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Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Updated: September 4, 11:58 AM ET
My season in war-torn Ukraine

By Coleman Collins
Special to ESPN.com

Collins
Coleman Collins traveled to Ukraine to play professional basketball. Then a war broke out around him.

Sometime in February, on the night before a game, team management called an emergency meeting. As I cleaned the dirty snow from my shoes and shuffled into the building, I passed by the Russian news reports on the televisions in the janitorial staff's office, and exhausted the limits of my rudimentary Russian skills to decipher their propaganda. "Something-something terrorism, something-something Americanski-Europeaski something," said the reporter. The janitors muttered in assent. There were images of tires burning and smoke rising. The protests in Kiev had turned violent, the main square was burning, and for the first time since the crisis began people had been killed in broad daylight.

Though the league's governing body had successfully ignored politics up until then, it was suddenly faced with the terrible optics of playing basketball games while civilians were being shot in the streets by government security services. It was decided that the next day would be a national day of mourning in remembrance of the people who were killed. Our next game would need to be postponed for a few weeks, but all of the weekend games would be played as scheduled. "Don't worry," the club's vice president said. "This will give them enough time to clear these troublemakers from the streets, and the season will proceed normally."

The next day, more than 80 people were killed.


Six months earlier, I had come to play basketball in Mariupol, a coastal city in the Donetsk region of southeast Ukraine. It is not a beautiful city and probably never was, but it has a hard charm under its surface, like an old Waffle House waitress or retired tire salesman. Think 1970s Pittsburgh. A constant, sickly chemical smell emanates from the steel factories, which serve as the city's largest employers. When the factories are working, thick clouds of smoke and steam billow into the air and envelop the city, and you can stand on the shore without being able to smell the sea. It seemed unbearable at first, but somehow my apartment was located near a small chocolate or candy factory, and my block was a refuge, sweetness cutting through the stench like a violin playing scales in a noisy subway station. Later, when a chocolate oligarch was elected as the next president, I was reminded of this small pleasure.

Thick and unpleasant as it was, you wrapped the smell around yourself like a security blanket. The smell let you know that the workers would have jobs in the morning, that the checks would come on time. Clean air meant unemployment. The main sponsor of the basketball team was Azovstal, a subsidiary of a larger network of steel companies. Our games were scheduled at times convenient for the steelworkers' schedules. The team, called Azovmash, was one of the strongest in Europe. We had the best domestic players in the league, four of whom -- Kyryl Natyazhko, Maksym Pustozvonov, Dymtro Zabirchenko and Ihor Zaytsev -- compete for the Ukrainian national team. We played in the Ukrainian league, and in a bigger, sort of pan-Soviet league sponsored by a Russian bank. There were long bus rides and unpleasant experiences with unsmiling customs officials in Belarus and Kazakhstan. I saw Moscow's Red Square lit up at night. I found myself getting stitches on a creaky clinic table in the former Stalingrad after an errant elbow to the face during a game.

As an outsider, when you first come to Mariupol or other cities like it in the east, you won't realize that the residents are speaking Russian instead of Ukrainian. It all looks the same to you. The letters are imposing and full of right angles, the sounds harsh; friendly loops and lilting voices are scarce. It's easy to confuse.

When the crisis first began in the fall, American observers tended to gloss over the fact that that a large portion of the political divisions could be roughly explained by (A) where a person was from (East/West) or (B) what language that person spoke in their home. People in the East have not forgotten that those in the West collaborated with the Nazis in what they call "The Great Patriotic War." The Westerners will always remember the vast famines that were inflicted upon them by the Soviet Union 1.

Accordingly, the fight to remove (Eastern, Russian-speaking, terrible Ukrainian-speaking) President Viktor Yanukovych from office would never have come from Mariupol, or the other Easterners who had overwhelmingly voted for him. It would come from the west of Ukraine, and I happened to be there the day it started. The official reason was that Yanukovych had been expected to sign an association agreement with the European Union, had promised to do so repeatedly, then backed out at the last minute after threats from Russia. Western Ukraine was heavily in favor of the agreement, while the East was almost totally against it.

I had no idea about any of this when I arrived that August. In a time of crisis, living in a foreign country where you don't speak the language is like being a small child whose parents' marriage is falling apart. You don't understand the issues, no one cares about your opinion -- everything looks normal, sure, but mommy and daddy don't laugh anymore and the house seems colder. Although you can't understand the news broadcasts or read the newspapers, you notice the intense conversations of others in coffee shop corners. Televisions that once went unheeded in the background now have four or five people watching at all times; the canned goods are out of stock at the grocery store. You can feel the tension.


It would be obvious later. These were the early days, and I was still oblivious. On Nov. 22, the day after Yanukovych failed to sign the agreement, I played a game in the Western town of Ivano-Frankivsk, near the Polish border. The national anthem 2 was played before the game in its entirety, while a man with an EU flag stood at midcourt gesticulating wildly and waving, exhorting the crowd to sing along. Confused, I asked a teammate what was going on. "Just some guy," he said. "Political stuff."

I had no choice but to accept this, and focused on the game. But later that night, after a tough win in double overtime, I took a walk through the center of the city and got another surprise. There were EU flags strewn about on the sidewalks, pro-EU signs hanging from lampposts and buildings. There was a palpable air of missed opportunity. I was completely shocked. There was absolutely no anticipation of this back in Mariupol. I hadn't seen an EU flag since I'd stepped foot in the country.

Two days later we continued our Western road trip in Lviv, while, unbeknownst to me, 100,000 people demonstrated on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square in Kiev. The morning after our game, I overheard chanting from the balcony of my hotel room. I threw on some clothes and headed downstairs. Several hundred people marched past in the drizzling rain, carrying EU and Ukrainian flags with their umbrellas. They were mostly students, younger people who had wanted EU association more than anybody. I followed at a distance, going up and down wet cobblestone streets until they stopped outside of a government building and began singing the national anthem. I posted a short video to Instagram and went searching through news archives to figure out what was going on. The more I read, the more excited I got. It seemed like something historic was happening. I'd never really seen a protest up close, and watching young people march for their future was inspiring.

The next week we had a game in Kiev. The KyivPost (an English-language newspaper) said that there would be another protest on the Maidan at 4 o'clock the next day -- the same time as our game. Before coming to Ukraine, I'd been introduced via Facebook to two Ukrainian women who had attended U.S. universities and now lived in Kiev. I was faced with an etiquette question for the ages: Was it a little gauche of me to be in town and not send an invite for the game? Or was it more rude to invite them to something so trivial when the future of their country was at stake? I hedged by sending an "I know things are crazy right now, but ..." Facebook message that ultimately went unanswered. At the game, as a recording of the national anthem was played for a largely empty stadium, I imagined the same song being sung on the main square with urgency, and couldn't help but reflect on how the recording, and the game to follow, were trivial in comparison.

Collins Ukraine Barricade


We returned to the East for a while, and Mariupol was still chugging along as if nothing had happened. The protesters in Kiev were dismissed as fools ("Don't they have jobs?!") and it was generally hoped that the government would chase them out of the square.

It was hard for me to understand. It didn't occur to me until then, but I have an inborn American optimism 3. Though I've never felt very American in America, the fact that I'd been steeped in our foundational revolutionary myth colored my vision. But revolutions can have varying outcomes. In 2004, the Orange Revolution happened in the center of Kiev, with the same president (Viktor Yanukovych) being thrown out after a fraudulent election. In the years that followed, the revolutionaries were accused of being as corrupt as the people they'd replaced, and Yanukovych was re-elected. Now there was a movement to throw him out again, and people in Mariupol were tired of it. People in the West, especially the youth, were hungry for big changes; all the people I met in Mariupol -- even teenagers and young adults -- were against what was happening on the Maidan.

I was determined to try to see things for myself. Given a few days off, I took a trip to Kiev at the end of December and made my way down to the Maidan. Many of the protesters had gone home for New Year's, but there were still thousands braving the cold and continuing the occupation. The holidays seemed to put people in good spirits, and I walked through freely with no problems, but there was an underlying seriousness in the square. All of the street-level and underground openings were barricaded with tires, wood and barbed wire. It was obvious that the protesters had settled in for the long haul. It was only then that I realized what should have been obvious before: This was not going to end simply, or well.

Before seeing it for myself I had only a vague sense of what was going on -- I suppose I'd imagined drum circles and joints, a sort of Slavic Occupy. This was something else entirely. There were people out here in the cold who really believed that they could effect change, and they were willing to die trying.


The New Year passed. The Maidan crowds swelled, and the protesters' resolve seemed to strengthen as the stakes rose. The government unleashed its special police force, the Berkut, which allegedly began kidnapping, beating and torturing Maidan activists. Parliament passed a law restricting protests and rights of assembly, only to rescind it a few days later. In the West, government buildings were occupied by protesters, and there were reports of large seizures of weapons. For the first time since it all began, protesters were killed in Kiev. In response, several far-right, ultra-nationalist groups took a leading role in organizing the defense of the square, and became more and more confrontational with police.

March
Hundreds of people march in the rain in the Western city of Lviv in hopes of EU association for Ukraine.

The more I read, the more anxious I got, and I started pressing the local players and staff for information about what they knew. Most of them were apolitical, not "pro-Russia" or "pro-Maidan" but "pro-not having the capital city of our country burned to the ground." They worried about their families, about their futures, about whether the economy would collapse. Their country had a long history of being a crucible for foreign elements to exert influence, and it seemed to be happening again.

One day, after I had asked him yet another unanswerable question, our point guard responded with one of his own. "Tell me," he said, looking me square in the eye, "do you care? This is not your country. If the situation gets worse, which it will, you will leave and not come back. So how can you care, really?" I protested, saying the right things about how I cared about him, and all of the people I had gotten to know over the seven months I'd spent in the country so far. And I was telling the truth. It really did bother me to see my teammates in distress, to see their country disintegrate, to know that the lives of millions who already lived in difficult conditions would only get worse. But did it hurt me? Could it hurt me?

When, months later, I mention living in Ukraine at a dinner party and the other guests gasp or nod sagely and say "that must have been hard," and speak for a minute or two about Putin before moving on to Syria or Palestine or stop-and-frisk, do I still feel something? You wonder: Can you feel the loss of that which is not yours? And then: What's one tragedy, really, in a world full of them? I now have both figurative and literal distance from Ukraine, and as the time passes I worry that an experience that was so monumental for millions of people will become another in a string of "Well, this one time I ..." stories for me. I'm not sure how to avoid that. For the longest time I wasn't sure how to write about it -- the politics of the situation are incredibly complicated. But I hope there's value in the simple act of being present in a place, trying to understand it, and telling what you've seen. I want it to stay with me. I want it to matter.


Things tend to fall apart. After a few people were killed, the league temporarily suspended games. We had our emergency team meeting. Then people were killed by the dozens. In the aftermath, the president completely disappeared from Kiev. Around the country, statues of Lenin were destroyed in celebrations 4. The value of the national currency dropped drastically. Rumors spread of banks running out of money, and in Mariupol there were lines around the block at each ATM. Exchange offices no longer accepted Ukrainian money for trades or gave any U.S. dollars out.

Yanukovych reappeared a few days later at a shopping center in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, which is the rough equivalent of President Obama disappearing from D.C. and showing up at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Saskatchewan. He insisted he was still the lawful president. Meanwhile, protesters from Maidan were walking around his mansion and touring his private zoo.

In Mariupol, the public remained unconvinced. "So what he has nice house, nice clothes -- he is president!" a friend told me. "Does not president of United States live in White House? Does not president of France live in palace, or mansion, or whatever? Our president should be comfortable!" The Russian television stations popular in the East continued to paint the Western rebels as fascists and terrorists. My Facebook feed was filled with demands for an East-West split, and posts calling for the creation of a new country called "Novo-Russiya" made the rounds. It seemed only a matter of time before Russia would respond.


The end came quickly. The chocolate factory was shuttered. Because of the unrest in the region threatening the supply chain, the steel companies reduced production, and for the first time all year my little street was rendered completely odorless. The solvency of the basketball club was in question. The company could no longer pay the steelworkers 5 making a few hundred dollars a month, much less basketball players making 50 times that. Then all of our foreign opponents refused to come to Ukraine for away games, and with protests starting in the East against the interim government, even our own security couldn't be guaranteed if we ventured across the country for domestic games.

Lenin
Statues of Vladimir Lenin were destroyed around Ukraine, including this one, in the city of Mariupol.

I was an uncomfortably close 50 miles from the Russian border; any further action Russia took would be sure to affect Mariupol. The only airport I could hope to get to in an emergency was an hour's drive away in Donetsk, and there were rumors that it would be taken over. In light of this, the club quickly moved to settle its affairs with all of the foreigners on the team and evacuate them while it was still possible. The rest of the season, when it restarted, would be played with the locals and a few players from the youth team 6.

I packed as quickly as possible and went out for one last night with my teammates, which ended with us all singing "Heroes" at a random karaoke bar in town, and left me with a hangover the next morning.

It was the morning of March 1. I had made it to the Donetsk airport. I had all my belongings from the year packed in three bags. Extra baggage charges and weight fees came to $600. The attendant gave me a receipt and pointed over to the airline office, which was a little farther down the hall. I made it about 50 feet when I was stopped by another worker, her supervisor. "I see you have a problem," he said. "I can help." He pulled out his phone, opened the calculator app, pretended to type some numbers. "She told you, what, $600? You can pay only $300, but here, now, in cash -- to me."

I processed this, still feeling the effects of the night before. We were in the middle of the hall, passengers were streaming by. The official office was a few yards away. I needed to leave Ukraine. Was this a bribe? I was going to pay a bribe. I sighed, and reached into my coat pocket to get out the money. Gave it to him. We didn't shake hands. We walked back to the airline desk, and he reached over his colleague's shoulder and began typing something into the computer. I wondered if she knew. I wondered if he would give her a cut later on. $300 goes a long way in Ukraine. I wondered if I would have done the same. He finished typing. "Everything is taken care of," he said. "Your baggage will be checked straight through."

I went through airport security, placing a much-needed liter of water on the X-ray belt that rolled past a guard who wasn't paid enough money to care. I sat down in the waiting area and drank the water. They announced our departure. I got up, threw away the empty bottle and got on the plane.

Coleman Collins is a semi-regular TrueHoop contributor who has played professional basketball in Europe and the D-League, after a brief stint with the Phoenix Suns. He is currently playing in France for BCM Gravelines.


Footnotes:

1: There's an old Ukrainian joke that I saw floating around the Internet after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in March:

One day, a Ukrainian was cleaning his gun in the woods when a group of people converged on him, exclaiming: "Did you hear that the Russians made it to space?"

"All of them?" he inquired.

"No."

And so he went back to cleaning his gun.

(Very few people in Mariupol would have found this funny.)

2: The Ukrainian national anthem is called "Ukraine Has Not Yet Died," and it was adopted by the protest movement as a revolutionary anthem. It is also very long, and when played before the final pregame warmups for our games, it was usually cut off after the first chorus. When we played domestic games outside of the East, though, the entire song would be played, and occasionally they'd need to add more time to the clock for warm-ups.

3: Around town it was rumored that the U.S. was bankrolling the protest movement, something that was not held against me personally but was presented as fact. I initially dismissed it as paranoia, but as events developed, the U.S. involvement was harder and harder to ignore. In December Sen. John McCain flew to Kiev and met with opposition leaders, posing for pictures with protesters. In early February our assistant secretary of state was taped suggesting a new prime minister for Ukraine, who coincidentally was installed immediately after Yanukovych's ouster. By the springtime, when Secretary of State John Kerry visited, CIA and FBI agents were "advising the new government" and Joe Biden's son joined the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, I was a little uncomfortable about what exactly my tax dollars were paying for.

4: This served as a sort of cathartic break for some people, as Lenin is still a powerful symbol of the Soviet Union. But for a number of reasons, fond memories of the Soviet past still exist, especially as compared with the economic situation in today's Ukraine. Mariupol's Lenin statue -- the one in front of the playground, next to the grocery store -- was pulled down two weeks ago.

5: When the pro-Russian rebellion started in Eastern Ukraine in the late spring, the factory workers played another role. After pro-Russian separatists took over the town police station, Mariupol was shelled by government forces. With the profitability of the factories in question, the steelworkers were "strongly encouraged" by management to band together and form a community guard to force the rebels out of Mariupol. Documented in the New York Times, the action is one of the reasons that Mariupol is not currently under siege, as other cities in the southeast are.

6: My Ukrainian teammates finished third in the league when it started back up. Azovmash Mariupol, as well as the nearby Donetsk basketball team, will not be competing in any leagues this year. The players whom I played with will be representing a still-unified Ukraine at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, having qualified for the competition for the first time in their country's history.