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Len revels in Ukraine senior national team debut, playing in front of home fans
ATLANTA (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers) - Alex Len made his debut in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers in last month's fourth window in what also proved to be his first time lining out for Ukraine's senior national team.
The 7ft 1in (2.16m) center, who played for his country at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2010 and FIBA U16 European Championship 2009, averaged 10.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.0 blocks across Ukraine's memorable 76-65 home victory over Spain and 90-84 loss at Montenegro in September.
Len, who is starting a new chapter in his NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks after five seasons with the Phoenix Suns, spoke to FIBA.basketball about his senior national team debut, playing for the home fans and being a leader for Ukraine in the future.
Last month you finally came to play for Ukraine's national team in September. How did it feel to wear the national team jersey after so many years of not being able to do so?
It felt so amazing to do this after having to wait so many years to finally do it. When I knew that I could play this summer, I was so happy. I had this on my mind for so long now and it finally happened. I'm happy to be part of the team now. It was very intense emotionally to go back home and play in front of my family, my friends and my fellow compatriots. I really loved the experience and I'm looking forward to the next games and opportunities to wear the national team jersey again soon. I want to be part of the team for a long time now and I'm excited for our future. I think we can build a very solid team.
Things started very well, with a huge win against Spain in Kiev.
(Smiles) Oh yeah, that game! We had such a great game and we played so well. It was fun to be on the court with the guys and live the experience with the home crowd being noisy and cheering very loudly for us. We played so well on both ends of the floor and we deserved to win against one of the best teams in Europe over the last decade. Winning against big teams like Spain gives us more confidence and we gain so much experience by being able to compete against the best on the continent. I know we still have a lot of things to work on and room for improvement, but that game helped us reach and show that we could play and win against most of the top teams on the continent. It is a huge win, a solid win to build for the future.
How special was it to play your very first game for Ukraine at home?
It was the best game and moment I could hope for, knowing I was coming to play with the national team for the first time. The crowd, the people in Kiev, were very welcoming and we felt like the entire country was supporting us. Sharing those moments with teammates, the fans and our families was such a unique moment. When you see the fans happy, pushing for you, that gives you a lot of strength and an extra boost. Every three-pointer we scored, every possession where we defended well, and every moment of struggle, the crowd had our back. Always. It's amazing to play at home; there is nothing comparable to be honest. I loved the experience and I feel we're going to have plenty more good times like this in front of our fans in the years to come. I want to come back and play for the national team for many more years and live this kind of moment again and again.
"WINNING AGAINST BIG TEAMS LIKE SPAIN GIVES US MORE CONFIDENCE AND WE GAIN SO MUCH EXPERIENCE BY BEING ABLE TO COMPETE AGAINST THE BEST ON THE CONTINENT."
Do you feel comfortable being one of the flag bearers of Ukraine basketball and sport in general?
Yes I'm very comfortable with it because I know I'm an example for a lot of people back home and a lot of kids watch me play and follow my career. It's good to have guys that inspire you and show you that it's possible to make your dreams come true. That gives you more motivation and strength to handle every kind of situation and work hard to achieve your goals. I feel blessed to have the career I have had so far, but I always look for more and I know my journey is going to help a lot of kids back in Ukraine to try to do what I've been doing. It's tough, nobody said it was easy, but if I did everything to achieve and be who I am today, every kid back in Ukraine can also do so in the near future. I'm very proud of being an example for the Ukrainian youth and proud to be one of the flag bearers of Ukraine around the world.
With a loss in the second game of the September window against Montenegro, Ukraine are one win behind Latvia in the fight for the third spot of the group.
It was very frustrating to lose that game after the great one we won three days earlier against Spain. But we have still four more games to try to reach the third spot of the group and qualify for the World Cup. I know it's going to be tough and Montenegro and Latvia aren’t going to give up, but as long as we have chances to qualify for China 2019, we will keep fighting for it. If we can’t achieve it, we will work hard for the next FIBA EuroBasket and focus on the next steps to keep building and growing as a team. The elements, the talent and the common goal of wanting Ukraine to be a very competitive team are there. We need to keep working hard, learn, work on our chemistry and we will keep improving for sure.
What are your dreams with Ukraine national team?
To be part of the team for many years and to keep helping my sport grow in my native country. I would love to win medals and compete in the best tournaments with the national team and I also have that in mind for the future. I want to play in future EuroBaskets, World Cups and, if one day we can, maybe try to help Ukraine qualify for Olympics. It takes time and a lot of work, but with all the good work we're putting in building a solid national team we will be very competitive very soon. Ukraine has a lot of talented guys; we want to help all of us reach our full potential together.