The teenage boy climbed from the car and stood near the sidewalk, waving goodbye as his mother and grandfather drove away in tears. He was 13 years old when he began living alone in the big city, six hours from home. But he told himself that, someday soon, he would move back home. ¶ “I didn’t know I was never going back,” Alex Len says today.
Before Len came to the United States on a student visa, before he first suited up for Maryland and long before he transformed himself into a sure-fire NBA lottery pick, a lanky kid from a Ukrainian coal-mining town took a chance on the future. He ventured to a new city — Dnipropetrovsk, 220 miles west of his home town of Antratsit — on his own with a new cellphone in his pocket so he could call home on the bus ride to school each morning.
Len didn’t cry that day. Already tall for his age, he was excited to develop in one of Ukraine’s best high school basketball programs, smiling as the family car disappeared down the block.
In the passenger’s seat, Juliya Len was trembling, terrified she had released her son into the cold, mean world. She considers herself a hopeless romantic, fervently wishing to make her son’s dream come true, and yet she wondered whether she made the wrong choice. “Like being torn apart into two pieces from one whole,” she says today in Russian.
It’s a risk the family took seven years ago, one that finally will pay off with worldwide fame and garish paychecks come Thursday’s NBA draft, bringing closure to a journey that commenced on that sidewalk. Back home, Len and his mother often curled up on the couch together and watched New York Knicks games on the Internet. Just before tip-off, the cameras would zoom in on individual players, their faces illuminated by the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. “What I would give, just one time, to have that feeling,” Alex would say.
“You will,” his mother replied. “You’ll make it. You know you will. Dreams can come true.”
The white sheet of graph paper was ripped from its notebook and taped to his closet’s back wall, hidden behind the sweatshirts and dress pants. It’s mostly Russian, written in pen. Three items at the top. A list. Len translates the heading: My goals.
These are broad, intangible aims: Toughen myself, morally and physically. Practice every day like it’s my last. Give everything I have completely in each game.
At the bottom is one more goal, written in capital letters with larger font, surrounded by sharp lines for emphasis.
Get to the NBA.
Yet children in Antratsit aren’t supposed to harbor such dreams. It’s a coal-mining town where more than half of the adult males — Len’s grandfather among them — descend into the earth every morning and children run around with elbows and knees stained black from the ambient soot. You take a 9-to-5 job, take breaks when you’re told and earn money to support your family, aspiring simply to do what those before you did. Only five men born in Ukraine have ever reached the NBA because who fools around with games when you could be learning old-fashioned, get-your-hands-dirty, honest-to-goodness work?
As a teenage girl, Juliya Len used to race in one- and two-kilometer events. Another Soviet territory offered her a scholarship to attend school and compete there, but her mother refused. To this day, Juliya remembers that feeling of denied dreams and swore to support her son whenever possible, customs be damned. When Alex said he wanted to play in America, she ignored the naysayers — Alex’s grandparents among them — and told them that even if there’s a one-in-a-million chance, her son was going to be that one in a million.
“There’s a big hero in this story,” said Michael Lelchitski, Len’s agent. “And it’s his mother.”
A new challenge lay ahead for Alex, who turned 20 on June 16. So did a new home, new school and new language. He knew few English words and even fewer phrases. But the first complete sentence he learned, seared into his memory from watching commercials for NBA games on his couch, is scrawled and circled at the bottom of the graph paper.
I love this Game!
Len burst onto the scene at the 2010 under-18 European championships, where he led Ukraine in scoring and blocks per game. Buzz began to spread about the 7-foot-1 talent — across the Atlantic Ocean to College Park.
In his first year at Maryland, Len attended language classes for six hours each day, squeezing in workouts before study hall. He got a buzz cut because he didn’t know how to ask the barber for anything else and needed a translation app just to order rotisserie chicken at Boston Market, his new favorite restaurant. He also Americanized his name, going by Alex instead of Olexiy.
During team meetings, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon and his staff spoke slowly and emphatically, stressing every syllable: You. Have. Got. To. Run. “Like an old person, you think they can’t hear you, so you start yelling at them,” said John Auslander, Len’s roommate and teammate. “Well, he can hear you. He just might not understand you.”
Games were even harder. The NCAA suspended Len for 10 games his freshman year for violating amateur guidelines because he had briefly suited up for Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, a professional team based in the city Len moved to at 13. He made his debut in late December 2011 but struggled to grasp Turgeon’s most basic instructions.
As time passed, the barriers began to crumble. Len opened up more to teammates. An Instagram account offers peeks into his private life, pictures of him waking up to balloons on his 20th birthday last week, eating crawfish in New Orleans or playing games with girlfriend Essence Townsend, a center on the Maryland women’s basketball team.
She used to be a lifeline, a resource he consulted for help with his vocabulary, but by now Len is impressively fluent. Once fearful of making mistakes, he can ask for his favorite foods at restaurants and holds court with reporters. Larger news conferences are still unnerving, but he’s already come so far after just 22 months in the country.
“I’m really shocked at how well he talks to people,” Townsend said. “When he meets new people, he’s really comfortable. And if you say you speak Russian, Russian comes on automatically.”
Len played for two seasons at Maryland, adding 30 pounds between his freshman and sophomore years. To NBA scouts, this means he adds weight quickly. As a sophomore, he averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, up from 6.0 and 5.4 his freshman year. His best performance came in November in Maryland’s season opener, when he upstaged Kentucky center Nerlens Noel — who, like Len, is expected to be an NBA lottery pick — with 23 points and 12 rebounds at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
On Thursday, inside that same arena, he will become a millionaire.
Yet the mysteries still remain, about who Alex Len is and what he still can become. There are pre-draft whispers that the Cleveland Cavaliers will consider selecting him first overall despite a stress fracture in his left ankle that will keep him out until November. Others have dubbed him a probable bust, another European big man oozing potential but destined for the rejection pile of misfit imports. Still more projections reside somewhere in the middle.
“I think, maybe 10 years from now, I’ll be the best player out of this draft,” Len told reporters at last month’s NBA draft combine in Chicago.
“Alex is going to be a great pro,” Turgeon said. “No doubt in my mind.”
Wrote ESPN analyst Dave Telep, “I’m not sure anyone really knows who Len truly is.”
She answers the door with a smile, cartoon teddy bears dancing on the white apron knotted around her waist. Alex Len’s mother speaks almost no English, even less than her son knew when she first sent him more than 5,000 miles away from home. Right now, though, it’s clear what she’s asking.
Come in. Sit down. Eat.
Juliya Len scurries into the kitchen of the Hyattsville apartment her son shares with Townsend, fetching a plate of homemade blintzes and wine hand-pressed by Alex’s grandfather.
Juliya is tall and slender like her son, an energetic redhead with big brown eyes that illuminate when she smiles, which is pretty much whenever someone mentions Alex. A teakettle whistles. She lifts it from the stovetop and carries it over to the table, four mugs in hand. Soon, she will disappear again, this time into the back bedroom where Alex’s awards sit on the dresser, and return clutching a stack of old photographs.
Flipping through the pictures, Juliya still sees the same boy who left home seven years ago, except now sitting before her is the man he became. Here’s young Alex at Christmas, candy piled before him. Here’s teenage Alex at a 15-and-under national tournament, holding his first trophy, awarded to the best center. Here’s Alex now, devouring the blintzes, her name tattooed onto his left wrist. “Oh my god,” he whispers, embarrassed at the barely recognizable beanpole wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey in his grandparents’ garden.
Today, it’s Alex’s black Maryland jersey that hangs on his sister’s wall back home. Before long, his NBA uniform will make its way overseas, into the Antratsit homes of children hoping to become the next Alex Len.
No one knows whether Len, the player, will disappoint, flourish or something in between. He already has assimilated into American culture and mastered a new language and will soon relocate again, this time bringing his mother along to ease the burden of another transition. But one goal remains elusive: He hasn’t figured out how, and he doesn’t know when, but he knows someday soon he’ll come back home.