By: Aidan Joly, Editor-in-Chief
In the first few days of March, the thoughts of college basketball players are usually on getting ready for the postseason, hoping to have their moment in the sun.
That’s not where George Maslennikov’s mind is right now.
The Griffs’ senior forward, native of Odessa, Ukraine, is one of seven Division I men’s basketball players in the United States from a nation that has been under attack from Russian troops for over a week now.
A Google search of Odessa — a beautiful port city located on the southwestern edge of the country on the Black Sea — will produce images of spectacular buildings, beaches and vibrant restaurants and nightlife. It’s a tourist hotspot on top of being the third-most populous city in the country, with a population of over one million. It’s about a six-hour drive to the capital city of Kyiv.
Maslennikov was born on the Crimean Peninsula but moved to Odessa as a child and lived there until 2015, when he came to America to pursue his dream of playing basketball. He went to high school at Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta, helping lead the program to back-to-back Georgia Independent School Association championships. After high school, he spent a year at DePaul before transferring to Saddleback Junior College in Mission Viejo, Calif. He came to Canisius prior to the 2020-21 season and has been here since.
Maslennikov has seen war firsthand. He was still in Ukraine during the civil unrest in 2013 and 2014, but he describes that as more of a “civil war.” He still went to school during the unrest and lived his life. The Crimean Peninsula, the area in which he was born, was taken over by Russia during that conflict in 2014.
“I was in the middle of it and I remember it like it was yesterday,” Maslennikov said. “There were a lot of people coming in and trying to burn down the capitals, the cities, which they did eventually, but it was more of a civil war — like a protest. It wasn’t as violent as it is right now, with the troops in the cities. It was people trying to stand their ground.”
That unrest did include a Russian invasion, but it was not close to the scale of the current one.
“People back then didn’t really understand what was going on, and we had a president that was not as, I should say, persuasive, in standing his ground and not as selfless as the one we have right now. That’s why a lot of people are fighting back,” he said.
His parents are separated right now. His father, Vadim, is a sailor and is currently on a ship in Spain, having left the country two days before the invasion for a work trip. Meanwhile, his mother, Tetyanna, is still in Odessa and has no plans to flee, as many have already done.
She has other family members to take care of and doesn’t want to risk going alone. George only sees his parents once a year as it is, and he sees other family members even less than that, including his grandparents and other extended family. Like many other Ukrainian families, they have family members living in Russia, including his grandparents, who live about eight hours away by car (not including time at the border). Crossing the border from Ukraine to Russia even before the conflict escalated was extremely time-consuming, usually taking over eight hours. He has not seen his grandparents in two years.
Still, the family is staying positive, despite a report from The New York Times that an attack on Odessa is expected within the coming days due to its location having access to water and major ports. George and Vadim have daily contact with Tetyanna to make sure she is doing okay and to hear firsthand what is happening. He also has regular contact with his friends for the same reasons.
“I feel like the mindset of the people back home is very positive. A lot of my friends are very strong mentally and physically, and they’re trying to do their best to stay connected with each other and try to support each other as much as they can,” he said.
Maslennikov is not going back to Ukraine right now, but he says he is doing everything he can to support his family and friends, both morally and financially where he can. If he were to return to Ukraine, he would be enlisted in the military. His father was in the Ukrainian military in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“I know that I’m no soldier or combat-ready guy, but I know I could try to help as much as I can to people that are serving the country and trying to help us out,” Maslennikov said. “But as much as I can do, bring spirits up, financial support, whatever it is, I’ll do it.”
Out of those seven Division I players from the country, Maslennikov is the only one from Odessa. Four of the remaining six — Nikita Konstantynovskyi of Tulsa, Maryland’s Pavlo Dziuba, Utah State’s Max Shulga and Rostyslav Novitskyi from Fordham — all hail from Kyiv. San Francisco’s Volodymyr Markovetskyy calls Ivano-Frankivsk home, a city in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and an area that features some of the best skiing slopes that Eastern Europe has to offer and is regarded as one of the best places in the country to live and raise a family. The last one, Grand Canyon’s Dima Zdor, is from Yalta, which is on the Crimean Peninsula and is where the famous Yalta Conference happened during World War II.
The seven of them have shared their thoughts with each other over the past handful of days and have supported each other through this time. Maslennikov has also leaned on the support of his teammates and coaching staff through these times.
“My teammates have been doing a really good job with it, even though I didn’t expect it to be that way. They’re always texting me and talking to me. Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming to hear that many questions, but I’m trying to be as polite as I can and when people ask me how I am I try to respond,” Maslennikov said.
Griffs head coach Reggie Witherspoon added, “I’m just trying to stay abreast of his situation and some of the things he’s going through; I just want to be there. I can’t tell him something that’s going to make it better, but I can listen and learn from him what he’s feeling and what he’s hearing about.”
All in all, Maslennikov is just hoping that he can get past this situation with a sense of pride in his country and knowing that his family is okay.
“I know we’re going to get through this stuff: they’re just trying to keep the mindset as positive as they can,” Maslennikov said. “Just hoping that we’re going to get through it.”