With Prometey the last Ukrainian team left in a pan-European competition in any sport this season, Emmet Ryan on the unlikely charge of the side and the hopes they carry for a people they remain physically distant from
The war put sport on pause for Ukraine along with most of life but it was only a pause, The way to back to normality, even in the darkest times, has never left the view of the people there. Still there are obvious challenges.
Shakhtar played their European football games in Warsaw this season, Dynamo Kyiv in Krakow, while the basketball teams of note from the country had to fully relocate. Budivelnyk, a Kyiv club, moved to Rome for the season but even the Italian capital didn’t suit for games so those were played in Veroli which is 1.5 hours away.
One by one, Ukraine’s teams across all sports in Europe fell by the wayside, as is pretty normal these days with or without a war, except for one. One team has exceeded all expectations from its home away from home in Riga, Latvia. Prometey, which is normally based in Slobozhanske in Dnipropetrovsk, is two wins away from the Eurocup title.
One hell of a run
The decision to enter Eurocup was a simple one for the club as the format guaranteed them 18 games over the season. A European competition that maximised the guaranteed games available was an obvious call and that was coupled with their entry into, and victory in, the Latvian-Estonian Basketball League has made for an extraordinary season.
Going into Wednesday’s quarter-final at home in Riga against Turk Telecom from Ankara, Prometey have played 55 games this season with 49 wins and 6 defeats. It’s a simply remarkable run for a team far from home.
“If you take in the bigger picture, I’m stunned. I remember in late June last year that they decided to re-launch the project having closed temporarily when the war broke out,” Alex Proshuta, a Ukrainian basketball journalist, told BallinEurope.
“The club president, Volodymyr Dubinskyi, has spoken with me publicly and privately, he said he didn’t know the level and he guessed their budget would be enough to be in the playoff mix but he felt getting past the first round was the ceiling.”
Things have obviously gone better than expected as Prometey found form at the right time of the Eurocup season to power its way into first seed in its conference to secure home court through to the semi-finals at the very least.
“Once the season started, everyone understood that Prometey had a good team and a great coach. It was step by step. In January, they were in the middle of the pack. The playoffs were in reach but I didn’t expect any bigger run,” Proshuta said.
“Prometey has the skills to win in different ways. They can win ugly, they can win beautiful, but they win whether they shoot 50 per cent from 3 or 25 per cent from 3. It always finds some way to stop opponents.”
“They had a run where they lost 4 key players and nearly lost in the quarter final of the Latvian-Estonian League. It has shown that it’s a great team with enough resilience and skill as well as heart, Prometey has surprised me every fucking week of the season, really every fucking week.”
Tuesday’s opponents are no slouches. Turk Telekom from Ankara have Erdem Can (formerly a Utah Jazz assistant) as their head coach and a roster with ample talent.
“Turk Telecom is a great team with experienced players and a good coach. There is a lot of knowledge there. It being in Riga is a huge factor, Prometey hasn’t lost at all in Riga and they’ve engaged local people,” Proshuta said.
“They have in-game advertising and are getting locals to go to the game. At the beginning of the year, they had 1,000 maybe 2,000 per game. Now it is 6,000 or 7,000 per game. If Prometey plays their style in front of their own crowd, they have a chance.”
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The wild thing
Issuf Sanon is a walking heart attack for any coach. The 23 year old, who was drafted by the Washington Wizards in 2018, can either be the most devastating force on any court or a guy that looks like he doesn’t know what his role is meant to be.
At his best, he can bamboozle the finest ballers alive as his performance against Giannis Anteotkounmpo at EuroBasket showed. At his worst, the Prometey player is a liability. When the ball is in Sanon’s hands, you don’t know what version you’re getting and that somewhat makes him more compelling to watch.
“He is the most controversial Ukrainian player at the moment. Everyone discusses his games because it has been such an up and down season for him. He has great potential and he has great potential. Coach Ginzburg told me he sees something of Tomas Satoransky’s game in him,” Proshuta said.
“Ginsberg has said Sanon is his new project. On the court, Sanon can be the best player there in moments like he did against Joventut or Bourg or Ulm, but then he played terrible stretches in games last month,”
“He has a lot of flaws but they are mostly mental yet they also make him unconventional. At EuroBasket, he destroyed Giannis for 5 minutes. There is potential but he needs to get his mind in the right place. We believe in Sanon but it’s a rollercoaster ride with him.”
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It’s been a good month
Prometey’s run in Eurocup has headlined a spell of roughly a month or so of basketball performances and successes for Ukrainians. The success of the club in Eurocup has certainly raised interest from those in the country.
“It’s certainly more interest than usual. Our football teams are out, so are teams from other sports, Prometey is pretty much the only Ukrainian team on TV. It’s the mentality of the Ukrainian people to root for our teams against foreign teams, the bigger the opponent the harder we root,” Proshuta said.
“That said, it’s not like when Shakhtar or Dynamo Kyiv play in the Champions League but this success has drawn a lot of attention to them. Still, it is tough for them not to play in Ukraine because people want to feel that connection. Most of the players haven’t been in Ukraine physically in the last 14 or 15 months.”
Beyond Prometey, there was the moment earlier in April where the great Alina Iagupova finally won a Euroleague title as part of Fenerbahce’s star studded roster that featured Breanna Stewart, Emma Messeman, and Courtney Vandersloot amongst others.
“She is the best Ukrainian basketball player irrespective of gender. Forget Alex Len, Mykhailiuk or Sanon. I was really happy to see her winning. She has declined the last two years with age but she was still two time Euroleague MVP and this year there was this dream team there,” Proshuta said.
“They shifted the way they played but she was still a starter and made the second team all Euroleague. I was really happy to see her win. It’s a great success. Fenerbahce is a rich club but, for me, it’s a great cap to her career. It’s a shame that she didn’t have the support she deserved from the national federation during her prime years, the federation wasted her prime years in the national team.”
There has also been the unexpected impact of Alex Len for the Sacramento Kings in the NBA playoffs.
“People are surprised he’s getting minutes but he looks great even with limited minutes. People are very happy to root for a Ukrainian player in the NBA playoffs. It has been a good month for Ukrainian basketball.”
The big prize
If Prometey win Eurocup, it will be extraordinary as it would be the first time a Ukrainian side won any European title at any level ever. They would be making history and sending out a great message of positivity for the country.
Then there’s the prize that would come with that. If you win Eurocup, you win a place in the following season’s Euroleague and that is not to be sniffed at, particularly at a time when previously marquee names of the competition like CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg are barred because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Everyone in Ukraine knows that Euroleague is like the Champions League in football, only more closed because it is truly for the elite of the elite. I don’t know if Prometey could hold up the financial standards but the team has said that the final stage of development of the team is to be in the Euroleague in 2 or 3 years,” Proshuta said.
“I believe that they are ready to see it and face it. In Ukraine, the public would be amazed if they make it to Euroleague and compete against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Fenerbahce. Also, without the Russian clubs, it will stand out more. It would be a big story in the community, beyond basketball, that a Ukrainian team is in Euroleague while staples like CSKA and Zenit aren’t.”
Prometey take on Turk Telekom at 5pm Irish time, 7pm local time in Riga, on Wednesday. It’s going to be a nail biter no matter the result.
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