OAKLAND – Early Sunday, the New York Times reported that violence erupted in Ukraine at separate rallies backing and opposing the secession of Crimea, including a demonstration where pro-Russia supporters attacked with whips, while the Washington Post talked of another surge of Russian troops into the disputed peninsula.
And then Alex Len played basketball.
It has been like this for weeks now. Watch the news – sometimes via the United States networks, sometimes from Ukranian media, sometimes from Russian outlets – Skype with his family in eastern Ukraine, an area so far safely away from trouble. Play center for the Suns. Wake up the next day and continue the conflicted journey all over again.
Sunday, it was thinking about his homeland in conflict, hoping he will convince his grandparents to turn their planned visit to the United States in a couple weeks into something more long term and maybe even permanent, all before starting for the third game in a row as Miles Plumlee continued to be sidelined by a sprained right knee. The angst of worrying about family and friends, followed by 15 minutes against the Warriors at Oracle Arena with three points, three rebounds and two fouls.
“My family’s still over there,” Len said. “My grandparents. I still talk to them. It’s really confusing too, because if you watch Russian, American and Ukrainian news, everybody says different things about what’s going on over there. I’m not really into politics. For me, personally, I just want everybody to kind of stay together. It’s crazy. The country is just falling apart.”
Len was raised in Ukraine and played for the national team at the junior and, currently, senior levels, while also spending two seasons at the University of Maryland and turning into a possibility for the No. 1 pick in the draft thanks to a breakout 2012-13. The Suns took him fifth amid concerns about problems with both ankles that would follow him into his rookie season.
No Ukranian-born player had ever been taken higher, bettering Vitaly Potapenko going 12th to the Cavaliers in 1996. Len instantly became a major part of the Phoenix rebuilding, even with surgeries on both ankles that would cost him summer league and slow his progress into the regular season, and even as acquiring Plumlee and Gerald Green from the Pacers for Luis Scola turned into an important part of the Suns far exceeding most expectations. The important thing was that Len was getting more healthy, with the right ankle doing well and the left improving by the month, to where he is down to occasional pain.
Now, though, he spends hours at a time with his mind in another part of the world. Getting on the court, for games or practices, has become a refuge as Len has increased his workload to 9.4 minutes in 29 games.
“I worry about my parents. I talk to them almost every day on Skype,” he said, although his mother has spent a lot of time in Phoenix this season helping Len adjust to NBA life in a new city. “My grandparents. I ask them what’s going on, what’s the news. They update me every day, call me and tell me what’s going on.”
Len isn’t even sure if Ukraine, in the same Group C as the United States, will have a team for the World Cup of Basketball beginning Aug. 30 in Spain. He isn’t sure what Ukraine will have in ways more important than sports.
And even if there is a team, he is unsure he will play at a time when the focus will be in getting healthy and being ready for the Suns, his priority. No final decision has been made and he plans to meet with Ukranian coach Mike Fratello after the season. Len did say he will “most likely” leave the decision up to Phoenix.