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A Ukrainian basketball player readied for a shot. Fans chanted ‘Russia!’

Max Shulga, a third-year guard at Utah State University, described the moment as ‘extremely upsetting’

Utah State guard Max Shulga during a game against Colorado State last year. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal /AP)
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Max Shulga stood at the free throw line with 40.9 seconds left in Saturday night’s game, his Utah State Aggies up 83-77 on the Colorado State Rams. As the ref gave Shulga the basketball and he prepared to take his shot, a chant started to reverberate from the stands.

“Ru-ssia! Ru-ssia! Ru-ssia!”

Colorado State fans in the student section appeared to be trying to psych out Shulga, a third-year guard from Ukraine, by shouting the name of the country that invaded his homeland last year. Shulga, an international studies major, described the moment as “extremely upsetting,” and Colorado State University officials and the men’s basketball coach apologized within hours for their fans’ “disrespectful and inappropriate” behavior.

“We apologize to the student-athlete and Utah State,” Colorado State officials said in a tweet. “This is a violation of our steadfast belief in the Mountain West Sportsmanship Policy and University Principles of Community. Every participant, student, and fan should feel welcomed in our venues, and for something like this to have occurred is unacceptable at Colorado State.”

Niko Medved, the coach of the Rams’ men’s basketball team, also took to Twitter to apologize.

“I have so much respect for @USUBasketball and Max Shulga. We have amazing fans and students but this is not acceptable!” Medved wrote.

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Shulga thanked the officials and Medved for “their immediate support and understanding following the disappointing events during last night’s game.” The past year has been difficult for him because his family and loved ones remain in Ukraine and face “constant danger,” he said in a statement released by Utah State.

“As for the chants last night, while extremely upsetting in the moment, I also know how emotions can run high during competition and people can do and say things they do not really mean,” Shulga said. “Colorado State and its fans have apologized and I accept and appreciate the apology.”

He closed by asking everyone to join him “in praying for peace in Ukraine.”

It’s Ukraine, not ‘the’ Ukraine. And Ukrainians want you to get it right.

Colorado State officials made a faux-pas in their apology by referring to Shulga’s homeland as “the Ukraine.” Many Ukrainians find that an offensive throwback to when the country, which achieved independence in 1991, was part of the Soviet Union. “Without the article you refer to Ukraine as an independent country as opposed to a region or province,” Serhii Plokhii, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, told The Washington Post in 2019.

In a statement to The Post, Colorado State officials apologized for the “unintentional, incorrect reference to Ukraine.” The university officials said they meant no disrespect but made a mistake while rushing to release an apology.

Last year, in the days following the Feb. 24 invasion, Shulga had a different experience with the Aggies’ student section. During the Feb. 26 game, which was also against Colorado State, Utah State students held up dozens of blue and gold sheets of paper to form blocks of color in the stands.

“The whole section lit up in the Ukrainian flag — blue and yellow,” Shulga said in a video released by the Utah State athletic department. “That was really good, I enjoyed that moment, and I appreciate all the support.”

Shulga was born in Ukraine and lived in the country until he was 13, he said in the video. Even after moving away, he returned a couple of times each year to visit family. In the weeks after Russia invaded, he described the war as surreal, something that felt “like a video game.” He said it was nerve-racking to watch the war unfold on TV while fretting over family members still in Ukraine.

“There’s a lot of emotions, mixed emotions,” he said in the video. “When I’m calling my parents, I’m happy to see them, but at the same time, I know there’s other people and relatives of other random people dying out there, fighting for our country. I’m obviously happy to see my family healthy and safe, but at the same time, I’m mad at all that is going on and … I’m just all the way [over] here.”

At Saturday’s game in Fort Collins, Shulga missed the free throw during the “Russia” chant. But he racked up nine points, six assists and three rebounds as he and his fellow Aggies beat the Rams, 88-79.