Archdeacon: Former WSU star, NBA product sad, angry over threat to Ukraine homeland

SPECIAL TO THE DAYTON DAILY NEWS--Cleveland Cavaliers center Vitaly Potapenko (52) loses the ball as he is hit from behind by Boston Celtics' Dino Radja in the first quarter of an exhibition game Thursday, Oct. 17, 1996, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Credit: AP

Combined ShapeCaption
SPECIAL TO THE DAYTON DAILY NEWS--Cleveland Cavaliers center Vitaly Potapenko (52) loses the ball as he is hit from behind by Boston Celtics' Dino Radja in the first quarter of an exhibition game Thursday, Oct. 17, 1996, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Credit: AP

Former Wright State standout a native of Ukraine

He was in the car late Monday afternoon, on his way to the game at the FedExForum, but his thoughts weren’t on his Memphis Grizzlies’ match-up with the visiting San Antonio Spurs that night.

Vitaly Potapenko was thinking about the deadly nightmare unfolding in his homeland of Ukraine.

“It makes me sad and concerned…and angry,” said the Grizzlies’ assistant coach who was one of the greatest, most colorful and embraced Wright State basketball players in history.

He was called “The Ukraine Train” and for two memorable seasons he carried the freight and good fortune of the Raiders.

Now he’s carrying a burden that is heavier and has far less promise.

“We are both Slavic nations,” he said. “Ukrainians live in Russia and Russians live in Ukraine. I had a lot of Russian friends growing up. I spoke Russian with them and Ukrainian with my parents at home.

“This is not people against people. The Russian government decided to invade another country (like Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014) for no real reason, just its own personal agenda.”

The agenda of Russian president Vladimir Putin is to crush Ukraine into submission and keep it from joining the European Union, a move that could entice other former Soviet states to do the same.

Putin has unleased the biggest military mobilization in Europe since World War II and, seven days in, the assault is becoming more brutal and deadly by the hour.

According to United Nations figures on Monday, over a half-million people already had fled Ukraine. Several hundred people had been killed and that was before Russia began sending rockets into residential areas.

Potapenko was torn Monday. On one hand he felt lucky. His wife, Madina, and their three children live in Memphis and his parents moved from Kyiv to Maryland few years back. So did his sister, Luda.

“My sister just got back a month ago,” he said. “If she’d stayed, she’d have been in a war zone.”

He said he still has relatives living in Ukraine and his best friend growing up is there, too.

“My parents still have good friends there,” he said. “This really hurts them. They watch the TV reports every day and it definitely affects them mentally.”

He’s been uplifted by people from the Dayton area and Wright State reaching out to him the past few days.

Combined ShapeCaption
Vitaly Potapenko is a former professional basketball player, and now coach, who got his start playing for Wright State. After his time at the university, he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1996, and eventually went on to play for the Boston Celtics, Seattle Supersonics, and Sacramento Kings. He now serves as assistant coach for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

Credit: Otto Kitsinger

Vitaly Potapenko is a former professional basketball player, and now coach, who got his start playing for Wright State. After his time at the university, he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1996, and eventually went on to play for the Boston Celtics, Seattle Supersonics, and Sacramento Kings. He now serves as assistant coach for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

Credit: Otto Kitsinger

Combined ShapeCaption
Vitaly Potapenko is a former professional basketball player, and now coach, who got his start playing for Wright State. After his time at the university, he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1996, and eventually went on to play for the Boston Celtics, Seattle Supersonics, and Sacramento Kings. He now serves as assistant coach for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

Credit: Otto Kitsinger

Credit: Otto Kitsinger

He talked about Derek Watkins, his former WSU roommate, teammate and confidante, who now sells insurance in Springboro, is married and has two children. There’s also Jim Brown, his former assistant coach at WSU and now one of the Raiders’ radio broadcasters.

He mentioned Oregon District residents – Marilyn Allen, who with her companion, the late Jerry Rapp, looked after Potapenko, as did noted attorney and musician David Greer and his wife Dulie.

Potapenko said several people from the NBA also have offered support and “it’s heart-warming.”

Since leaving Wright State for the NBA following the 1995-96 season, Potapenko, a first-round pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, played in the league for 11 seasons and now is in his ninth season as an NBA assistant coach.

Two Ukrainians play in the NBA – Sacramento center Alex Len and Toronto forward Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk – and they released a joint statement last week condemning the war.

Other Ukrainian athletes – retired and active – have done that and sometimes much more.

Former heavyweight champ, Olympic gold medal winner and Ukrainian soldier, Vitali Klitschko has been the mayor of Kyiv since 2014. He’s been an outspoken critic of Putin and while rallying homefolks to defend and the international community to donate, he said he will fight if need be.

His brother Wladimir, who was unbeaten in 11 years as a heavyweight champ, also has a college degree and speaks four languages – has been just as vocal.

Vasily Lomachenko – the two-time Olympic gold medalist, world champ at three different weight divisions and considered by many to be the best pound for pound pro boxer in the game – just put an upcoming fight on hold and returned from Greece to Odessa, picked up an assault rifle and joined a defense battalion.

Similarly, current heavyweight champ Oleksandr Usyk returned from London, where he was preparing for what could be the most lucrative fight of his career with Anthony Joshua and instead took up arms in Kyiv.

Around the world sports federations, leagues and teams are repudiating Putin and refusing to compete against Russians, allow them to take part in international competitions or let the country host major sporting events.

Formula I has canceled the 2022 Russian Grand Prix and FIFA has banned Russia from seeking to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

On a video posted on Twitter, Usyk had a message for invading Russian soldiers:

“You are not at war with our government, our army. You are at war with the people. This is our land. We are at home.”

From Kyiv to Wright State

Before coming to Wright State, Potapenko lived in a small apartment in Kyiv with his parents, his older sister and his grandmother.

WSU coach Ralph Underhill – who learned of the 6-foot-10 and then nearly 300-pound teenager through a Ukrainian friend – was one of the only coaches to show interest in Potapenko and won his family over when he went to Kyiv to recruit him.

Potapenko adjusted to life in the U.S., primarily through the help of Watkins, the former Valley View standout who was a WSU walk-on, and Rapp, a retired attorney for Mead, who treated him like another son.

The first thing Rapp gave Potapenko was a dictionary. When it was time for the NBA, he helped him find a reputable agent and a financial manager.

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06/28/98; 6/27/98; Former Wright State basketball player and Cleveland Cavalier Vitaly Potapenko gives back to the community with the V and His Friends Basketball Camp held on the grounds ot East Dayton Boys and Girls Club in 1998. DDN FILE PHOTO

Credit: Eustacio Humphrey

06/28/98; 6/27/98; Former Wright State basketball player and Cleveland Cavalier Vitaly Potapenko gives back to the community with the V and His Friends Basketball Camp held on the grounds ot East Dayton Boys and Girls Club in 1998. DDN FILE PHOTO

Credit: Eustacio Humphrey

Combined ShapeCaption
06/28/98; 6/27/98; Former Wright State basketball player and Cleveland Cavalier Vitaly Potapenko gives back to the community with the V and His Friends Basketball Camp held on the grounds ot East Dayton Boys and Girls Club in 1998. DDN FILE PHOTO

Credit: Eustacio Humphrey

Credit: Eustacio Humphrey

While Potapenko – who eventually sculpted his body to 273 pounds – was a formidable talent on the court, he also was quite a wit off of it.

The WSU team used to say the Lord’s Prayer before a game. He asked Watkins to write down the words so he could learn them. In return, he wrote out a sheet of Russian curse words his roommate could learn.

When he saw a newspaper photo of Underhill yelling, Potapenko cut it out and pasted it on a cabinet right in front of the toilet so he and Watkins could look at their coach as they went about their business.

On the court Potapenko was no nonsense. He was named the newcomer of the year his first season in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and both his seasons at WSU he won first team, all-league honors.

Although he played in just 55 games for WSU, he scored 1,109 points and averaged 20.2 points and 6.8 rebounds a game.

The two games I remember most were his 1994 performance in WSU’s 74-53 rout of the Dayton Flyers – he had 23 points, 12 rebounds, blocked three shots, altered a dozen more and held the Flyers three big men, Chip Hare, Marko Pikaar and Chris Daniels, to a combined zero points and four rebounds – and the rough and tumble game a year later when he took a swing at Miami University’s physical inside presence Devin Davis.

Potapenko invited me to join him in the green room at the 1996 NBA Draft in East Rutherford, New Jersey. We were chatting at the table when the Cavaliers made him the 12th overall pick, one ahead of teenager Kobe Bryant, who sat at a nearby table that night.

Potapenko played 2 ½ seasons with the Cavs and was traded to the Boston Celtics, where he signed a six-year, $33 million contract. Later he played for Seattle and Sacramento.

Before Memphis, he coached a season with the Indiana Pacers, worked in the NBA G and D leagues and was an assistant with Cleveland when it won the NBA crown in 2016.

Visiting Russia and Ukraine

In 1992, a couple of years before Potapenko came to Wright State, I went to Russia and the Ukraine to write columns for the Dayton Daily News about life there after the break-up of the Soviet Union the year prior.

I took an overnight train from Moscow to Kyiv – 13 hours in cramped sleeping quarters with two strangers, one of whom was a grandmother, Nina Uretia.

She spoke no English, so the man on a bottom bunk – a guy with lots of gold teeth and a few words of English – became the conduit for all our conversation. We shared hard bread, salami, lard they sliced like cheese and a few stories.

As a teenager during World War II, Nina had been abducted by Nazi soldiers and sent to Germany to work in a factory. She escaped after three years. She said she was lucky to have survived.

When we finally pulled into the Kyiv station, her husband was waiting for her. He held three red carnations.

As I was leaving, she brought him over to meet me and surprised me when she used her first two English words. She nodded to me and said: “My friend.”

I’m thinking about her these days and I’m especially thinking about Vitaly Potapenko.

“My friend.”

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