11 Anton Ponomarev (KAZ)
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Ponomarev talks about Kazakhstan's best generation

ASTANA (Kazakhstan) - When Kazakhstan won the bronze medal in the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, Korea, many thought that this Central Asian country would emerge as the next powerhouse in the continent's basketball landscape.

That didn't exactly happen in the next few years, though. The Steppen Wolves as they are now known failed to break into the top four of the next three major Asian basketball competitions. Kazakhstan finished at seventh place in FIBA Asia Cup 2003 in China, slipped down to tenth place at the 2005 edition in Qatar, and lost their place at the podium in the Asian Games, dropping to seventh place at the 2006 Asiad also in Qatar.

"I think every year the national team is talented, but the 2007 national team is notable because we surprised a lot of people who thought we couldn't win anything," - Anton Ponomarev

Still, Kazakhstan clearly had some potential to be counted among the top-level teams. Two guys, in particular, were among the team's rising stars - Rustam Yergali and Anton Ponomarev. Both played at FIBA Asia Cup 2005, playing vital roles for the Kazakhs, who recorded wins over Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, and Hong Kong. Both would also return to the national team in 2007 as the FIBA Asia Cup was hosted in Tokushima, Japan.

That team, according to Ponomarev, was a team that he considers among the very best in Kazakhstan basketball history.

"I think every year the national team is talented, but the 2007 national team is notable because we surprised a lot of people who thought we couldn't win anything," Ponomarev said.

The results speak for themselves. With Ponomarev, who was just 19 years old at that time, leading the way, Kazakhstan won four of their first six games, including famous upsets over East Asian powerhouse teams Japan and Korea. That enabled the Steppen Wolves to enter the Asia Cup Semi-Finals for the first time ever, and though they lost their last two assignments to Iran and Korea respectively, the Kazakhs' fourth-place finish would still go down as their best ever in the continent's biggest basketball competition.


For Ponomarev, what made that 2007 Kazakhstan squad unique was their collective desire to win every game and to learn from their coaches.

"I think this team is not special. It's just that everyone wanted to win," he said. "There were good young players and good veterans who taught us. The main thing is there were excellent coaches from the team - this is the most important in basketball."

Kazakhstan have yet to duplicate that fourth-place finish - they have finished no higher than eighth place in any Asia Cup since 2007 - but that doesn't mean that Ponomarev, who is now in his early 30s, is giving up hope. For him, Kazakhstan can reclaim their spot among Asia's elite, but it will take a heck of a lot of hard work to do so.

"I think the team needs to work hard right now," he shared. "That is for every player - myself included and the team as a whole."

Ponomarev is now among the elder statesmen of the Steppen Wolves, who have some tantalizing up-and-comers in their pack. Among these are big man Alexandr Zhigulin and a bevy of promising wingmen in Maxim Marchuk, Rustam Murzagaliyev, Pavel Ilin, and Nikolay Bazhin. Ponomarev wants to be a mentor to these players, maybe he' will be remembered in the same way one of his idols is - former Kazakhstan national player Vitaliy Strebkov. For Ponomarev, Strebkov, who was part of the 2002 bronze medal squad and has since been a highly reputed coach, is perhaps the best or most influential player in Kazakhstan.

"I don't even know how to begin," explained Ponomarev. "It's difficult to think of only one best player for the whole of Kazakhstan basketball, but for me personally it is Vitaly Strebkov, who was good as a player, and as a coach! By the way, in 2002, when the team won the bronze medal in the Asian Games, he was there, too!"

It will be an uphill climb moving forward for the Steppen Wolves. In the current 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers, Kazakhstan split their first two games, barely beating Palestine before dropping a close one to Jordan. Should games be allowed within this year, they are set to host Sri Lanka and Palestine in the next round of matches.

Ponomarev, who is averaging 8.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.0 block per game, will likely have to play major minutes again when action resumes, but as long as it's part of the journey to return to the upper echelons of Asian hoops, the 6ft 9in/2.05m frontliner is all for it.