Max Shulga looked up into the stands and saw a sea of yellow and blue.
After experiencing so many different emotions in recent days, the Utah State University basketball player took a moment to cherish the one he felt as the student section inside the Spectrum honored him with the colors of his country’s flag.
“I enjoyed that moment and I appreciate all the support,” Shulga said.
As the world watches the Russian attacks on Ukraine, few in Utah are watching more closely than Shulga. Born and raised in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Shulga’s family has been hunkered down on the north side of the city as the war continues to escalate.
“There are a lot of emotions, mixed emotions. When I’m calling my parents, I’m happy to see them,” said Shulga. “But at the same time, I know there are other people, relatives and random people, dying there, fighting for our country.”
While Shulga attempts to focus on school and basketball, helping the Aggies prepare for games and the upcoming Mountain West Conference tournament, his mind has been elsewhere.
He has been reaching out to other Division I basketball players from Ukraine to check in on them. He has been able to communicate with his own family via FaceTime and text messages.
“It’s obviously nerve-racking when you see stuff on the news,” he said. “… Until your people text you back to say everything is good, you’re obviously nervous about it.”
Shulga lived in Kyiv until he was 13 before leaving the city to continue his basketball career. He has played for Ukraine’s U18 and U20 teams. And the guard is now in his second season at Utah State in Logan.
“I’m happy to see my family healthy and safe, but at the same time I’m mad all that is going on and I can’t do nothing. I’m all the way here,” he said.
Shulga grew up aware of the tensions between Ukraine and Russia. But for the USU sophomore, the idea of a war in his home country was almost unthinkable.
“It doesn’t feel real,” he said. “To this day, it honestly feels like a video game. Me personally, I felt like our humanity grew out of declaring wars and stuff. That was in the past. But obviously it’s a real thing now and you have to deal with it. We are a very tough people. Very patriotic. We will stand our ground until we fall basically.”
Shulga, though, does not believe that will happen.
“I just want to say that we’re going to win,” he said. “We’re going to stand through these tough first days but I hope and I know it will go smoother. We’ll end up winning.”