Ukraine and The Czar

After the Ukraine National Team’s kickoff meeting and dinner in Kiev, we chartered a flight to Klaipėda, which is the third largest city in Lithuania and the site of our training camp. Klaipėda will also be the location of Group D’s opening round competition in the 2011 European Basketball Championships beginning on August 31st.

We’ve encountered many more English-speaking people here than in Kiev, so it’s been easy to navigate our way around. Practices are held at a gymnasium located inside LCC International University’s multipurpose sports hall named Michealsen Centras. Upon arrival in Klaipėda we took a bus to our hotel, unloaded and headed straight to the gym for our first official team practice.

There is no life outside of basketball when you’re in training camp. We’ve had double sessions everyday – the first after breakfast followed by another in the early evening. Not only does our coaching staff work both of the 3-hour practices, we also have to plan them and review the practice videos afterwards in addition to conducting various other meetings. The players and coaches eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together as a team everyday as well. When you add up all the hours there’s just about enough time to get some rest before waking up to do it all over again.

The players have worked extremely hard all week. In addition to skills development, our primary focus has been conditioning in order to make sure they get into the kind of shape required to play and compete at a high level. Initially we were told that we can have 14 members on the squad: 12 who can suit up for each game along with two additional teammates on the bench in street clothes who can be rotated into the active roster as the tournament progresses. However, this week we were informed that we may only be able to keep 12 players total.

We have 17 guys trying out for the 12-14 available spots on the Ukraine National Team. In order to determine who makes the cut, our coaching staff must first learn what each individual player is capable of doing. Then the next step is to experiment with different combinations in order to see which group works best together and is most productive.

As we begin to install our offense and defense I look forward to watching our team steadily improve. With the first week of training camp under our belts it will be good to see some new faces on the court Monday when we play a friendly scrimmage against a touring team in Lithuania.

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Thanks to Oleksiy Naumov from the Ukrainian Basketball Federation for sharing some of the photos he snapped during training camp this week. 

Ukraine and The Czar

Prior to the start of the official training camp for the Ukraine National Team we invited all prospective players to work out with some of the coaches in order to get a head start on conditioning and to get familiar with the various drills we run. Nets full-time strength and conditioning coach Rich Dalatri came on board to help our players with skills development and to get them in shape for tournament competition. Denis Zhuravlev, a former player and the head coach of Dnipro in the Ukrainian pro league, is doing double duty as assistant coach and team interpreter. We had a great turnout. On a given day six to eight guys showed up for the week of voluntary sessions that took place in Kiev and Odessa.

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Ukraine and The Czar

Video coordinator Daisuke Yoshimoto aka Dice was the first member of our coaching staff to arrive in Kiev. We visited three potential practice facilities in order to determine which would be the best for our workouts with the Ukraine National Team members scheduled to arrive this week. After finishing up some more work on the playbook we had dinner at a great Japanese restaurant named San Tori in honor of Dice’s arrival.

We set up at the hotel restaurant for Tuesday’s first team meeting. That evening Ukrainian basketball player Oleksiy Pecherov, who played with AJ Milano in Italy this past season, dropped by the Goodman Steak House to say hello. Afterwards we took a stroll through Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), the city’s central plaza and a hub of public political activity in Kiev. Dice snapped a picture of me in front of the towering monument to the protecting Slavic goddess Berehynia, which was erected in 2001.

Bulls assistant coach Ed Pinckney and Knicks assistant coach Kenny Atkinson arrived the following day. A veteran of the NBA, Pinckney helped coach Chicago to the best record in the East this year and famously led the Villanova Wildcats to the NCAA title over the heavily favored Hoyas in 1985. Atkinson played professionally in Italy, France, Germany and Spain from 1991 to 2004 and brings his invaluable international experience to our bench.

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Ukraine and The Czar

On my second day in Kiev I woke up to thousands of protesters rallying outside the Verkhovna Rada building prior to the parliamentary vote on a pension reform bill, which wound up passing. That afternoon Sasha Volkov and I took a private plane from Kiev to Odessa so we could watch the Ukraine Under-25 National Team practice. Later we found an Italian restaurant for dinner, so I felt at home right away.

On Friday we had two workout sessions with six of the Ukraine National Team players who joined us in Odessa to start getting ready for the upcoming training camp. We caught another Under-25 practice before flying out to Crimea for Saturday’s celebration of President Viktor Yanukovych’s 61st birthday.

The following morning I woke up and drove from the resort town Alushta to President Yanukovych’s summer home in Foros along with Sasha Volkov, Sasha Larin, Slava Medvedenko and the captain of our Ukraine National Team Sergei Lischuk. We had the honor of meeting President Yanukovych and presented him with a birthday gift. Before catching our return flight to Odessa we made another stop to watch Sasha Volkov’s daughter Alexandra practice at the rhythmic gymnastics training camp. She is only twelve years old and already stands 5’9” tall – wow! It was evident that Alexandra inherited her father’s athleticism and is going to be something special.

Afterwards we flew back to Odessa to watch the Under-25 Team practice again. We also had an opportunity to take in some of the local sites before returning to Kiev. We visited the famous Potemkin Stairs (officially known today as the Primorsky Stairs), which were originally constructed from 1837–1841 and are now comprised of 192 stairs with ten landings. Considered a formal entrance into the city, the steps were made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin. I also got a photo with Ivan Martos’s statue of Duc de Richelieu, who served as Odessa’s governor between 1803–1814 and is considered one of the city’s founding fathers.

On Sunday I slept in and grabbed a late brunch with Sasha Larin and his son Zjenya, an outstanding young man who just came home after studying abroad in Boston, MA for six weeks. After brunch I returned to the hotel to set up a new flat screen and DVD player in our meeting room in order to prepare for the arrival of my assistant coaches. Then I caught a 5:00 PM mass in Polish since I had missed the earlier service that was in English. When mass ended I walked for about an hour back to my hotel, showered and joined Sasha Volkov for dinner at his neighbors’ home. By the end of our food and wine-filled evening I was ready to turn in, but had to spend some time working on the team playbook before bed.

On the Road with Mike