Utah family steers Jazzman Fesenko in right direction
The business always has been more about customer service than car service for Russ and Terri Ridge, which explains the shoe rack, the mini-fridge and the fruit stand with bananas, apples and oranges in the bedroom of Kyrylo Fesenko's downtown Salt Lake City apartment.
There is the 52-inch television Russ installed in the living room, with an Xbox and PlayStation, the controllers neatly wrapped off to each side. There are the Valentine's Day decorations Terri hung, soon to be replaced by Easter ones.
There is the closet organized library-perfect with an array of dress shirts, even the "Friends" calendar and framed Jennifer Aniston magazine covers for Fesenko, who knows every episode of the show in not one but two languages.
A year after coming to the Ridges in search of a driver, the 22-year-old Jazz center from Ukraine has found direction. Through their company, 5 Star Platinum, the Holladay couple with four children of their own have become Fesenko's surrogate parents in Utah.
"It started out really small and really simple," Terri said, "but there were needs that weren't being met."
Although Fesenko has played sparingly in two seasons since coming to the Jazz -- and currently is on assignment with Orem in the NBA Development League -- the Ridges might have come to the rescue just in time to turn around Fesenko's career.
They cook for him, clean his apartment, run his errands, make sure he's on time to practice and games, even buy his clothes and pack his bags before road trips. No wonder Fesenko credits the Ridges with 30 percent of his growth as a player this season.
"I'm right now feel really, really, really comfortable -- really comfortable -- and probably that's why I have chance to concentrate only on the basketball," Fesenko said. "I see myself pretty successful right now."
"It's an interesting dynamic to say the least, but I think it's good for him," said Jazz teammate Jarron Collins, who lives across the hall from Fesenko. He described the Ridges as "very genuine, very nice people," who even bring him fruit slices on occasion.
A Utah 'Mom and Dad'
Fesenko came to the Jazz as a 20-year-old second-round draft pick in 2007 with a three-year, $2.4 million contract, no driver license and no support system.
The Ridges remember the pizza boxes and piles of laundry scattered in Fesenko's apartment the first time they saw it last March.
"I wouldn't want my son halfway across the world with nobody," Terri said. "When he got picked up by the Jazz, he's basically here. English is his third language. He doesn't drive, he doesn't really have friends except for the people on the team, and there's no family here."
The Ridges have run their own car service for 13 years, driving a constellation of movie, music and sports stars. Nothing has even approached the relationship with Fesenko, though.
He jokingly calls them "mom and dad" and came over to their house for Christmas and the Super Bowl. They took him to Las Vegas for last month's NBA All-Star break.
"My kids think he's their older brother," said Terri.
Although he came to the Jazz without a driver license, Fesenko vowed to take lessons during his first summer in Utah. He never followed through, however, and spent the first part of his rookie season bumming rides from teammates and calling cabs.
The problem grew when Fesenko had to start commuting to Orem after he was sent to the D-League's Utah Flash. Sometimes coaches had to pick him up. Other times he was stranded for hours. Often he was late to practice. Patience was exhausted.
Stu Lash, one of Fesenko's representatives, stepped in to arrange for a car service. He was referred by the Jazz to the Ridges, who had a relationship with EnergySolutions Arena officials. "Deep down inside, I had a good feeling about them," Lash said.
That was last March. The Ridges started driving Fesenko, who quickly did away with the formality of their dressing up for him or holding open doors. Soon Fesenko asked them to come up in the morning before practice, just to make sure he was awake.
"Now they have my keys," he said.
'He walks the walk'
Fesenko's mother lived with him briefly last season but has not returned to the U.S. He had a chef coming over to prepare a week's worth of meals at a time, but the food often would go bad, with Fesenko ordering pizza three and four nights a week.
"This year, no fast-food at all," said Fesenko. "I haven't eaten fast-food since the summer league, when I was just like forced to eat."
Before Fesenko returned for the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league, Terri called Lash and asked if she could clean the apartment and leave some groceries. The relationship has grown almost by the day.
"It's the only time we've ever done anything like this," Russ said.
The biggest step came in overhauling Fesenko's wardrobe, which was a subject of much teasing from his teammates. Terri went everywhere, from Nordstrom to big-and-tall stores, to find the dress shirts -- at least 20 -- that now fill his closet.
"He walks the walk now," Terri said, "and I think he feels better because of it."
The Ridges' mission is simple. They want to create an environment where the only thing Fesenko has to focus on is basketball. They also believe the more he feels like a professional off the court, the more he'll play like one on it.
"We wanted to get him to the point where in his mind he was an NBA player," Russ said.
So it is that Terri cooks lunch for Fesenko on practice days and dinner after games. Her proudest accomplishment was creating a Willy Wonka costume for the 7-foot-1 Fesenko to wear to Deron Williams' Halloween party.
"It's hard for me to imagine my life without them," Fesenko said.
A 180-degree turn
Many young NBA players have a family member or close friend who moves in with them and helps take care of the day-to-day details, Lash said. In Fesenko's case, the Ridges are providing that service -- and asking relatively little in return.
"They're just nice people," Lash said. "I don't think they have any agenda. They just get along, and everybody that knows Fes knows he's a great guy to be around."
Although opportunities to play have been rare, Fesenko did have a breakthrough 12-point, 11-rebound effort Dec. 27 against Houston and Yao Ming. Most significantly, he has dropped from 315 pounds and 14.5 percent body fat to 296 pounds and 9 percent.
Jones said Fesenko's entire approach to the game has taken a 180-degree turn. From being "just kind of a big kid in practice" last season, Fesenko came early, stayed late, and was one of the hardest workers during his previous stint with the Flash.
"We really, really want him to succeed," Terri said. "He has grown so much in just the little time that we've known him, but he has huge potential."
There are no guarantees Fesenko will return to the Jazz next season -- the team holds a contract option for 2009-10 -- but the Ridges have grown so close to Fesenko, they at least would talk about following him to another team if necessary.
"If he were to have to go somewhere else, we would consider it," Terri said, adding, "He's like part of our family, really."