The Ukrainian players arrive at practice at the Tivoli Arena in Ljubljana, and for some of them, seeing Mike Fratello barking orders at them is still considered a dream they never thought would happen.
It took a while for Fratello to get acclimatised to his role when he began in 2011, combining his role in New Jersey with trips to the Ukraine, but the former Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies coach has embraced his role with the national team and his influence has rubbed on some of the Ukrainan players.
“It’s something else,” Ukraine’s naturalised guard Eugene “Pooh” Jeter said.
“He’s an NBA legend and it’s another reason why I took this position. He’s coached so many incredible legends of the basketball world and no doubt he’s the highest profile coach here at Eurobasket. So having him as my national team coach is a real honour.”
It remains to be seen whether Fratello will be with the Ukraine when the nation hosts Eurobasket, two years from now. But what he has brought to the Eastern European country so far has been nothing but positive.
“He is a popular figure both the dressing room and with the fans as well,” Ukraine’s Oleksandr Lypovyy commented. “For me, it was a great experience when I was at Euro Camp in Italy over the summer and to have coach complement me on my hard work is very good.”
Ukraine have made seven previous appearances at Eurobasket, and the best place they could muster was 13th back in 1997. Fratello took charge in Lithuania two years ago, in their first Eurobasket since 2005 and while they made a good account of themselves, Ukraine still bowed out in the first round with a 2-3 record.
“Back then, we were still learning the system,” Lypovyy admitted. “We were still disappointed that we didn’t go to second round, but it was a learning moment. Coach was also getting used to European basketball.”
“It was great having coach Fratello guiding us,” Viacheslav Kravtsov said.
“We were getting used to different systems at that time but I feel we did well enough. Already though, we are a much better team this year. We’re settled, coach is settled, the mood is great.”
And right now, the mood is at an all-time high, today’s hard-fought win over Germany improved Ukraine to 3-0 in Group A with the rest day to look forward to.
The three wins haven’t by any means been flukes. Fratello has got them playing basic, but effective basketball, offensively, while defensively it’s their focal point. Energy and aggression are the main two factors. If a player looks tired, regardless of who it is, Fratello take them out. Easy, smart and it gets the job done.
France will be up next as Ukraine prepares to take Slovenia’s limelight in two years time. Will they make an impact while they’re here? They’ve started off on the right foot.
Picture courtesy of FIBA Europe