Ukraine’s national basketball team gathered this summer, tasked with lifting the spirits of those back home in a war-torn country.
Turns out, it was the other way around.
A long summer slate of games — exhibitions and World Cup qualifying games leading up to the ongoing European championships — didn’t start well for Ukraine. Losses were piling up, tension was mounting, frustration was obvious. Something had to change.
“That's when we thought about our fans back home,” said Ukraine center Alex Len, who plays for the NBA's Sacramento Kings. “And then we had a team meeting. We decided to come together as a team. There’s a lot of stuff going on back home, and we said we had to play harder. Let’s fight. Let’s fight, out of respect for the country.”
Fight. That’s the Ukrainian way right now.
And the approach, simple as it sounds, worked. Ukraine is one of the last 16 teams left in the EuroBasket tournament, which resumes with the start of the knockout stage in Berlin on Saturday. Ukraine went 3-2 in the group stage and those games — players hope — gave the people in their homeland, which has been reeling from Russia’s invasion since February, another bit of national pride.
“It’s a really difficult time for Ukraine, for our country and also for our team,” point guard Denys Lukashov said. “It’s not easy to focus just on basketball knowing what’s happening now in our country. We’re going to do everything we can to show the best game. We’re going to fight each game. That’s what I can promise.”
Lukashov was asked if Ukraine’s team had a message to the world.
“Just stop this war,” he said. “Stop killing the people.”
All games in the knockout stage will be played in Berlin. It’s now a single-elimination tournament, except for those clubs who make the semifinals; the loser of those semifinal games will play in a third-place game before the championship matchup.
On Saturday, it’s Germany vs. Montenegro, Spain vs. Lithuania, Slovenia vs. Belgium, and Turkey vs. France. On Sunday, it’s Greece vs. Czech Republic, Finland vs. Croatia, Ukraine vs. Poland, Serbia vs. Italy. If Ukraine tops Poland, a quarterfinal matchup against the Slovenia-Belgium winner awaits; Slovenia, led by Luka Doncic, is the reigning EuroBasket champion.
Ukraine, long shots entering the tournament, is now teeming with confidence.
“We're playing extremely hard," Len said. “And it's showing. We think anybody can beat anybody in this tournament."
Sports, particularly on the international stage, typically are a rallying point for any country. Over the last seven months, they have been particularly poignant — both for Ukrainians and for those supporting Ukrainians.
There have been countless examples. At the Beijing Olympics this past winter, skeleton athlete Vladyslav Heraskevych held up a sign reading “No War in Ukraine” immediately after he finished a run down the track. At the world indoor track and field championships this spring, Australia’s Eleanor Patterson finished second to Ukraine’s Yaroslava Mahuchikh in the high jump — and showed off fingernails painted in the colors of Ukraine’s flag at the medal ceremony. Even Russian tennis player Daria Kasatkina, in a videotaped interview this summer, called on her homeland to stop the war.
This week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy and his top aides, promising continued support and noting he remains “very confident in Ukraine’s future because the Ukrainians are fighting for their homeland. It’s their homeland, not Russia’s."
“I call home every day,” said Ukraine center Artem Pustovyi, who has relatives living near the capital city of Kyiv. “Some days I reach my family. Some days I cannot. After a day, maybe two, they always let me know they’re OK.”
It is ironic that Ukraine’s first game in the knockout stage comes against Poland. The countries share a border stretching about 330 miles (about 530 kilometers) long. They have been allies, and perhaps never more so than now — bonds strengthened by the war.
The United Nations says nearly 1.4 million Ukrainians have registered for temporary protection in Poland since the war with Russia started and that nearly 6 million Ukraine-into-Poland border crossings have occurred during that span.
The countries will be rivals on the basketball court Sunday for a couple hours. They’ll be allies before, during and after. Games have been shown on Ukrainian television, and fans in the team's homeland can watch over streaming services as well.
“There is pressure on us,” Len said. “But also, we don’t know what’s going to happen a few months from now or a year from now. So, there is pressure, but the real pressure is on those guys who are fighting for our freedom. We’re just here playing basketball. It’s a crazy situation to be in. We don’t know if we’re going to have a place to go back to.”
So far this summer, Ukraine has played in Latvia, Portugal, Iceland, Macedonia, Italy and now, it is set to complete its EuroBasket journey in Germany.
The team hasn’t been home. It doesn’t know when the chance to play there will come again.
Until then, as the players promised each other would be the case in that team meeting, they fight — to honor those doing the real fighting.
“I just want to say, stop the war in Ukraine,” guard Issue Sanon said. “Sláva Ukrayíni. Sláva Ukrayíni.”
The translation: Glory to Ukraine.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports