With great pride, Vitaly Potapenko watches the Orange Revolution on television. He sees more than a million of his countrymen thronging the streets of his hometown, Kiev, non-violently...

Share story

With great pride, Vitaly Potapenko watches the Orange Revolution on television. He sees more than a million of his countrymen thronging the streets of his hometown, Kiev, non-violently protesting the corrupt results of their presidential election.

Concerned, he telephones his family almost daily. He calls after he hears there will be a new election on Dec. 26. He calls after he sees the pictures of the disfigured face of poisoned Liberal opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. He calls looking for more news and more hope that this vital sign of democracy in action is working in his native Ukraine.

“Tears come to your eyes when you see, like a million-and-a-half people in the square and everybody is bringing blankets and food,” said Sonics center Potapenko, who made his season debut last night after breaking his right hand late in the preseason. “And the most important thing was that it was peaceful. They didn’t want to have violence be a part of the solution to the problem.

“They just wanted the truth and I was proud of the Ukrainian people for standing up and I was glad to see such solidarity among the people. They stood up for the president the people want.”

Potapenko, a Ukrainian citizen, is exploring options on how he can vote in the re-election. He has talked with people at the Ukrainian embassy. He believes he will be able to vote online. He will vote for Yushchenko.

“Unfortunately, the politics sometimes gets pretty dirty,” he said. “And they even tried to poison him (Yushchenko). But there is going to be another election, and hopefully, the people will get the president they really want.”

Potapenko, like so many of his fellow citizens who have stood in the streets, doesn’t want his country to be a puppet for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

“Of course, for Russia, it is good to have such a huge country (48 million population) on their side. But, Ukraine, they are looking more to the Western world,” Potapenko said. “They want to have (an) even more democratic way of government. But Russia doesn’t want to give Ukraine away. With the Black Sea, with the oil routes, with the agriculture, there are a lot of important economic points.”

In his youth, Potapenko often visited his grandmother, Matreyna Zesko’s farm in Ukraine’s breadbasket. It is one of the most pleasant memories of his youth.

“You could look out of her house and just see this yellow ocean of wheat,” he said. “It supplied the bread for all of Russia. But back then, the Communist way, it was much different. It was no freedom. No democracy.

“There was an iron curtain. I remember making a joke at my grandma’s house about our president. Just an anecdote and she was afraid. She remembers back to 1937 when people got arrested just for making political statements.

“Back then we didn’t know about American kids. We were taught in schools that all American kids were taught to shoot guns. It was all propaganda. And when I first came here (at 18 as a recruit for Wright State) I was afraid. I was nervous. I thought I wouldn’t be accepted here. I was surprised to see how similar people are.”

For Potapenko, who was 16 when Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet system was bad politically, but good for basketball.

He was part of the last class of ballers produced by the machine before Communism’s fall. Without the system he probably wouldn’t have made it to the NBA.

“We were simple people and we just played basketball,” Potapenko said. “It was about basketball. We didn’t talk politics. The people upstairs made all the decisions, while people from Lithuania, Russia, Estonia, Ukraine, we all played basketball together.

“My dad (Nikolay) didn’t believe in basketball. He said basketball wasn’t the right way to go. He said, ‘Go to school, study.’ But then he started seeing that I was doing well and getting with better teams. And he saw that I could make some money and help the family.”

Potapenko, 29, was identified early as a future star and began travelling in the summers with select Soviet clubs when he was 8. At 15, he signed with the premier league team, Stroitel, of Kiev. Before the fall of Communism, many expected him to be the Soviet Union’s next Arvydas Sabonis.

“For basketball, I wish the Soviet Union was still together because it was a huge machine of producing the talent,” he said. “Since 1972, they always produced big, good players. The Soviet team was always comparable on the world level of basketball.

“Now, of course, it is a very different story. There is no money in Ukraine to invest in basketball. There is really no youth-basketball program, but there is great democracy.”

With pride, Potapenko often wears a powder blue Ukraine warmup jacket to practice. Half a world away, he feels the courage and compassion of his countrymen. Half a world away, he shares as much of it as he can.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com