Anastasiya Ringis and Vladyslav Golovin
The Globe and Mail
Dec 14, 2022
In a large basketball auditorium in Kyiv, on a dark December evening, a group of teenagers make their way up and down a court lit only by headlamps and the odd smartphone flashlight.
The players have become accustomed to blackouts, the result of waves of Russian shelling and missile barrages targeting Ukraine’s civilian and energy infrastructure.
For former NBA star Slava Medvedenko, such determination to keep on playing, in a building badly damaged by explosions and regularly plunged into darkness, is a sign of hope. “Basketball returns life to their eyes, gives them optimism, trains resilience. And I realized that my task now is to involve as many children as possible in basketball. Now the sport is becoming psychotherapy for them. Children, playing on the playground, forget that there is a war going on,” said the 43-year-old, who has helped rebuild the auditorium, part of the Avangard Sports Centre.
Mr. Medvedenko played seven seasons in the NBA, winning championships in 2001 and 2002 alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers. When his career as a player ended, he was offered a coaching job in the U.S., but he chose to return to Ukraine.
Before the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, he was developing his own basketball club in Kyiv, his hometown, and had also run for a seat on city council in 2020. When Russian troops were approaching the capital, like many residents he joined the city’s territorial defence unit and evacuated his family to western Ukraine, which was considered safer.
After the Russians failed to capture Kyiv and withdrew their forces from northern Ukraine, he started several volunteer projects. He helped clean up Kyiv’s ruined suburbs, delivered humanitarian aid to the residents of heavily damaged Bucha and collected money to buy military equipment for the Ukrainian army.
Mr. Medvedenko coaches a charity basketball game in support of Ukraine at the Kolo Sports Arena, in Warsaw, Poland in July. The sports centre became a priority as well. “On March 1, when a Russian missile hit the TV tower, close to the Avangard, an explosion damaged all the windows and the parquet. The ceiling simply fell down after the explosion,” Mr. Medvedenko recalled.
Later, in a Kyiv suburb, he came across a car riddled with bullet holes, the bodies of civilians still inside. “There were big letters on this car – KIDS – but that did not stop Russians to shoot at it. It was very scary,” said the father of three.
So, in August, he put his NBA championship rings up for auction and, expecting to raise at least US$80,000, managed to get more than US$250,000 for them. The money allowed him to repair the Avangard and arrange several sports camps for kids as well.
His wife and kids returned to Kyiv in late summer, and he tries to stay optimistic despite the frequent shelling and missile attacks. He has bought several generators and camping kitchen equipment to be ready for blackouts.
He has also set up a new charity with the help of a friend, Ukrainian sports journalist Mykola Vasylkov. The Fly High Foundation aims to restore damaged gymnasiums in schools across Ukraine. “I have a dream – to help to start sports activity for as many Ukrainian kids as possible,” Mr. Medvedenko said.
Even his old friends from the Lakers have donated to his project. Basketballs bearing the NBA team’s colours and logo could be seen bouncing up and down the court of the Avangard, even in the dim light from a few smartphones and headlamps.