For three months, Marcus Ginyard believed he'd found his best-ever basketball experience abroad.
The 2010 Carolina graduate has traveled the globe since leaving Chapel Hill. He played for a stellar organization in Germany, BBC Bayreuth, but the team performed poorly. He also spent a season in Israel with Irony Nahariya.
But when he landed with BC Azovmash in the Ukranian Superleague, he thought he'd found his best fit. "We played against tough competition, the fan base was good, I was traveling around playing two or three times a week, and life was good," Ginyard says.
Several Tar Heels from the Roy Williams era have made very comfortable livings playing basketball overseas. Few, however, seem as natural a fit as Ginyard, who always had a natural curiosity about other people when he was in Chapel Hill, and who always seemed more interested in basketball as a gateway to an interesting life rather than a gateway to showing up regularly on ESPN.
When Marcus Ginyard goes to play basketball in Ukraine, you instinctively know that he will make Ukranian friends. Some Americans who play overseas stay in their team-furnished apartment, play video games, FaceTime with their friends and family, and rarely see any parts of their new home other than the 94 by 50 expanse of hardwood. Not Ginyard. If he was going to live in Ukraine, he wanted to live in Ukraine.
And so he became almost certainly the Carolina basketball player with the best-ever understanding of Eastern European geopolitical relations. He learned more about the complex history between Ukraine and Russia. He had friends on both sides.
"I enjoy learning about different kinds of people," he says. "A lot of the people I talked to had family in Russia or were born in Russia. The area is so dependent on Russia--one of the major sponsors of my team was the Azovmash factory, and 85 percent of their production is sent to Russia. In late February, Russia stopped the import of all Ukranian goods. Think about what a huge hit that is for the country, because Ukraine relies so heavily on Russia."
Yes, that's Marcus Ginyard, who you probably know better as a defensive stalwart or one-fourth of the inseparable Tyler Hansbrough-Bobby Frasor-Danny Green-Ginyard quartet, expounding on Russia-Ukraine trade protocol. It's funny what bouncing a basketball can do for you.
As the situation deteriorated, though, it involved more than just trade. After a Ukranian revolution, the Russian government refused to recognize the new regime. Russian troops began to occupy Ukranian military bases. You've probably heard something in passing about the situation on the news. Ginyard lived it.
"In the east, where I was, things were OK," he says. "But there was so much on the news about Kiev, and suddenly people in the east started proclaiming allegiance to Russia and people started taking sides. In general, if you have to make a proclamation about which side you're on, there's nothing good ahead."
The Ukranian League postponed a few games and eventually issued a statement that the season could be canceled. BC Azovmash is also part of the VTB League, which includes teams from Russia, Belarus, Poland and others; teams from other countries announced they would no longer fly into Ukraine to play games. Around that same time, troops occupied a few Ukranian airports, and that's when Ginyard decided he'd seen enough.
"The factory had lost 85 percent of its business, so now you know there's a money issue," he says. "Banks are going crazy and the currency is at an all-time low. So games are canceled, I'm feeling a little unsafe, and I'm questioning whether I will get paid. I told my teammates, 'I don't want to be the last guy standing here.'"
Ginyard worked out an agreement with the team in which he had to relinquish his salary for the remainder of the season, but they released him to play for any other team. He caught a flight home the next morning.
That gave him time to work on his Marcus Ginyard Basketball Camps, which will be held in both Alexandria, Va., and Jacksonville, N.C. this summer. But he also stayed in close touch with his agent, and eventually inked a deal to play the remainder of the season for Stelmet Zielona Gora in Poland.
As usual, he goes into the situation knowing very little about what he'll experience. And as usual, he'll return having fully immersed himself in yet another new culture.
"It's so far beyond an amazing blessing for me to be in the situation I'm in," he says. "I've seen places and I've lived in places that most people don't know anything about. This year, I had a little first-hand experience living in a revolutionary situation. How many people get to do that?
"The game of basketball has taken me all over the world. I couldn't be more thankful for the things I've seen and experienced, and it has given me a totally different perspective on life. At the end of the day, perspective is what you're striving for: you want to see things from all different angles and understand how we can all be so different and yet still be the same. That's exactly what basketball has done for me."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.