That one man can have such a profound impact on another person’s life is not lost on Yegor Mescheriakov. As he nears the twilight of his European playing career, Mescheriakov — whose long, lean frame and wispy blond hair has changed little since his time with the Colonials — has been reflecting on how fortunate he has been and how much differently his life might have turned out had he not been given the opportunity to leave Belarus to play for the George Washington men’s basketball team in 1995.
“I always thank in my mind Alexander Koul for being so tall, for playing well, for getting all the attention from the coaches,” Mescheriakov said of his countryman, the former GW center, who arrived in Foggy Bottom a year before he did. “Because of him, they saw me in the spotlight as well.”
Mescheriakov, 35, would like to shine a spotlight on the next generation of basketball talent in Belarus. His growing concern about the declining state of Belarusan basketball spurred him to co-found the Mescheriakov Basketball Club in Minsk, a private program for about 120 boys ages 11 to 15. But unlike the Soviet-style academy of years past that focused solely on creating the next great athlete, MBC also offers training in life skills and academics. The boys are taught leadership skills, responsibility and how to live a healthy lifestyle. Mescheriakov also started a bonus system that rewards boys who do well in these areas and academically with prizes.
“I wanted it to provide the same opportunities that were presented to me,” Mescheriakov said. “I would feel guilty if I wouldn’t start a school like this because somewhere along my road I was presented with opportunities. For whatever reason, I was a chosen one.
“So I have this little burden on my shoulders — responsibility, I guess. It’s a very nice burden, but it’s also a responsibility to give back and make sure you’re remembered not only for your athletic achievements. Because at the end of the day, who cares really” about what someone does athletically?
Belarus, an Eastern European country roughly the size of Kansas, gained its independence in 1991 after seven decades as a Soviet republic. Though it is surrounded by countries whose basketball teams are ranked among the top 50 in the world by FIBA — Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Poland and Ukraine — Belarus has not been a factor recently in European competition.
That was not always the case. In 1994, Koul, Mescheriakov and Andrei Krivinos, their former GW teammate and current coach of Minsk-2006 Basketball Club, helped Belarus win FIBA’s under-22 European championship, the country’s only European title.
“State of Belarusan basketball is very sorrowful,” Koul wrote in an e-mail from Belarus, where he works as economic development and sports marketing director for Minsk-2006 Basketball Club.
“In our country, we have one favored sport — ice hockey. Besides being one of the most expensive sports, it’s also probably the biggest investment program [by the government] in sport. . . . As a result, for this season, 2011-12, we barely gathered eight teams to play in Belarusan championship.”
Mescheriakov, who returns to Belarus every summer, also saw that his native country was slipping behind the rest of Europe and decided something needed to be done.
“I could see that we are losing many generations of basketball players in Belarus because after the collapse of the Soviet Union, basketball was kind of neglected,” he said.
In July 2007, Mescheriakov put together a week-long basketball camp. It was the first sports camp developed and run by a Belarusan professional athlete in any sport. The response was so great — close to 100 kids participated — that two years later he and Valery Gorelikov, a member of the Belarusan basketball federation, opened MBC.
The school, which Mescheriakov and Gorelikov fund almost entirely on their own, is patterned after the ones started by former NBA players Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis in Lithuania. In three short years, it has grown from three age groups to five. The oldest team has won three consecutive Belarus youth championship titles and in March took second place in a European Youth Basketball League tournament. Several of the players will form the core of Belarus’s 2013 under-16 national team.
Koul wasn’t surprised Mescheriakov started a basketball school in Belarus.
“Yegor has always been very thoughtful guy,” Koul said. “Given that he had most successful professional career among us all, it’s obvious that he uses an opportunity to make a difference and help our basketball to possibly move to next level. His school is first of a kind in our country.”
Mescheriakov uses his status as one of the best-known basketball players in Belarus — his No. 55 jersey is as popular in his country as Michael Jordan’s No. 23 is in this one — as well as his connections to other top athletes to benefit the school. Koul has dropped by the school to offer the players words of encouragement. Another former GW teammate, Francisco de Miranda, who works with Team First, a nonprofit basketball program in Brooklyn, gave Mescheriakov ideas about working with the players.
Nikita Moroz, a 15-year-old from Minsk who plays on the 1997 age-group team, wrote in a testimonial Mescheriakov’s lawyer obtained and translated from Russian for Mescheriakov’s green card application that it was his dream to get into MBC.
“We received our first uniforms and my shirt was adorned with my last name,” Moroz said. “I received shoes that I was afraid to even look at. . . . I am happy that I have the opportunity to be a part of my club and my team. I always say with pride that I play for Mescheriakov Basketball Club.”
Mescheriakov spares no expense when it comes to the uniforms and sneakers, in part because of his own experiences growing up. He insists the players’ names be printed on the back of their jerseys because he remembers what a confidence boost it gave him to have his name on his jersey. He also makes sure they have shoes that fit.
“I remember having one pair of shoes for three years, and I would go play basketball in them, go on a date with girls with those shoes and wear them all season long — summer, winter, there were no other options,” said Mescheriakov who wears a size 17. “My dad became a craftsman of shoes. . . . When you are a teenager, everything is overblown. People laugh at your shoe size: ‘Oh my God, they’re looking at my shoes.’ So giving those nice basketball sneakers to these kids is big payback for me.”
Though Mescheriakov lives a half a world away — he returned to GW two years ago to finish the master’s degree he started in his final season and to work for the school’s athletic department — that doesn’t stop him from being actively involved in his school. He stays in contact through MBC’s Facebook page. He wants to build a permanent gymnasium rather than renting court space. He would like to bring a group of his players to the United States as part of a State Department cultural exchange program. But most of all, Mescheriakov hopes to give kids the same opportunities that were given to him.
“When you’ve been blessed, you look at your life, look backward, and realize it was all happening for a reason,” he said. “There is no way you cannot give it back and provide for your future generations.”