Ukrainian Kyrylo Fesenko, the normally extremely jovial former Utah Jazz player, is about midway through a phone interview on the Russian invasion of his home country.
Suddenly, he turns the tables. He starts asking the questions.
“Do you know where is the closest bomb shelter for you?”
I do not. Neither did Fesenko’s family, living in Dnipro, Ukraine, until last week.
“Do you know what to do when you hear the sound of an airstrike alarm?”
I absolutely do not. And again, neither did Fesenko’s family until last week.
“For my mom, for my stepfather, it is a new normal,” Fesenko says. “They are basically running back and forth to the bomb shelter every time that happens.”
‘The sad reality’
Fesenko’s name is probably unfamiliar to newcomers to Jazz fandom, but for a critical period in the 2000s, he was a franchise cult hero. The No. 38 pick in the 2007 NBA draft, the Jazz acquired Fesenko as a huge, promising 7-foot-1 center with significant room to grow in his game.
But while he didn’t stick around forever in the NBA — most second-round picks don’t — he made the fanbase fall in love with him off the court, a goofball in every way. He dyed his hair blonde, irking Jerry Sloan. He impressed fans with the enthusiasm he put in his dance moves in a rookie-hazing induced performance. He told fans about how he loved Utah, and how he wanted to compete for the “sexiest Jazzman” position with then-heartthrob Kyle Korver. He smoked. He dressed up as Willy Wonka for Halloween.
The pinnacle of his career came in 2010. Thanks to starting center Mehmet Okur’s Achilles tear, Fesenko actually started nine playoff games that season, and did a surprisingly decent job. His reported 9-foot-5 standing reach made him an effective rim-protecting center against some lineups, and while his offensive moves weren’t balletic, they did sometimes lead to two points. At one point, as the Jazz got another unexpected win in the first-round series they were expected to fall short in, Denver star Carmelo Anthony couldn’t help but curse his name.
“Fesenko. Fesenko?” Anthony muttered in a postgame news conference, in sheer disbelief. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s playing extremely well. But ... Fesenko.”
He never could keep that starting spot, though. He played three games with the Indiana Pacers, then signed but didn’t play for the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves. Then, Fesenko moved his career overseas, playing first in Russia, then in Italy, Monaco, Italy again, and then his hometown in Ukraine.
This season, he’s been playing in Tehran, Iran, and that’s where Fesenko, now 35, and his wife are watching Ukraininan developments from. While Fesenko’s still in the midst of the Iranian season (he’ll play in his team’s game on Thursday in Tehran) he says that he’s charging his phone multiple times per day, to make sure he can constantly keep up with new developments in his hometown of Dnipro and across the country.
Every morning, he says, he gets up and makes calls back to his country to make sure those he loves have made it through the night — his parents, his sister, his niece and nephew, his in-laws, his friends, and even his two cats.
“That’s the sad reality of what we are living right now,” Fesenko said.
‘Full of hate’
Fesenko has been known for his relentless expression of positivity for his whole life — it’s the reason he’s beloved by Jazz fans. But the terror he’s seen on the news, the trauma he’s heard from those he loves, and the sheer senselessness of what’s going on; well, you can tell it’s affecting him.
For example, Fesenko has numerous Russian contacts, thanks to his time playing in Russia and its basketball league. From a local perspective, he overlapped with teammate Andrei Kirilenko for all four of the Ukrainian’s years in Utah. But at the moment, he’s shutting them all out.
“The level of frustration and hatred in my heart right now is too high. From being civil and reasonable human being I am, I cannot speak with Russian people at this moment right now,” Fesenko said.
He continues, forcefully. You can hear it in his voice — he’s grappling with this new emotion: anger.
“I need somebody to blame. I blame Russia. Yeah, of course, I blame most of all (Russian president Vladimir) Putin. But I also blame the people who are silent. The influencers who did not even say anything, I blame. I blame people for letting this bloody dictator to run freely this country into the ground. Right now, Russia is getting economically killed. I am not sure they’re going to recover from this hole for another 15-20 years.
“I am a pacifist in my heart. But I want one person to suffer. I want one person to suffer the most. I want one person to suffer all these deaths of children, women, soldiers of my country. I’ve never wished bad or I’ve never wished ill on another human creature. But right now, I am so full of hate that there is only one thing for me to keep my sanity. I’m focused on one person and I hate him from the depth of my heart.”
What the future holds
There is one thing that buoys Fesenko right now, though: the expression of unity within Ukraine, and the support he sees for his homeland from across the world.
“I am very proud of us as a nation because the level of unity that we are showing right now, the level of commitment, the level of sacrifice to help others is unheard of,” Fesenko said. “Putin wanted to break and separate my country in pieces. But he actually united them.”
That united spirit comes in different forms. There’s the obvious, like helping the needy with groceries or food. But then there are the ones that wouldn’t have been imaginable until recently: Different communities in his hometown got together and have cleaned out the dusty and trash-filled bomb shelters, unused for so long as they were. And they’re helping each other with instructions on how to make those Molotov cocktails, hoping to fight back.
Fesenko also noticed the outward displays of support from Utah: the #StandWithUkraine rally at the Utah state capitol building this week, along with the lighting of blue and yellow at Vivint Arena. “Of course, I still follow closely the Utah Jazz, it still has its own place that is not going to move anywhere in my heart.”
“It makes these stressful days a little more better,” when he sees the worldwide care for Ukraine. “It makes me believe that we, as a society, can survive through this.”
Fesenko said that, should things return to normal, he hopes to visit the United States — and when he does, that he’ll “100%” make a lengthy stop in Utah.
“I want to go through the places where the glory days happened,” Fesenko said. “Who knows what’s going to happen in the future. I just hope that we all will have this future — if somebody will stop the tyrant.”