Sasha Volkov, the symbol of Ukrainian basketball

Nov 24, 2012 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir StankovicLast week, in the famous Postojina cave, an original place to host the Slovenia EuroBasket 2013 draw, one of the famous players drawing team names belonged to Aleksander Volkov, current president of the Ukranian Basketball Federation. Volkov belongs to the Class of 1964 with Drazen Petrovic, Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Valery Tikhonenko, Stojko Vrankovic, Wendell Alexis... He was born in Omsk (in Russia nowadays) on March 29 of that year, but he started playing in Kiev (Ukraine) and after the breakup of the USSR he chose Ukraine as his country. In Ukranian, his name is spelled with an "o" at the beginning (Oleksandr) but in many documents and sources he is referred to as Aleksandr, Aleksander, Alexander or Aleksandar. However, everybody knows him by the nickname Sasha. With the last name there are no problems or different versions: Volkov. The root of the word in Russian and several Slavic languages is "volk" which translates into "wolf". In some ways, he was indeed a wolf around the basket: tall, proud, strong, aggressive and always with a hunger... for a win.

Pioneer in the NBA

Sasha Volkov was one of the few European players who, at the end of the 1980s, opened a new page in the NBA with their arrivals and, in some ways, in the history of basketball in general. When Bulgarian Gheorgi Glouchkov (the first European ever in the NBA), Spaniard Fernando Martin, Lithuanian Marciulionis and the then Yugoslav Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic and Zarko Paspalj landed on the NBA, they had to overcome many obstacles, most of all a total lack of trust from American head coaches.

Until then, the NBA had only had two European players with important roles there, but they had been formed in American colleges. I am talking about Detlef Schrempf of Germany and Rik Smits of the Netherlands. Thanks to these players the NBA doors are today open to many talented players.

Before making history in the NBA, Volkov earned prestige and respect in Europe. To the international eyes, he made his debut in the second junior World Championships in Palma de Mallorca, Spain in 1983. The USSR lost the title game to the United States by 78-82. Volkov scored 4 points in that final, while his tournament average was 6.1. Two years later he made his debut in the senior EuroBasket in Stuttgart, Germany. He was part of a great USSR team with Sabonis, Vandis Valters, Marciulionis, Valeri Tikhonenko, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Aleksandr Belosteny, Sergejus Jovaisha, Vladimir Tkachenko, Sergey Tarakanov and Andrey Lopatov. Almost the same team that would triumph at the Seoul Olympics three years later. His average was 7.8 points, still far away from Sabonis's 20, Valters's 16.4 or Kurtinaitis's 15.5, but he was part of a group that was crowned European champ after beating Czechoslovakia by 120-89 in the final. Volkov played 29 minutes and scored 18 points and pulled 12 rebounds. Only three players scored more than him: Valters (27), Kurtinaitis (24) and Sabonis (20 plus 15 boards). But Volkov, at age 21, was already an important player on the team, an ideal power forward to cover the land between the backcourt players and the tower Sabonis.

Those days were the start of great friendships among players of several nationalities of the former USSR. The team was formed by Lithuanians, Russians, Ukranians and Latvians who, not much later, would play for their own countries, but the disintegration of a former country could not destroy the bond among those players, forged on the court while defending the same jersey.

One year later, with almost the same team in the World Championships of 1986 in Spain, the USSR lost the title game 85-87 to the United States, led by Kenny Smith and David Robinson, with 23 points each. In 30 minutes, Volkov scored 8 points, a little below his average in the tourney (11.2). That same year, Volkov was picked in the NBA draft's sixth round by the Atlanta Hawks. A year later, at the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens, Volkov and the the USSR lost the title to Greece by 101-103 in overtime, after having tied 89-89 at the end of regulation time.

Olympic champion

Before going to the NBA, Volkov and his teammates would reach the peak of their careers at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. After having lost the first game of the group stage to Yugoslavia, the USSR team would win all the remaining ones. In the semifinal they defeated the United States by 82-76 and in the gold medal game, the victim was Yugoslavia by 76-63. In 26 minutes, Volkov scored 7 points and pulled 3 boards.

From 1981 to 1986 Volkov played in Budivelnik Kiev and from 1986 to 1988 he was part of the CSKA Moscow team. For the 1988-89 season he was back to Budivelnik. Right before his trip to America, he played the Zagreb EuroBasket of 1989 and completed his medal collection because after gold and silver he took a bronze medal after USSR's suprising loss to Greece in the semis, by 80-81. Volkov's scoring average was 17.2 points in the tournament. It was also the last tournament of the USSR with the Lithuanian players like Sabonis, Marciulionis and Chomicius.

Volkov's NBA debut took place on November 3, 1989 in a game between won by Indiana, 126-103, over his team, Atlanta. It was just a symbolic debut because Volkov played only 1 minute and couldn't contribute anything. Officially, however, his NBA adventure started that day. It was a game full of stars. On Indiana's side we could find Reggie Miller (36 points), Schrempf, Vern Fleming... for Atlanta we had Dominique Wilkins, Moses Malone, Doc Rivers... In three years in the NBA, Volkov played 149 games with an average of 14.1 minutes, 6.8 points and 2.6 rebounds. I think that, by today's standards, he would probably double those figures.

Already as an NBA player, he attended the 1990 World Championship in Buenos Aires and he won his second silver medal after losing to Yugoslavia in the final by 75-92. With 15 points, Volkov, together with Gundars Vetra, was his team's best scorer but on the other side there was the Plavi "Dream Team" with Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Zarko Paspalj, Zoran Savic, Velimir Perasovic, Jure Zdovc, Zeljko Obradovic and Arizan Komazec.

His last great international competition was the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He played for the CIS, a team formed by players from the former Soviet republics except the Baltic countries. One of those Baltic countries, Lithuania, won the bronze medal. The CIS lost out on a medal by losing to Croatia in the semifinals, 74-75, in a game that Volkov is probably not fond of since he missed two free throws down the stretch.

Back to Europe

After three years in the NBA, but with several serious injuries along the way, Volkov returned to Europe in 1992. His first stop was Italy with Reggio Calabria. In 27 Italian League games he averaged 19.3 points. He then had offers from FC Barcelona and Panathinaikos and he chose the Greek team, with whom he reached the 1994 Euroleague Final Four in Tel Aviv. He played a great season with 18.2 points and 8.1 rebounds in Europe, as well as 14.6 points per game in the Greek League.

Despite his two great performances at the Final Four, 32 points against Olympiacos in the semifinals and 29 against Barcelona in the game for third place, Panathinaikos could only finish third. I think that was the best Volkov performance I ever saw live. The following year he went to archrival Olympiacos, with European averages of 12.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists, and 15.8 points per game in the Greek League.

Back problems forced him to retire at 31, even though he would be back for a brief period of time a little later. In the preliminary round for the 1999 EuroBasket in France, he decided to help Ukraine. He was back on the court at 35 and he did pretty good: against Spain he had 14 points and 8 boards; against Israel 8 plus 8 and against England he scored 13 and pulled 7 boards. But Ukraine didn't manage to qualify.

In the year 2000 he founded a new club, BC Kyiv, where he played until 2002, when he retired for good. Since then he has become a politician. He was minister of sports in his country, he was chosen three times to the Rada, the Ukranian parliament, while on June 21, 2007 he became president of the Ukranian basketball federation. His former teammate on the USSR team, Sabonis, is now the president of the Lithuanian federation. For the 2011 EuroBasket in Lithuania, Volkov signed his former coach in Atlanta, Mike Fratello, as the national team coach for Ukraine. Last year, FIBA Europe named Ukraine the host country for the 2015 EuroBasket.

Sasha Volkov, the symbol of Ukraine. He was a great player but his career as politician and director is also impressive.