The Ukraine is Not Weak

Alex Len was born and bred in Eastern Europe—and he still reps for his country every time he steps on the floor.
by October 08, 2015

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.

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