Date: 04/18/2024

True Colors: Jeremy Sochan is putting his stamp on the Spurs and San Antonio

During a recent tour of Southtown’s 1906 Gallery, Spurs forward Jeremy Sochan showed he doesn’t just collect San Antonio art, he’s willing to get his hands dirty making some.

At the invitation of Meechi Ceramics owner Michelle Hernandez, Sochan slid his 6-foot-8 frame behind a potter’s wheel, removed his jewelry and began crafting a bowl, attentively listening and following directions as she guided him through the process. 

“Oh, no! I broke it!” Sochan said as a tear appeared at the top of the bowl that was starting to take shape. “My hands are too big.”

The 20-year-old NBA player was undaunted, though, as Hernandez leaned in to show him how to fix the mistake by reshaping the spinning clay. He patiently finished the vessel, asking his host if she could make sure it gets passed along to him once it’s glazed and fired. 

Although Sochan’s visit to 1906 was a public relations move at its core — an effort by the team’s front office to collect video footage of the player — he made something more of it. Rather than the allotted hour, the walkthrough lasted two and a half, Sochan’s genuine enthusiasm on display for the duration. 

He posed for photos with kids taking an art class, toured the living area of gallery owners Andy and Yvette Benavides and used his phone to snap a pic of one artist’s Spotify playlist after taking an interest in the psychedelic cumbia music thumping through the workspace.

“I love it here,” Sochan said at one point, showing the wide, gap-toothed smile that’s one of his trademarks. “Good vibes. Good vibes.”

It was clear from the visit that Sochan, who earlier this month wrapped up his second year with the Spurs, feels at home in Southtown’s artsy ambiance. After all, he recently bought a condo in the neighborhood, and he’s become a fixture at its locally owned businesses, where he builds on his collection of vintage housewares. 

“For me, it’s just lively,” Sochan said of the area. “It’s a place that makes me feel something — knowing that I’m around people, I’m around entertainment, I’m around green, I’m around the river. I can walk around trails, around stuff like this, studios and art galleries. I think that’s just the beautiful part of us as humans. There’s so many different ways of socializing, of growing and learning.”

Born in the U.S. to a Polish mother and raised in Britain, Sochan came to the Spurs as the No. 9 pick in the 2022 NBA draft. Although his spotlight has dimmed since the arrival of a certain 7-foot-4 French phenom by the name of Victor Wembanyama, Sochan’s on-court versatility all but ensures he’ll be an integral part of the Spurs’ rebuild. His exuberant personality also suggests he’s putting a stamp on the city itself.  

Observers say Sochan’s varied interests, global background and love of the city give him the potential to emerge as a fan favorite on the level of other now-legendary international Spurs players such as Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Patty Mills. 

While an ankle impingement and subsequent surgery ended his season with eight games to go, Sochan proved himself to be a Swiss Army knife for the team. He averaged 11.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. Observers have also heaped praise on his defense, which has enabled the young player to shut down some of the league’s best shooters. Cue tape of Sochan making Dallas superstar Luka Doncic’s life a living hell and holding his shooting to 6-for-27 during the teams’ March 19 matchup. 

Joyful competitor 

Talk to Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and he’ll praise both Sochan’s on-court versatility and his inquisitive mind. To be sure, Pop said he’s not seen a player so eager to ask questions since Ginobili’s time with the team.

“Jeremy is like a blank slate in that regard. Everything seems to interest him, whether we’re talking about race relations in America or what kind of wine might be drunk at a dinner or just random talk about what’s happening in the Middle East,” Popovich told the Current. “He wants to know, and he’ll ask questions about it. … He’s jumped in and found, I think, a comfort zone where he feels like he can ask about all these things.”

While Sochan’s proclivity for dying his hair every color of the rainbow and his ability to get under opponents’ skin drew early comparisons to Dennis Rodman, personality-wise he appears to be the opposite of the grandstanding-prone rebounder. 

Sochan is a team player who radiates infectious enthusiasm, according to Popovich. His positive energy and ability to lead by example were apparent early in his rookie year.

“When I think about Jeremy, I think about enthusiasm, energy, love of the game and that kind of thing,” Popovich said. “And by osmosis, everybody else feels that and gets a part of that. So, I think that’s basically his personality and what he gives on a daily basis or game-by-game basis.”

Teammate Devin Vassell said Sochan’s offbeat sense of humor served as glue that held the team together even as it endured a season where it landed second from the bottom in the Western Conference. 

“He’s just a super joyful person. I mean, he’s just going to put a smile on your face,” Vassell said. “He just wants to make everybody in the room laugh and smile, and that’s probably the biggest thing I would say. There’s never a dull moment when it comes to Jeremy. He’s always laughing and trying to get everybody else in a good mood.”

That ability to bust up his teammates manifested early as part of the Spurs tradition of singing “Happy Birthday” to each player during his big day. After Sochan participated in his first team singalong, he shouted out, “Hip, hip, hooray! Hip, hip, hooray! Don’t forget the champagne!” 

The tag didn’t just get laughs, it stuck. Now, it’s an expected part of every birthday recognition. 

“I don’t know where he got that from, but that’s Jeremy,” Vassell said.

Lest anyone assume Sochan’s geniality and sense of humor are a sign that he’s nothing but an overgrown class clown, friends and colleagues say the young player displays a wisdom beyond his years and a curiosity for exploring other cultures. 

During his visit to the 1906, several artists asked Sochan about his elaborate tattoos, and he indulged, explaining, for example, how he wants an image of Icarus plummeting to earth to serve as a reminder not to let his ego carry him too high.

Sochan’s varied musical tastes also suggest he’s a guy eager to explore. He’s a huge Radiohead fan but also loves the mind-bending experimental techno of Aphex Twin and the electronica-tinged R&B of Sampha. 

‘Coach’ not ‘Mom’

Sochan describes himself as a “citizen of the world,” and his globetrotting life certainly reflects that. 

Although born in Western Oklahoma, where his mother Aneta played Division II hoops for Panhandle State, Sochan ended up in Europe soon after her graduation. His father, Ryan Williams, who played for the school’s men’s basketball team, was largely absent from his life and died in a 2017 car wreck. 

After a brief stint in France, the Sochans settled in England, where Jeremy spent most of his youth. Growing up in Milton Keynes, a city 50 miles northwest of London, he tried his hand at multiple sports — soccer, rugby, track and badminton among them — but it was basketball that grabbed and held his interest. 

Aneta — a former point guard — proved an inspiring and demanding coach. She drilled her son on how essential defense is to the game and cut him little slack. He was required to call her “coach,” not “Mom,” on the court. If he slipped up, she punished him with push-ups or laps.

Despite his mother’s hard-ass approach, Sochan said she never tried to force the sport on him or saddle him with unrealistic expectations.

“I think it helped that I had a genuine connection with a genuine person who wanted me to be great,” he said. “But the other thing that I personally think helped was that there was no pressure. There was no moment in my career — or when I was young, learning how to play — where my mom would be like, ‘This is the way. This is what you have to do with your life.'”  

Sochan relocated to Southampton for high school, where he joined a semi-pro basketball team stocked with players who were considerably older and more experienced. He also played for Poland’s U-16 team, which took a FIBA Division B European Championship and landed him a tournament MVP trophy.

The Big D

Sensing he’d outgrown England’s basketball opportunities, Sochan enrolled in La Lumiere School, a private campus in Indiana, but the pandemic shut down play and he headed back to Europe within months, joining a Germany club league.  

Sochan committed to playing college hoops for Baylor in 2020, which allowed him to regularly jump between positions, playing both point guard and center. After winning 2021-2022 Big-12 Sixth Man of the Year honors and being named to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team, he declared himself eligible for the 2022 NBA Draft and was picked up by the Spurs.

Even now that he’s reached the pros, Sochan said he still values the wisdom his mother shared about playing a strong defense. He considers defense a “lost” art in the NBA, and he thrives on it.

“It gives me some type of energy. Where does it come from? The satisfaction of stopping a player from scoring or having a good game, maybe? I don’t know,” Sochan said. “It just comes naturally to me. It’s something that I feel like as a kid was really important. My parents were always [saying], ‘Playing defense is important and it’s going to keep you on the court. It’s going to keep you playing, giving you minutes.'”

Like the game’s best defenders, Sochan understands that the head game is part of his arsenal. When asked how he gets under other players’ skins, he smiled coyly, and said he’d rather not give up his secrets. Even so, he did let one slip. 

“Just being friendly with them sometimes is the best way to get into their heads,” Sochan said. “They think, ‘Oh yeah, we talking friendly, it’s going to be a chill game,’ or something, and then you play hard.”

Local interests

In his two years in San Antonio, Sochan’s done more than settle down in Southtown. He’s actively become part of the city’s cultural scene, exploring its museums, getting to know out-of-the-way haunts and throwing his financial support to homegrown businesses.

Santiago Ortega, co-owner of Government Hill juice shop Southwest Elixirs, said he and his wife extended an invite to the then-rookie Spur to visit their business after a chance meeting. To their surprise, the NBAer not only showed up and became a regular but frequently brings his family and other members of the team into their store. 

After posing up at a table by the front window to enjoy a Mystic Mushroom smoothie or an avocado toast while watching a soccer match on his phone, it’s not uncommon for Sochan to head over to shop at the independently owned plant store and vintage shop in the same shopping center and walk out with a purchase, Ortega added. 

Shortly after their first meeting, Ortega and his wife and business partner Madison recommended Sochan check out the San Antonio Museum of Art. He immediately extended an invitation for them to join them on his first visit. Though work got in the way, they appreciated his willingness to hang out. 

“He’s just a very sincere person, very inquisitive,” Ortega said. “At 19 or 20, sometimes you can be a little narrow-minded, but for someone so young, he’s really an old soul.”

Sochan’s connection with Southwest Elixirs also led to his hiring of his personal chef, Cait Gomez. The Ortegas recommended her based on her experience and understanding of healthy ingredients. 

Gomez said she’d never worked with a pro athlete and was initially apprehensive. However, she was quickly impressed with Sochan’s open-mindedness, including an eagerness to explore the healthier sides of Mexican cuisine. He’s also courteous and respectful of her time, regularly sending text messages if he expects to be home late from practice.

“I wondered, ‘Am I walking into a frat house kind of thing? Am I gonna be there feeding all the guys?'” Gomez said. “But it’s turned out to be nothing like that. He’s just so driven and so laser-focused on what he wants to accomplish.”

Strong family ties

Both Gomez and the Ortegas said they’ve witnessed the strong bond Sochan maintains with his mother, stepfather Wiktor Lipiecki and a younger brother. The family now lives in San Antonio, Spurs officials confirmed, and it’s clear they’re very much part of Sochan’s life, regularly dropping by the juice shop with him and visiting his home. 

Gomez said the exchanges between Aneta and Jeremy make it clear where he inherited his sense of humor. Mother and son regularly exchange good-natured quips. He appears to delight in pushing her buttons while she can dish it right back out. 

“It always cracks me up,” Gomez said. “You can tell there’s lots of love and mutual respect behind it all.”

The chef said she’s also gotten kitchen coaching from Aneta on how to prepare some of Sochan’s favorite Polish dishes, including pierogis. The pair worked together on a healthier recipe for the carb-heavy dumplings, which are typically filled with cheese and potatoes.

As he put down roots, Sochan also added to the family, bringing on a German shorthaired pointer, Otto, who’s less than a year old and “completely wild,” he said. 

Fashion forward

Sochan doesn’t see himself toning down the hair as he settles into his role as one with the Spurs. It’s just another extension of his longstanding interest in fashion and self-expression, he said. 

After all, who can forget the lilac Indochino suit Sochan sported for the NBA Draft. He picked the suit’s color to complement his hair: bleach blonde at the time. Since then, he’s turned heads by wearing a white double-breasted suit with no shirt underneath — total rockstar move — and a vibrant lime-green cardigan that somehow made preppy look hip. 

That playful approach to fashion even included shaving off his signature hair one time while playing for Baylor. The clippers came out on a dare during a plane trip to play Kansas State. In keeping with a recurring theme, Sochan said he went bald to bring the team together when spirits were down.

“It was a little crazy, but yeah, it was fun — which is what I was after,” Sochan said. “I feel like I rocked the bald look too.”

Although Sochan’s one-handed free throws have struck some NBA fans as a look-at-me affectation, the origins of the technique are anything but. He adopted the approach during the 2022-2023 season after Popovich suggested it could help boost his accuracy. It paid off, as Sochan increased his average free throw percentage by 30%. 

To Spurs General Manager Brian Wright, Sochan’s willingness to run with Pop’s unconventional advice is one of the player’s strengths. 

“Not only does he do it not just in practice, but he works at it, and goes and does it in front of 18,000 people,” Wright told the Current. “And there’s not one other person doing it that way in the NBA. It just tells you a little bit about him — not just the work side, but the trust and belief side — that he has the self-confidence to go out and say, ‘You know what? I can be different and I can try it, and I’m going to do what works for me.’ I think that’s a pretty real example of who he is.”

‘Stronger and more resilient’

While it may be early to talk about a player’s legacy after just two years in the league, Sochan’s put some thought into the matter. And, from where he sits, legacy is more than just championship rings and a collection of statistics.

“To me, a legacy is: ‘How can I impact people?'” he said. “Of course, to some extent it might be about my individual success, but it’s not completely about that and ‘Look how great I am.’ I think to me, it’s to connect with people and be someone who sheds good, positive vibes and helps people out. I think that’s what I think I want my legacy to be.”

Might that someday include a fashion line? A program that gives back to the city’s arts scene, small businesses or young athletes? 

Maybe. Hard to say. Sochan emphasized that he’s a perfectionist, so he’s not interested in pursuing anything outside of the NBA that he can’t devote serious attention to. For now, his focus is on basketball and family. 

Wherever his path takes him, Wright said Sochan’s self-awareness and eagerness to express himself make the sky the limit. 

“He knows who he is, he knows who he wants to be, he knows what he wants to accomplish, and he’s just beginning,” Wright said. “The guy is 20 years old, and he’s well on his way. He also knows it’s just the beginning and there’s a bright future ahead.”

Part of that, Sochan said, is looking back on a key lesson his mother and stepfather imparted: you can’t have it all right now.

That lesson of patience has helped him absorb a year many had hoped would turn out better for the young team. One also assumes it will guide his recuperation from the injury he suffered at the end of the season.

“Of course, there’s times where I want it all right now. I want to change now, and I want to be the best I can be. But I also understand sometimes it’s not like that,” he said. “Sometimes — like even this year — things are a test. The test is: Are you going to break or are you going to keep going? Are you going to become stronger and become better and more resilient?”

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