The Set Up
After over four years of hard training, Roman came to realise that the country he once thought was wonderful due to all the Soviet propaganda maybe wasn’t so great. “I watched on the Police Academy movies, I think number five or six, when it all culminates on a beach in Miami: there are jet skis, parasailing, bikinis, and all sorts of stuff that made me think I wanted to live in America,” Roman says.
He was also a big fan of adventure stories by authors like Mark Twain, and very much wanted an adventure of his own, so when they opportunity arose, he took it.
By this time Roman was playing for the professional team CSK, and for the Soviet national team, and the Ukrainian team. As a member of the Ukrainian team, a trip was organised for August 1991 to celebrate 100 years of basketball. It was to be held in Milwaukee, and there would be teams there from all over the world. “Before we went, a buddy of mine who was also on the team said, ‘look man, I’m not coming back. This place sucks. I need a partner in crime.’ And I said ok.”
At the airport on the way out, Roman called his mother to tell her he might get offered a scholarship in the US. His mother said that was fine.
America made a big impression on Roman. He liked it very much. And so on the trip back to JFK his mind was made up. “We were a little drunk as we’d brought over vodka we hoped to try to sell,” Roman says smiling. “But no one wanted to buy cheap booze from kids on the street, so we drank it.”
The team was travelling over night by bus to New York, and when it pulled into a rest area, Roman and his friend made a daring move. “There was a guy on the trip who served no real purpose apart from making sure everything went the way it should. He’d collected all our passports at the beginning of the trip, so when the bus stopped at the rest area and everyone went to eat, my friend kept watch while I went to the trunk and took our passports from his bag.”
Once at the airport, the man Roman suspected to be KGB got his bag and pulled out the bundle of passports. “I was looking for the nearest exit, ‘cause I was sure he was going to start handing out the passports and find we’d stolen ours. But he pulled out his toiletry bag, put the passports back, and told us all to meet in an hour,” says Roman, smiling.
Roman and his friend took their bags and walked out of the airport with what they thought was a lot of money - $120 between the two of them. It was six o’clock in the morning.
Roman didn’t know any English, and his friend only knew about 50 words, but on a previous visit, his friend had been to a store in Manhattan that was owned by a Russian, and he convinced Roman the storeowner would help them.
They made their way to Manhattan, and the first things they did was eat at McDonalds, bought a six-pack of Budweiser and a pack of Marlboro reds. They then tried to find the store his friend remembered, but couldn’t. “We then had an epiphany,” Roman explains. “The Soviets allowed some Jewish people to leave the country, starting in maybe ’69. There were several waves of people allowed to go, and we’d heard they’d settled in Brighton Beach, or Little Odessa, where they’d created a very vibrant immigrant community. There was a very famous chanson singer we used to listen to called Willy Tokarev who sang about that community. A verse in one of his songs says: ‘We live in Brighton in Little Odessa, near the ocean.’ We looked on the map and found Brighton Beach.”
They arrived by subway around three o’clock in the afternoon, and when they stepped out they were amazed to see all the signs were in Russian. “We even asked a black cop for directions, and he spoke Russian,” Roman says, laughing.
Roman had never swum in the ocean, so the first thing they did was head for the beach. It was unusual to see smart young men in pants and black shoes on the beach in the middle of the afternoon, so people started asking them questions. “We told them we’d defected and they asked what we were going to do. We said we’d sleep under the boardwalk or on the beach. They told us we couldn’t, it would be dangerous. Then this old granny said we could stay at her place,” Roman says.
They stayed at her place for a couple of nights, then at the home of someone else they talked to in this first conversation for another few nights, and so on. One man they met owned a store, and he sold them pyrashki for 60 cents each, and the boys went and sold them on the beach for a dollar. “That was our first lesson in capitalism,” Roman says with a grin. In those first few weeks they also made money by fishing and selling their catch on the street, collecting cans and returning them for the deposit, and working at a carwash.
A Lucky Break
After three weeks, the two young men had filed for political asylum just as they heard about the collapse of the Soviet UNI0N. They’d been staying with one family for a couple of weeks. “We’d got complacent,” Roman says. “We were staying up late, watching their TV and playing their video games. Basically acting like 17 year-olds. Eventually the mother said, ‘screw you, get out of my house.’ But the father let us sleep in his stationwagon.”
However, the mother turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “She was complaining about us, these two basketball players sleeping at her house, to her hairdresser. There was an agent who used the place, and in turn the agent knew Alexander Volkov – the famous Ukrainian basketball player.”
Alexander Volkov was playing for the Atlanta Hawks at the time, and when he heard about these two young Ukrainian basketball players wandering around Brighton Beach, he got interested. Volkov managed somehow to get a hold of their number and gave them a call.
After a chat, Volkov set up a meeting for Roman and his friend at the NBA headquarters. There they met with a very nice lady called Kim Bohuny, now the Senior VP for basketball operations international. “As we were sitting talking to her, some old guy with glasses comes in. I didn’t know who he was, but it turned out to be David Stern, Commissioner of the NBA.”
A few days later, Kim took them on a trip up to Connecticut to meet the headmaster of a prep school there. “The headmaster liked us, liked our story. I think for them it was good publicity to have two Soviet defectors playing basketball at their school,” says Roman.
Incredibly after such a humble start to life in the US, both boys were offered a scholarship to learn English and play basketball at the school. “I think Alexander Volkov helped out with some of the finances. As 17 year-olds we needed to find legal guardians, and there were fees associated with that. It was a defining moment in my life. If Alexander Volkov had not stepped up, I would still be collecting cans on Brighton Beach. I am eternally grateful for his help.”
Incredibly, all this had happened within a couple of months of defecting. And that, as they say, is where the story ends. And it is also where the rest of his life began. Within the year, Roman was offered a full scholarship to play basketball at Louisiana State University, and from there he went on to play professional basketball around the world for many years to come.
Now an MBA, he has returned to his home country, which, of course, has changed a huge amount. But it’s home, and he’s glad to be back. And just like Huck Finn, he now has his own adventure to talk about.