On a dark December night in a large basketball arena in Kyiv, a group of teenagers paced up and down the court lit only by headlamps and the odd smartphone flashlight.
Players are used to blackouts, the result of waves of Russian shelling and missile barrage targeting Ukraine’s Civil and energy infrastructure.
For former NBA star Slava Medvedenko, the determination to continue playing in a building devastated by explosions and often plunged into darkness is a sign of hope.
“Basketball rejuvenates their eyes, gives them optimism, and trains their resilience. I realize my mission now is to get as many kids involved as possible.” basketball. Now the sport is becoming their psychotherapy. The kids were playing on the playground and forgot about a war,” said the 43-year-old, who helped rebuild the auditorium at the Avangard Sports Center.
Mr. Medvedenko played seven seasons in the NBA, winning championships in 2001 and 2002 with the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. When his playing career ended, he was offered a coaching job in the United States, but he chose to return to Ukraine.
Before the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, he was developing his basketball club in his hometown of Kyiv and was running for a city council seat in 2020. As Russian troops closed in on the capital, he, like many residents, joined the city’s territorial defense forces and evacuated his family to western Ukraine, This is considered more secure.
After the Russians failed to capture Kyiv and withdrew troops from northern Ukraine, he started several volunteer projects.he helps clean up Head to the ruined outskirts of Kyiv to deliver humanitarian aid to hard-hit residents loofah And to raise funds to buy military equipment for the Ukrainian army.
A sports center has also become a priority.
“On March 1, when a Russian missile hit the TV tower near Avangard, the explosion damaged all the windows and the parquet floor. The ceiling collapsed immediately after the explosion,” recalls Mr. Medvetenko.
Later, on the outskirts of Kyiv, he came across a bullet-riddled car with the bodies of civilians inside. “The car had big letters on it – KIDS – but that didn’t stop the Russians from shooting at it. It was horrific,” the father-of-three said.
So in August, he put his NBA championship ring up for auction, estimating to raise at least $80,000, and it ended up fetching more than $250,000. The money allowed him to repair the Avangard and arrange several sports camps for the kids.
His wife and children returned to Kyiv in late summer, and he tried to remain optimistic despite the shelling and missile strikes. He bought several generators and camp kitchen equipment in case the power went out.
He also started 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 as many Ukrainian kids as possible start playing sports,” Mr Medvedenko said.
Even his old friends from the Lakers donated to his project. Basketballs emblazoned with NBA team colors and logos can be seen bouncing up and down the court at Avangard, even in the dim light of some smartphones and headlamps.
Globe and Mail Special