Ukrainian players, in the midst of war, are inspired by their homeland | WJHL

Ukraine’s national basketball team came together this summer tasked with boosting the morale of those left at home in a war-torn country.

Turns out it was the other way around.

A long list of summer matches – exhibition matches and World Cup qualifiers leading up to the ongoing European Championships – has not started well for Ukraine. Losses piled up, tension mounted, frustration was evident. Something had to change.

“That’s when we thought of our fans back home,” said Ukrainian center Alex Len, who plays for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. “And then we had a team meeting. We decided to get together as a team. There are a lot of things going on at home, and we said to ourselves that we had to play harder. Fight. Let’s fight, out of respect for the country.

Struggle. This is the Ukrainian way right now.

And the approach, simple as it sounds, worked. Ukraine are one of the last 16 teams remaining 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 – the players hope – gave people in their homeland, which has been reeling from the Russian invasion since February, another bit of national pride.

“It’s a really difficult time for Ukraine, for our country and also for our team,” said point guard Denys Lukashov. “It’s not easy to just focus on basketball knowing what’s going on in our country right now. We’re going to do everything to show the best game. We’re going to fight every game. That’s what I can promise.

Lukashov was asked if the Ukrainian team had a message for the world.

“Just stop this war,” he said. “Stop killing people.”

All matches in the knockout phase will be played in Berlin. It is now a knockout tournament, except for clubs that qualify for the semi-finals; the loser of these semi-finals will play in a match for third place before the championship match.

Saturday is Germany against Montenegro, Spain against Lithuania, Slovenia against Belgium and Turkey against France. Sunday is Greece against the Czech Republic, Finland against Croatia, Ukraine against Poland, Serbia against Italy. If Ukraine dominate Poland, a quarter-final match against the winner of Slovenia-Belgium awaits you; Slovenia, led by Luka Doncic, are the defending EuroBasket champions.

Ukraine, far from the blows entering the tournament, are now bursting with confidence.

“We are playing extremely hard,” Len said. ” And it shows. We believe anyone can beat anyone in this tournament.

Sports, especially on the international stage, are usually a rallying point for any country. Over the past seven months, they have been particularly poignant, both for Ukrainians and for those who support Ukrainians.

There have been countless examples. At the Beijing Olympics last winter, skeleton athlete Vladyslav Heraskevych held up a sign reading “No War in Ukraine” immediately after finishing a race on the track. At the World Indoor Championships in Athletics this spring, Australia’s Eleanor Patterson finished second to Ukraine’s Yaroslava Mahuchikh in the high jump – and showed fingernails painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag during the medal ceremony . Even Russian tennis player Daria Kasatkina, in a videotaped interview this summer, called on her native country to stop the war.

This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy and his top aides, pledging continued support and noting that he remains “very confident in Ukraine’s future because the Ukrainians are fighting for their homeland. This is their homeland, not Russia’s.

“I call home every day,” said Ukrainian center Artem Pustovyi, who has relatives living near the capital Kyiv. “Some days, I join my family. Some days I can’t. After a day, maybe two, they still let me know they’re fine.

It’s ironic that Ukraine’s first game in the knockout stage is against Poland. The countries share a border that is approximately 330 miles (about 530 kilometers) long. They have been allies, and perhaps never more than now, war-strengthened bonds.

The United Nations reports that almost 1.4 million Ukrainians have registered for temporary protection in Poland since the start of the war with Russia and that almost 6 million border crossings between Ukraine and Poland have taken place. place during this period.

The countries will be rivals on the basketball court on Sunday for a few hours. They will be allies before, during and after. Matches have been shown on Ukrainian television, and fans from the team’s home country can also watch streaming services.

“There’s pressure on us,” Len said. “But also, we don’t know what’s going to happen in a few months or a year. So there is pressure, but the real pressure is on these guys who are fighting for our freedom. We’re right here playing basketball. It’s a crazy situation. We don’t know if we will have a place to return to.

So far this summer, Ukraine have played in Latvia, Portugal, Iceland, Macedonia, Italy and now they are about to complete their EuroBasket journey in Germany.

The team is not at home. He doesn’t know when the chance to play there will return.

Until then, as the players promised each other they would in this team meeting, they fight – to honor those who really fight.

“I just want to say, stop the war in Ukraine,” said guard Issue Sanon. “Slava Ukrainiani. Slava Ukrainiani.

Translation: Glory to Ukraine.

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