Ukrainian USSR Olympian and Former NBA Pro Helps Teen Athletes amid 'Desperate' Russian Invasion

"It's nine kids in two rooms, not glamorous," said Alexander Volkov's former Atlanta Hawks teammate Šarūnas Marčiulionis, who helped him transport teen basketball players out of Ukraine

Alexander Volkov
Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty

Ukrainian basketball star Alexander Volkov has stepped up for his country amid Russia's invasion.

The USSR Olympic gold medalist and former NBA pro, 58, has built a network to help the 90 Ukrainian kids he coaches in his youth basketball camp escape to safety, telling Sports Illustrated: "Yes, war is a desperate time."

He reached out to his former Atlanta Hawks teammate Šarūnas Marčiulionis, who has also returned to Eastern Europe after his NBA career, living in Vilnius, the capital of his native Lithuania. "It was simple. I ask, 'Šarūnas, can you help me?'" Volkov recounted.

Marčiulionis, 57, replied without hesitation: "Of course. What can I do?"

He was there to welcome nine kids, ages 15 to 16, and some of their parents when they arrived in Vilnius, also arranging housing for them and enrolling them in local schools.

Marčiulionis is also helping the adolescent refugees "find a [sliver] of normal," connecting them with teammates in other communities. The kids are about the same age as Marčiulionis and Volkov were when they first met as roommates at a similar basketball camp.

"It's nine kids in two rooms, not glamorous," Marčiulionis said. "But we're getting them in school. We're getting [their mothers] settled. It's not an ideal situation, but it's better, obviously, than where they were."

Ukraine War
The Russian invasion of Ukraine. ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP via Getty

Volkov has also rallied support from several other longtime basketball comrades, including Arvydas Sabonis, who has helped get some of the teens settled in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas.

"I never saw this was going to be such big support. I receive phone calls from all over the world. I never received so many calls in my life with some friends [some] I really didn't talk to for like 20, 30 years," Volkov said. "They called me and offer any support they can. … And you cannot imagine how many kids send me an appreciation, appreciation messages and parents, also."

Both Volkov and Marčiulionis came up through the Soviet basketball system, and Volkov was considered "the first Russian to make the NBA" in the late '80s. Now, they lead their own resistance against Vladimir Putin's Russia as Volkov joins the ranks fighting to defend Ukraine and Marčiulionis helps him from the outside.

Ukraine refugees Poland
Omar Marques/Getty

"He's always been like my brother, and I've always been very close to him," Volkov said. "We share the same philosophy, same values throughout all life. And still now."

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues after their forces launched a large-scale invasion on Feb. 24 — the first major land conflict in Europe in decades. Details of the devastation change by the day, but hundreds of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including children. More than a million Ukrainians have also fled, the United Nations says.

The invasion, ordered by Putin, 69, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

RELATED VIDEO: As Russia's Invasion of Ukraine Continues, Citizens Around the World Still Manage to Uplift Each Other

With NATO forces massing in the region around Ukraine, various countries have also pledged aid or military support to the resistance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for peace talks — so far unsuccessful — while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy, 44, vowed not to bend. "Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding: "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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