“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Oleksandr “Sasha” Volkov – The symbol of Ukrainian basketball
Oleksandr Volkov was born in Omsk, in present-day Russia, on March 29, 1964, but he started playing in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and after the breakup of the USSR he chose Ukraine as his home country. In Ukrainian, his name is spelled with an “o” at the beginning – Oleksandr – but in many documents and sources he is referred to as Aleksandr, Aleksander, Alexander or Aleksandar. However, everybody knows him by the nickname Sasha. With his surname, there are no problems or different versions. The root of the word in Russian and several Slavic languages is “volk”, which translates into “wolf”. In some ways, Volkov was indeed a wolf around the basket: tall, proud, strong, aggressive and always with a hunger … for a win.
Pioneer in the NBA
Sasha Volkov was one of the few European players who, at the end of the 1980s, opened a new page in the NBA and, in some ways, in the history of basketball in general. When Bulgarian Georgi Glouchkov – the first European ever in the NBA – Spaniard Fernando Martin, Lithuanian Sarunas Marciulionis, Croatian Drazen Petrovic, and Serbians Vlade Divac and Zarko Paspalj landed in the NBA, they had to overcome many obstacles, most of all a total lack of trust from American head coaches.
Until then, the NBA had just two European players with important roles, but both had been to American colleges: Detlef Schrempf of Germany and Rik Smits of the Netherlands. Thanks to these players the NBA doors are today open to many talented players.
Before making history in the NBA, Volkov earned prestige and respect in Europe. To the international eyes, he made his national team debut at the second FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in 1983 in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. The USSR lost the title game to the United States 82-78. Volkov scored 4 points in that final, while his tournament average was 6.1 points. Two years later, Volkov made his senior national team debut at the 1985 EuroBasket in Stuttgart, Germany. He was part of a great USSR team with Arvydas Sabonis, Valdis Valters, Marciulionis, Valeri Tikhonenko, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Aleksandar Belostenny, Sergejus Jovaisa, Vladimir Tkatchenko, Sergei Tarakanov and Andrey Lopatov. Almost the same team would triumph at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul three years later. Volkov’s average at EuroBasket in 1985 was 7.8 points, well short of the 20 per game by Sabonis, 16.4 by Valters or 15.5 by Kurtinaitis, but he was a key part of a group that was crowned European champion. Indeed, in beating Czechoslovakia 120-89 in the final, Volkov played 29 minutes, scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Only three players scored more than him: Valters (27), Kurtinaitis (24) and Sabonis (20 plus 15 boards). But Volkov, at age 21, was already an important player on the team, an ideal power forward to cover the space between the backcourt players and the towering Sabonis.
Those days were the start of great friendships among players of several nationalities of the former USSR. The team was formed by Lithuanians, Russians, Ukrainians and Latvians who, not much later, would play for their own countries. But the disintegration of a former country could not destroy the bond among those players, forged on the court while defending the same jersey.
One year later, with almost the same team at the 1986 World Cup in Spain, the USSR lost the title game 87-85 to the United States, led by Kenny Smith and David Robinson, with 23 points each. In 30 minutes, Volkov scored 8 points, a little below his average in the tourney (11.2). That same year, Volkov was picked in the NBA draft’s sixth round by the Atlanta Hawks. A year later, at the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens, Volkov and the USSR lost the title to Greece 103-101 in overtime, after having tied 89-89 at the end of regulation time.
Before going to the NBA, Volkov and his teammates would reach the peak of their careers at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. After losing the first game of the group stage to Yugoslavia, the USSR team won all its remaining games. In the semifinals, they defeated the United States 82-76, and in the gold-medal game, the victim was Yugoslavia by the score of 76-63. In 26 minutes, Volkov scored 7 points and pulled down 3 boards.
From 1981 to 1986, Volkov played with Budivelnyk Kiev and from 1986 to 1988 he was part of the CSKA Moscow team. For the 1988-89 season, he was back to Budivelnyk. Right before his trip to America, Volkov played the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb and completed his medal collection. In addition to the previous gold and silver medals, he took a bronze after the USSR’s surprising loss to Greece in the semis, 81-80. Volkov’s scoring average was 17.2 points in the tournament. It was also the last tournament for the USSR with the Lithuanian players like Sabonis, Marciulionis and Valdemaras Chomicius.
Volkov’s NBA debut for Atlanta took place on November 3, 1989, in a game won by Indiana, 126-103. It was just a symbolic debut because Volkov played only 1 minute and couldn’t contribute anything. Officially, however, his NBA adventure started that day. It was a game full of stars. On Indiana’s side, we could find Reggie Miller (36 points), Schrempf and Vern Fleming, while Atlanta had Dominique Wilkins, Moses Malone and Doc Rivers. In three years in the NBA, Volkov played 149 games with an average of 14.1 minutes, 6.8 points and 2.6 rebounds. I think that, by today’s standards, he would probably double those figures.
Already as an NBA player, Volkov attended the 1990 World Cup in Buenos Aires and he won his second silver medal as the USSR was defeated by Yugoslavia in the final 92-75. With 15 points, Volkov was his team’s best scorer, along with Gundars Vetra. On the other side, there was the Yugoslav “Dream Team” with Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Zarko Paspalj, Zoran Savic, Velimir Perasovic, Jure Zdovc, Zeljko Obradovic and Arijan Komazec.
Volkov’s last great international competition was the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He played for the CIS, a team formed by players from the former Soviet republics except for the Baltic countries. One of those Baltic countries, Lithuania, won the bronze medal. The CIS lost out on a medal by losing to Croatia in the semifinals 75-74 in a game that Volkov is probably not fond of since he missed two free throws down the stretch.
Back to Europe
After three years in the NBA, but with several serious injuries along the way, Volkov returned to Europe in 1992. His first stop was Italy with Reggio Calabria. In 27 Italian League games, he averaged 19.3 points. He then had offers from FC Barcelona and Panathinaikos and he chose the Greek team, with whom he reached the 1994 EuroLeague Final Four in Tel Aviv. He played a great season, with 18.2 points and 8.1 rebounds in Europe, as well as 14.6 points per game in the Greek League.
Despite his two great performances at the Final Four – 32 points against Olympiacos in the semifinals and 29 against Barcelona in the game for third place – Panathinaikos could only finish third. I think that was the best Volkov performance I ever saw live. The following year he went to archrival Olympiacos, with EuroLeague averages of 12.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists, while he put up 15.8 points per game in the Greek League.
Back problems forced him to retire at age 31, even though he would be back for a brief period of time a little later. In the preliminary round for the 1999 EuroBasket in France, he decided to help Ukraine. He was back on the court at age 35, and he did pretty well. Against Spain, he had 14 points and 8 boards, against Israel 8 plus 8, and against England 13 plus 7. But Ukraine didn’t manage to qualify.
In the year 2000, Volkov founded a new club, BC Kyiv, where he played until 2002, when he retired for good. Since then he has become a politician. He was the minister of sports in his country, was elected several times to the Ukrainian parliament, and served as president of the national basketball federation. For the 2011 EuroBasket in Lithuania, Volkov signed his former coach in Atlanta, Mike Fratello, as the national team coach for Ukraine. With Fratello still on the bench at the 2013 EuroBasket in Slovenia, Ukraine finished sixth, ahead of teams like Serbia, Italy and Greece, and was able to qualify to the World Cup of 2014 in Spain – a first for the country.
Sasha Volkov, the symbol of Ukraine. He was a great player who continued to do great things for his country in basketball.