The Ukraine is Not Weak

SLAM: Where did you grow up?

Alex Len: I grew up in a small town in the Ukraine called Anthracite. It’s probably about 60,000 people. They’re really hard working, and the No. 1 thing people do there is coal mining.

SLAM: When you were growing up, did you think you would be a coal miner?

AL: I had no idea what I was going to be, but my father and grandfather both worked in the mines. It was definitely something I didn’t want to do, because of my height. My mom was like, “You want to be crawling there in the mines?” I was like, Nah. So she said I had to work hard in school. Around that time, I started growing really fast—and I started doing gymnastics. After that, a basketball coach saw me and pulled me into basketball.

SLAM: Are you parents really tall?

AL: My dad is like 6-3; my mom is 5-10. My height is from out of nowhere. For like four years, I would go to gymnastics, then 90 minutes of chess club. I was the youngest and the tallest in the group, though, and the coach told me I wouldn’t be any good in gymnastics. But I always liked it—I liked the jumping, flipping and acrobatic stuff—so I kept going until the basketball coach found me.

SLAM: How old were you?

AL: Twelve or 13. I played a little ball before that for fun, but it wasn’t serious. I was mostly into soccer because we didn’t really have basketball courts as much as we did soccer fields.

SLAM: You started taking basketball seriously at 12. What did that mean?

AL: Three days a week I would go practice, and that was mostly a scrimmage. We’d play fives and have fun. One year, when I was 14, we went to a state championship and people saw the potential in me. After that, I got recruited to a bigger school in a different town. That’s when I got serious. I had practices twice a day.

SLAM: What was the goal?

AL: There was no way I was thinking about America or the NBA. It was just a chance to get out of town and do something different. When I was 16, I went to a few tournaments with my national team and played good. That’s when I started getting recruited.

SLAM: Did you follow the NBA as a kid?

AL: Oh, yeah. I was a big Celtics fan. The year they won [2008], I watched every single game.

SLAM: What was it like when you came to America for the first time?

AL: It was cool. I was recruited heavily by Maryland. By the time I got there for a visit, though, the guy who had recruited me had gone to Virginia Tech. So I visited both schools, but I had already made up my mind and went to Maryland.

SLAM: There probably weren’t many Terps who spoke Ukrainian. What was it like when you got there?

AL: It was fun, because it’s basketball. The language, originally, was a barrier. Being new to the country was a barrier. I learned fast, though.

SLAM: When did you realize you belonged?

AL: After my freshman year, I saw a bunch of the UNC guys get drafted. When I saw that I was like, I’ve played against all those guys! That’s when I thought I’d have a shot.

SLAM: This past year was a tumultuous one for the Ukraine. What is that like for you?

AL: It’s tough. My grandparents are still there, and I’m actually from the area where the war is going on. A few months ago, my grandparents were here and I tried getting them to stay, but they are set in their ways and didn’t want to leave.

SLAM: Do you talk about it with your teammates?

AL: Yeah, whoever asks, I tell them what’s happening. It’s hard, though. They don’t really show it on the news, and every channel is saying something different, so it’s confusing.

SLAM: When you play, do you feel like you’re repping for your whole country?

AL: Definitely. I’m honored, being out here, representing my country.

Tzvi Twersky is the Head of Basketball at Stance Socks and a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @ttwersky.