MANKATO – Timberwolves training camp invitee Kyrylo Fesenko arrived in Minnesota weeks ago so he could work out, lose some more weight and prepare himself to earn his way onto an NBA roster for the first time since he played three games for Indiana in 2012.
He has another good reason, too.
Fesenko says he wants to reclaim an NBA job so he can bring his mother, wife and other relatives to the United States from his hometown in Ukraine, the divided, strife-torn Eastern European country in which Fesenko was born on Christmas Eve 1986 and raised.
His hometown of Dnipropetrovsk is far from the disputed portions of Ukraine, a four-hour drive that has brought refugees but no fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists to the industrial central region of the country where his mother and wife live. Fesenko and his wife were married in June.
He is a half-world away from a home he last visited in August, but he’s reminded of the conflict every time he thinks of a neighbor who was killed when a Malaysia Airlines jet mistakenly was shot down over the country in July.
“It was really tragic. That’s when it actually finally hit me that it’s for real,” Fesenko said. “That it’s not somewhere out there.”
He estimated he spends three or four hours a day communicating on Skype with family and friends to keep up to date on what’s happening with them and with his country.
“It’s a huge concern for me,” he said. “If the conflict will resolve itself, I’ll be the happiest person in the world.”
He was asked if it was unsettling to watch his country being split by the crisis.
“It is. I think war is the outdated solution to any conflict,” said Fesenko, a 2007 second-round pick by Philadelphia who was traded to Utah and played four seasons for the Jazz. He hasn’t played regularly in the NBA since 2011. “It’s just ridiculous and stupid and I’m very worried about my mom, my wife, all my friends. Two of my friends already enlisted in the army and I really don’t want that to happen. I’m all up for fighting the good cause, but I just don’t want to lose any of my childhood friends.”
Asked if he supports a unified Ukraine, he said: “I’m on the side of no fighting. But I can’t judge the situation because I’m here. I don’t know what’s going on because, not to say anything bad, here you get one side of story, over there you get another side of story, and in Russia you get completely different side of story. So nobody knows what really is going on.”
What he does know for certain is the matter has made him more intent than ever on winning an NBA job and reuniting his family.
“I have actually more motivation than usual to sign here and bring all my family here,” said Fesenko, who played for the Wolves’ Las Vegas summer league team and signed a training-camp contract last month. “But I can’t say that I lacked motivation before.”
At age 27, he is a talented 7-1 center who has battled weight and conditioning issues throughout his career and overcame a 2011 knee injury. He’s also a long shot to make a Wolves roster with three centers — Nikola Pekovic, Gorgui Dieng and Ronny Turiaf — who have guaranteed contracts.
“If he’s not with us, he’s got a chance to showcase himself for somebody else,” said Wolves coach Flip Saunders, who’s also the president of basketball operations. “He’s a good kid. He works hard. Even if it doesn’t work out right away here for him, there are injuries and things can always happen. We’re not afraid to do what we need to keep the best players, whether it’s him or anybody else.”
Saunders knows Fesenko has more on his mind than just earning a job.
“It’s a tough situation,” Saunders said. “When the phone rings and you’re not sure what it’s about, that’s always scary.”
• Pekovic didn’t practice Thursday morning on Day 3 of training camp. Saunders called it a precautionary measure intended to keep Pekovic’s problematic ankle bursa sac happy and said he’ll hold him out of practices occasionally to relieve stress on Pekovic’s body.
• Rookie Glenn Robinson III didn’t practice Thursday, either, because of a sprained ankle sustained in Wednesday’s scrimmage.