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    BRAMA News and Community Press

    BRAMA, January 9, 2003, 1:00 am ET


    Train-ing in on Vitaly Potapenko
    by Max Pyziur
    Interview: Vasyl Lopukh and Max Pyziur

    Vitaly Potapenko

    The schedule says Seattle Supersonics hosted by the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden; tip-off time - 7:35pm. It's 6, a full hour and a half prior to the start of the game. The arena is empty and its lights are dim except for those illuminating the playing floor. Fans haven't even started arriving. Scattered in the light and dressed in their sweats some players are beginning their warm-ups, engaging in contortionist stretching; others take random shots at the basket, finessing fade-aways.

    There is a quiet buzz in the locker room area with coaches, trainers, journalists and others mulling about. All of this adding to the tension of anticipation. Something akin to a train building a head of steam. Perhaps, "The Ukraine Train"?

    For a brief moment the lights in a passage below the bleachers are blocked. Oh ... it's Vitaly. At 6'10", 285 lbs (2,08; 129.3 kgs) it's easy to see why he's called "The Ukraine Train" (but more details on that in the interview below).

    Vitaly Potapenko has arrived smartly dressed in a crisp dark olive suit and designer tie, moving about easily, engaging fellow teammates in pre-game discussions. Having injured his left knee in the last game of the 2001-2002 regular season he has spent the last eight months rehabilitating. This recovery process has carried over into the current regular season, causing him to miss the first 25 games with his team. But his return is imminent. During practice Sonics' coach Nate McMillan has worked Vitaly more and more into the team's sets and drills along with bringing him along on the current road trip to try and get in a rebound or three, or set a rock-solid screen.

    MSG Scoreboard; 24 minutes 'til tip off time

    Kyivan Vitaly Potapenko is no stranger to the game of basketball. After playing three years in his late teens for Ukraine's premier Budivelnyk "komanda", in 1994 he was recruited by Wright State University in Dayton Ohio. After playing there for two years he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1996. Later, in the middle of the 1998-1999 season he was traded to the Boston Celtics with whom he hit some of his career high stats - on 4/17/99 against the Indiana Pacers shot 10 for 21 for 26 points; on 3/24/00 against the Philadelphia 76ers made a total of 18 rebounds.

    Brama's Max Pyziur (MP) and Nash Holos' Vasyl Lopukh (VL) caught up with Vitaly to get more details. Here is their conversation:

    Supersonics standing during the national anthem; Potapenko is standing far left

    VL: Vitaly, to start off with tell us something about your background.

    I was born and grew up in Kyiv, attending regular school in the Syrets' area and various special sports schools - in the city's regions of Troyeschyna and Podol.

    My fondest memories are of my schoolmates with whom I participated in various sports along with various leisure activities such as traveling and going to movies with them. From time to time I still try to give them a call or exchange emails with them. In addition, I have various Kyivan basketball-playing colleagues, including LA Lakers' Stanislav Medvedenko, playing for various teams in both Europe as well as the US; as there is time and opportunity we get together.

    Pre-tipoff Supersonics huddle; V.Potapenko at left

    MP: On the official NBA website your career bio (NBA BIO) begins with your playing for the Wright State University Raiders (in Dayton OH). Can you fill in the blanks for the time prior to that?

    VP: I studied at a special sports high school which had close ties to Kyiv's premier "hoops" club - Budivelnyk'. With time I became a member of its varsity team. In addition, the team was fortunate enough to take part in high level European tournaments where I excelled and had strong stats. Right then several coaches and agents began asking whether or not I would be interested in studying at an American university along with playing in collegiate-level basketball. That is how I got to Wright State and eventually to the NBA.

    VL: Do your parents live in Ukraine?

    VP: Yes, they live in Kyiv.

    VL: Do they ever have an opportunity to see you play since you've become a professional?

    VP: Of course. I often send them videocassettes and other information about my games. In addition, from they often travel to the U.S. for two-three months at a time where they either attend or watch each and every one of the games in which I play. Currently, they are in Seattle.

    VL: It's good to see that your parents have the opportunity to travel and visit with you. I'm sure that this is a big boost to your morale.

    VP: You bet.

    VL: After Wright State, you started playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. How did this transition take place?

    Sonics challenging the Knicks

    VP: With two years still to go with my studies at Wright State in order to receive a degree I saw that my development had leveled off. In order to continue developing I needed the type of challenge that comes with being on a professional team. One of my friends suggested that I find an agent who would help me get into the NBA. Which is exactly how it happened. That was Curtis Polk (who, by the way is a great guy); currently, my agent is David Bauman.

    VL: Vitaly, we know that while you were at Wright State you were nicknamed "The Ukraine Train". Can you give us some details how you garnered this sort of fame?

    VP: (With a wry smile and a chuckle) I think that my strong physical playing style was probably the basis of this nickname... But really, during the course of one game I ran for the sideline trying to keep a ball in play. I did get the ball back on the field, but I had so much momentum I couldn't stop and ran into the judges' table, collapsing it in the process. From then on I was "The Ukraine Train".

    VL: Towards the end of last season you sustained a grave knee injury which has kept your from playing over the last eight months. How did this affect you psychologically?

    Knicks' Sprewell gets his shot off as Sonics' Ansu Sesay watches; Vitali Klitschko looks on

    VP: Seriously. Every sportsman, especially those at professional levels, understands the possibility of physical trauma. However, no one thinks that they themselves will be the one sustaining any sort of injury. In order to avoid injury we train hard and make sure that we learn certain routines.

    However, it was a unbelievable shock when I injured my knee. Thank goodness for the skill of high-caliber surgeons. My operation went well and since then my only recourse was to persist and work to regain my strength and abilities. My rehab is almost finished; I should be playing very soon.

    MP: Given the current Sonics situation with Center Jerome James out indefinitely, the team needs a big man like you in the middle. In fact, last week in one of the Seattle newspapers, your talents were cited (HeraldNet) - during practice one of your teammates - Reggie Evans - took a strong screen from you protesting right away. However, coach McMillan and his assistant quickly came to your defense.

    VL: During this past summer you were part of a large, five man trade between the Boston Celtics and the Seattle Sonics, with Kenny Anderson, Joe Forte and yourself going to the Sonics and Vin Baker and Shammond Williams going to the Celtics. Were there any surprises here?

    Vitaly holds a copy of Ukrainian periodical "Nash Holos" in his hands as Vasyl Lopukh (his back to the camera) interviews him

    VP: As with injuries being an accepted part of the professional game, the same goes with trading players. Owners are faced with budgetary concerns; coaches and trainers try to find those players who have the talents and abilities which coincide with their particular strategies and coaching styles.

    As for myself, I can't go into the details of how I got to the Seattle Supersonics. Of course, I liked Boston and the Celtics a great deal, but for now I think that with the Sonics I have more opportunities to play and, importantly, my new group here is very team-focused. I have to say that both the trainers and coaches here are intensely attentive to the "micro-climate" of the team, working overtime to bolster the camaraderie among players in order to positively impact the team's results.

    VL: Vitaly, have there been any particular memorable moments with each of the three NBA teams you've been a member?

    VP: Of course, in each city there have been interesting events. In particular, while I was playing for the Cavaliers and living in Cleveland I was surprised by the presence and size of the Ukrainian community there. When my parents came to visit me for Christmas we attended Mass in one of the Ukrainian churches there as well as a performance at a Ukrainian theater. This was especially moving for all of us.

    In Boston, I made the acquaintance of many Ukrainians and Russians who recently had arrived in the United States. When I was leaving for Seattle they arranged for a farewell gathering which was attended by almost fifty people. I was happy to see that I had made this many friends.

    Supersonics Joe Forte blurring by during warmups

    MP: How are things going in Seattle now, especially since one of the team's owners also owns the Starbucks cafй chain?

    VP: (Smiling) Rightly so, you know well that in Seattle there are many cafes and that coffee there always tastes good.

    VL: Vitaly, official stats, and yours in particular, reflect particular aspects of a player. Is this information sufficient in evaluating the quality of a player?

    VP: Without a doubt official statistics present the particular accomplishments of a player. But there are certain things missing. For this reason, trainers, managers and agents try to get other information from other sources which can't be gleaned from the usual numerical statistics. Sometimes, it isn't how many points a player has made for team that is important, but rather those points he's kept the other team from scoring.

    VL: Are there any well known Ukrainian players in the better known leagues of Europe and if so do you have any contacts with them?

    Supersonics Desmond Mason warming up

    VP: Yes, I know quite a few players in the European leagues and occasionally we have the opportunity to correspond via email or talk over the phone. However, you have to understand given our particular commitments it's difficult to meet.

    MP: These days there are many international players in the NBA, in particular from Europe. Do you have any sort of particular rapport with them?

    VP: Indeed. As you know currently, there are especially many players from Yugoslavia [forward Vladimir Radmonovic and Center Predrag Drobnjak are two who play for the Sonics] in the NBA. It's easy for us to communicate, given that we are somewhat similar in character and different from Americans. Nevertheless in spite of this difference, over time we acclimate to American ways more and more.

    VL: From your bio information on the NBA website we know that your favorite actor is Robert DeNiro and favorite film is Heat; is this indicative that you might have interest in becoming a film actor after your basketball career?

    VP: (with a whimsical smile). Well, today it's a bit hard to say. But why not? You know, given that my friend [LA Laker] Stanislav Medvedenko plays in Los Angeles, I'll make sure to stay in touch with him. Maybe he, knowing some actors and directors, will get me an "in" in Hollywood and that way I'll land a starring role.

    VL: Any final thoughts about your future plans?

     ·  NBA: Potapenko profile
     ·  NBA: Potapenko Bio
     ·  NBA: Potapenko Stats
     ·  ESPN: Potapenko Profile
     ·  EUROBASKET/USABASKET: Potapenko Profile

    VP: First and foremost, I need to get back to playing, play a lot, continuing to improve my abilities. As for things further down the road, I haven't thought a great deal in specifics. I have had some discussions about projects with acquaintances, but these at best can be described as preliminary. Today, the most important thing is playing, playing as best I can.

    VL/MP: All the best, we'll be watching you and let us know of any new and important developments.


    Postscript …

    Surprisingly, that evening the Sonics, the stronger team, fell to the Knicks 80-97. But then the following evening when confronted with the powerful Philadelphia 76ers, the Sonics trounced their opponents 92-88. Mysteries ….

    Mysteries notwithstanding, in Cleveland on December 16th the Sonics put Vitaly Potapenko "in the paint" though he did not play. In his playing debut on December 18th against the San Antonio Spurs, the former Celtics' center, Cavaliers' forward, Wright State and Budivelnyk powerhouse, now Sonics' power forward-center finished with seven rebounds and four points in 18 minutes.

    The Ukraine Train is steaming ahead.

    Slava Sportsmenam Ukrayiny!

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