'It's big for all of Europe': Ukraine NT members reflect on country's EuroBasket presence

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-09-03 06:45

Ukraine's participation and potential success in the EuroBasket can have a wider impact on the war-stricken country. Coach Ainars Bagatskis and several players share their views with BasketNews.

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

Ukraine's premiere at the 41st EuroBasket could have been more emphatic. The squad coached by Ainars Bagatskis slammed Great Britain 90-61 and made a big step towards earning one of the top four spots in Group C. 

For Bagatskis, his team's impressive start in the tournament "means nothing," as the Latvian tactician told BasketNews.

"We made the first step in our first game. If we don't focus on the next one, it won't mean anything. I don't care about who we play."

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk

Sviatoslav  Mykhailiuk
Position: SF
Age: 25
Height: 203 cm
Weight: 93 kg
Birth place: Ukraine

By the way, Ukraine will play Estonia on Saturday (15:00 CEST), with the view to making it 2-0 in the group and solidifying its position among the top squads.

However, this EuroBasket tourney holds special significance for Ukraine and its people. After the Russian invasion last February, the landscape of European sport changed rapidly. 

Hence, for Ukraine to get the chance to be in Milan - and maybe in Berlin for the final stage, as it happened in 2017- is no small feat. 

"It's big, not only for Ukraine but for all of Europe," Bagatskis continues.

"You saw what happened in Ukraine with the war, which isn't on Ukraine. It's against civilization. These are not easy times for players to be here, but they're doing their best, and I'm proud of them."

Credit FIBA

Bagatskis, 55, who's been at Ukraine's helm since 2019, is currently coaching two NBA players in the Sacramento Kings Alex Len, and the Toronto Raptors Svi Mykhailiuk. If someone expected that getting them on board would be a tough task, the Latvian coach insists that it was quite the contrary.

"It's not a surprise that they're both here because they never said they didn't want to play in the national team," he maintains.

"FIBA allowed them to play in the two World Cup qualifier rounds. That's important because they're not big names as NBA players, but they're really good human beings."

Svi Mykhailiuk, 25, spent the past season with Toronto. Even though his last NBA campaign was far from spectacular (4.6 points, 1.6 rebounds per game), and he's now a free agent, joining the national team didn't involve much thinking.

One of the main reasons was that for the war-plagued Ukrainians, watching their national team do well in the EuroBasket might bring some smiles to a tormented country. 

"This tournament means a lot, especially during wartime," Mykhailiuk told BasketNews.

"I feel it's an excellent opportunity for us to give people back home some joy and take their focus away from the war by showing them great basketball."

Making this tournament hasn't been easy for team members, "especially those who had their families and loved ones back home. It's tough, but we're professional, and we're trying to help as much as we can on our side. We're fighters trying to bring some joy to the people," the Ukrainian swingman said.

Mykhailiuk thinks having two NBA players on the roster brings the team more exposure and visibility. 

"I think it's important. A lot of teams have NBA players, but especially for Ukraine, it's a great thing," he comments.

Since the EuroBasket is a big enough platform, especially for European basketball standards, Prometey's Issuf Sanon has reason to believe that a potentially good tournament could garner him more looks from the upper tiers.

In his EuroBasket debut, the 22-year-old point guard produced 6 points on a meager 2/12 from the field. 

"It's my first EuroBasket game, and I really appreciate my teammates helping me. I was nervous," Sanon admitted in the mixed zone after the contest. The young player was selected with the 44th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but his rights have changed hands - and teams- several times.

From the Knicks, who initially picked him, to the Wizards, and then to the Houston Rockets. Right now, his NBA debut is a long shot.

"The Houston Rockets cut me, so I must show what I'm capable of. I have to play better to show what I can do," Sanon explains to BasketNews.

Forward Vyacheslav Bobrov will turn 30 on September 19, just one day after the EuroBasket has been concluded. His dream is for Ukraine to go all the way to Berlin. 

"We needed to start the tournament strong and be aggressive because that's what the British team is like. We focused on our mistakes, worked on our rebounds, especially the defensive ones," Bobrov told BasketNews.

The experienced player of BC Budivelnyk Kyiv, who decided to return to his home country after a short spell in France with Nanterre, thinks that Ukraine's success in EuroBasket can provide a statement about the country's status.

Credit FIBA Media

"We're not playing just for us, but for our country. We want to say 'thank you' to everyone who supported us and to those who came here to watch our games," he stresses.

"We also want to say, 'Stop the war!' The war is still going on for the past six months. Let's hope it stops."

On the other hand, big man Artem Pustovyi was as enthusiastic about his side's on-court display as he was about the support Ukraine's team members received.

"It's a great feeling. We supported each other; we played like one team and shared the ball. But we must keep going. Our first goal is to pass the group," the former FC Barcelona center clarifies.

Credit FIBA Media

While Ukraine was making light work of Great Britain, Pustovyi had the chance to take a look at the stands.

"We saw many people support Ukraine. We also play for them in difficult times for us. Sasha Volkov came to the hotel to talk to us. A lot of people are here with flags. It's great to feel their support."

Having a good roster with clearly defined roles and some fan sympathy is a recipe every team could count on. 

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