Kyiv — Slava Medvedenko is a former basketball star who helped deliver two NBA championships during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers. But when Russia invaded his home country, like so many other Ukrainians, he picked up a gun.
Having witnessed first-hand the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine’s youth, Medvedenko sold his prized championship rings and used the proceeds to provide counselling and sporting opportunities to children.
Of his millions of fans, none matter more to the Ukrainian baller than the people at home in Kyiv who, like him, are now living in a warzone.
Slava Medvedenko plays basketball with a youngster in Ukraine
For one blissful moment, for the children who took delivery of some new basketballs from the L.A. Lakers, the war was interrupted, and they got to play the game they love.
“They kind of forget that there’s a war,” the NBA star said, watching them on the court and calling it a sort of “therapy” for the children.
But suddenly, the war came barging in. As Russian forces hit Ukraine’s power grid with a barrage of missile strikes this week, the lights over the court went dark.
Undeterred by the attack on their country’s basic services, the kids quickly switched on their cell phone lights and kept the practice session going.
Practicing in a dark Ukrainian gym with the light of cell phones.
It’s all painfully familiar to Medvedenko, and it’s why he chose to put down his basketball and pick up an assault rifle to join the fight against the invasion.
“I made a decision to stay in Kyiv,” he told CBS News. “Whatever I can do to defend my city.”
He said he’s seen his home city’s streets littered with cars pockmarked by bullet holes, some of them with the bodies of slain civilians still inside. He said one car was scrawled with large writing, declaring clearly that there were children inside.
“But the Russians still shoot, shoot their cars,” he said. “That was scary.”
It was that moment, Medvedenko said, when he fully understood what really matters in life: People, not possessions. Not even his prized NBA championship rings.
He said the decision came quickly: “I have to sell my rings and help my country.”
So he put them up for auction online, hoping they’d fetch six figures together. But each of them did, individually, netting more than a quarter of a million dollars — a record for NBA championship rings.
Medvedenko told CBS News that made him very happy: “We can spend more money on the kids, and help more kids!”Through the charity he co-founded with a Ukrainian sports journalist, the Fly High Foundation, Medvedenko has helped repair shattered windows and basketball courts at schools that were destroyed by Russian artillery, and send kids to basketball camps.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Devean George (3) helps separate forward Slava Medvedenko, right, and Detroit Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace during a confrontation in the third quarter of game 4 their NBA Finals in Auburn Hills, Michigan, in a June13, 2004 file photo.
We asked him which he found more rewarding, winning championships alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, or helping the kids in Kyiv.”It’s two different worlds,” he said, describing his younger years with the NBA as a dream come true. “Now I’m more mature, and I think different. I think to help my country, it’s more important.”
Now Medvedenko has a new dream: “To get Ukrainians free, healthy and independent.”