PHOENIX (AP) Alex Len’s grandparents can hear the gunfire from their home in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been in fierce fighting with Ukrainian forces.
Local police have abandoned his hometown, leaving gangs to roam the streets and terrorize residents.
A half-world away, the 21-year-old center is showing he belongs in the NBA, displaying the skills that led the Phoenix Suns chose him fifth overall in the 2013 draft.
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”When I play it’s like a different world, just basketball,” he said. ”Definitely off the court it’s sad. …Two years ago it was one country. Now all of a sudden people divide, separate themselves, like we’re different.”
The violence stems from the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich in February of last year, with Parliament naming a new leader for the country and voting to end Russian as Ukraine’s second language.
As Russia annexed the former Ukrainian Crimea, Russian-backed separatists clashed with Ukrainian forces, eventually seizing much of the area in the southeast part of the country where Len grew up.
He is from Antratstit, a coal mining town of about 55,000 some 90 miles from the Russian border and 130 miles from Donetsk. With nearly 1 million residents, it is the largest city held by the separatists.
He has brought his mother to live with him. His grandparents came for a short time, but the culture change was too much for them, he said, so they returned home.
”My grandparents right now are right in the middle of a war zone,” he said. ”I tried to get them to stay over here, but you know how old people are. For them it was too big a change.”
No one in his family has been hurt in the fighting, Len said, ”thank God.”
As a youngster, Len wanted to be a gymnast before his school’s basketball coach said he belonged on the court.
Len kept growing and growing. He played for Ukraine in the European under-18 championships, then moved across the ocean to the University of Maryland. In two seasons with the Terrapins, he had some big games. He scored 23 and grabbed 12 boards against Kentucky. His tip-in at the buzzer beat North Carolina State.
But he never made even third-team all-ACC.
Still, the 7-footer was a prized commodity in the 2014 draft.
An injury kept him from pre-draft workouts, but he was high on the list of a handful of teams. The Suns chose him as the No. 5 pick overall.
”He’s 7-1, he’s agile, he’s really long,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. ”He really cares about being good. I think with a lot of big guys sometimes they play the game because they’re big and it beats getting a real job. But he really cares. It means a lot to him to be a good player.”
Two ankle surgeries slowed the young big man in his rookie season, when he played in just 42 games.
”I was in and out,” Len said. ”I would play some games then I would be out a long time. … There was just a lot going on last year. It was probably one of the toughest years of my life.”
As he struggled to overcome his injuries and fit in with the Suns, war broke out back home. Before one game last season, Len wrote ”pray for Ukraine” on his basketball shoes.
He said he talks regularly with family and friends. The tales he hears are harrowing, and a million miles from the privileged world of an NBA player.
”My cousin, he had a crazy story,” Len said. ”He said when the bombing started, he ran to get his cat from his apartment because he was trying to get out of his city. While he was running he was in shock, just amazing, bombs everywhere. He grabbed the cat, ran back to the car and drove away. He was driving so fast.”
After speeding out of the city and arriving at his family’s home, Len said, his cousin came inside to the shocked look of his mother.
”He walked in and his mom saw blood on his pants,” Len said. ”She was so scared but it wasn’t his blood. It was from somebody who got hit while he was running.”
Len has managed to put the distraction of war aside and continue to get better on the court.
His improvement was obvious from the start this season, and coach Jeff Hornacek put him in the starting lineup on Dec. 15.
Since becoming a starter, he’s averaging 2.2 blocked shots per game, tied for sixth-most in the NBA in that span. His 2.7 blocks per minute on the floor rank fifth in the league. He blocked six shots against Philadelphia on Jan. 2.
And back home, the fighting goes on despite a supposed cease fire in a war Len knew was ”getting worse each day.”
He chooses no side.
”I’m Ukrainian and I won’t go against Russia, too. I’m right in the middle,” Len said. ”I just want peace for everybody. I just don’t want people to die.”