to get a little quicker.” (Rick Manahan Photography)

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Gigiberia, who turns 19 in December, arrives at Tech at an opportune moment. With James Banks’ career completed and also the likelihood that UGA transfer center Rodney Howard will have to sit out a year before becoming eligible, the Yellow Jackets are in dire need of a post player who can give them productive minutes. Gigiberia could be in a frontcourt rotation with forward Moses Wright and fellow incoming freshman Jordan Meka.

“We don’t have a lot of size going into next year, so Saba’s going to have to play and he’s going to have to produce,” coach Josh Pastner said. “Yes, he’s a freshman, but we’re going to have to get him ready to produce and produce early and often.”

Growing up in Tbilisi, the capital of the Eastern European nation of four million, Gigiberia played rugby (training he credits for his willingness to get on the floor to scrap for loose balls). At about 12, after he had twice broken his hand and fingers, Gigiberia decided it was time to try a new sport. His grandfather suggested that he try basketball to take advantage of his height.

Two years later, he was on his way to Spain as part of a collaboration agreement between the Georgian basketball federation and a Spanish club.

While training with the Baskonia junior team, he connected with Georgian players at Seton Hall (Sandro Mamukelashvili) and Illinois (Giorgi Bezhanishvili) who both had completed high school in the U.S. and encouraged him to make the jump.

So was former Hawks center Zaza Pachulia, the greatest basketball player to come from Georgia. Pachulia, who played eight seasons for the Hawks (2005-13) and retired in 2019 after 16 NBA seasons, has become a mentor to Gigiberia. It is Gigiberia’s aspiration to emulate Pachulia’s professional success. Pachulia won two NBA titles with the Golden State Warriors and is now a consultant to the team.

“After I talked to Zaza, I can say he really opened my mind to what I could do,” Gigiberia said.

The decision to leave his home at 14 and then his continent at 16, twice having to learn new languages, speaks to his motivation.

“I just wanted to make my family and my country proud,” Gigiberia said.

Over time, Pachulia has grown tight with Saberia, sometimes connecting over late-night FaceTime conversations. Pachulia has delighted in sharing his wisdom with up-and-coming Georgian players, serving as a resource that he did not have when he was in their position. They talk about basketball, but not always.

“Even though there’s a difference between us when it comes to age, I’m telling you, he’s my little brother,” said Pachulia, 36.

His life has had more than its share of adversity. When he was 11, his father died from a heart attack, leaving his mother Ia Tchumburidze to raise him.

Gigiberia calls her his idol, “because she helped me through everything.”

A family photo of Georgia Tech incoming freshman Saba Gigiberia with his mother Ia Tchumburidze (center) and aunt Nina Tchumburidze in the front yard of Gigiberia's home in Tbilisi, Georgia. "She means everything," Gigiberia said of his mother. (Photo courtesy Saba Gigiberia)

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At Prolific Prep, Gigiberia improved in a rigorous training environment, as his teammates included Jalen Green (No. 2 prospect in the country who will play in the G League), Nimari Burnett (four-star prospect going to Texas Tech) and others. Coach Joey Fuca said that Gigiberia needs to gain strength and learn to play with his back to the basket, but he has good vision, hands and feel for the game. He said that he was probably the team’s best rim protector.

“He was willing to get in the gym and get better,” Fuca said. “Always asked to get his workouts in.”

“He will add to our competitiveness in practice and in games,” Reveno said. “I’ll be surprised if we’re having to sort of prod him and ramp him up.”

Last November, he picked Tech over TCU and Vanderbilt. He remembered watching a video on his official visit with Pastner and Reveno about the team that made mention of its history of producing NBA players. Gigiberia said he got goosebumps.

“I really felt like it was the right school,” he said.

Tech had another advantage that other schools could not match. Gigiberia’s aunt and uncle live in Buckhead with their two children. He has been staying with them since the coronavirus closed his school in Napa.

About to anchor down for life in a new city and a new school – about 6,300 miles from Tbilisi – Gigiberia already has adopted one key aspect of life in the Southeast.

“I love Chick-fil-A,” Gigiberia said. “It’s the best thing ever.”