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Men’s Basketball Player From Ukraine Grapples With War From Afar
Main photo by Julio Cortez/AP; shoe photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Before he turned 16, Pavlo Dziuba was already representing his native Ukraine on the basketball court, driving to the hoop, nailing threes and laying down dunks. Last February, he saw photos and news coverage of the court in Kyiv, where he learned the game he loves, burning to the ground.
Then a new transfer, Dziuba absorbed the horror of Russia’s invasion last year from UMD’s campus, and he continues to grapple with anxious and uncertain feelings as the war rages on. As he balances school and basketball with that added stress, he’s raised awareness and showed support for Ukraine during games, even from halfway across the globe.
“The first day, I was crying—I didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. “Sometimes rockets were coming half a mile away from my mother and father.”
The 6-foot-8 junior lived in Kyiv until he was 14, then briefly moved to Spain to play for FC Barcelona’s under-18 team. He also impressed as a center on the under-16 Ukrainian national team, averaging 13.8 points and 9.3 rebounds in the 2019 FIBA Division B European Championship. That attracted the attention of universities in the U.S., with Dziuba deemed a four-star recruit.
Though he barely spoke English (watching Netflix with subtitles and lots of practice helped him learn quickly), he moved to America to play at Arizona State. After that 2020-21 season, he entered the transfer portal, persuaded in part by a fellow Ukrainian and former UMD basketball star, Alex Len of the Sacramento Kings, to become a Terp.
“I like the way we practice and the way we compete,” Dziuba said. “It’s different, the Pac-12 and Big Ten.”
Midway through his sophomore season, he began hearing rumblings about Russia invading his home country. When it happened on Feb. 24, he frantically tried to reach loved ones, asking friends about footage he’d seen of tanks emerging and rockets blasting, and urging his family to leave Kyiv.
Mere hours later, Maryland had a game against Indiana. Before taking the court, Dziuba wrote two messages in marker along the outer soles of his bright red sneakers: “PRAY FOR UKRAINE” on one, and “NO WAR, PEACE” on the other. He continued to display them in subsequent games, and in UMD’s next home contest against Ohio State, he entered the Xfinity Center with a Ukrainian flag draped around his shoulders, to cheers from the crowd.
“I just wanted to let people know that it’s really important,” he said. “We need support. Ukraine needs support.”
Dziuba competed for his home country during last summer’s FIBA U20 European Championship in Montenegro, where he was able to reunite—for just one emotional day—with his mother. She’s since returned to Ukraine with his father, who stayed to help the cause. His brother is safe elsewhere in Europe.
Back on campus, Dziuba tries to talk with them on the phone every day. Even amid all that, he’s “locked in” for this season, he said.
“Pavlo has done as best as anyone could with the situation back in his home country. Every day since last February, he’s had to deal with something that most of us—especially college-aged students—could never fathom,” said head coach Kevin Willard. “You can tell it takes a toll on him from time to time, and as coaches and teammates, we do our best to support him however we can.”
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