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Belarus: Opportunity Knocks In Washington For Basketball Players

Washington, 17 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A number of former Soviet and Eastern Bloc nations have gained a reputation in the 1990s for funneling top-level athletes to the West. Belarus is not one of them.

But that may start to change because of the efforts of three Belarusians who play basketball for a university in Washington, the U.S. capital. The players, Alexander Koul, Yegor Mescheriakov (from Minsk) and Andrei Krivonos (from Mogilev), together form the nucleus of a successful team at George Washington University in the premier league of U.S. college basketball.

Koul, a 2.16-meter, 130-kilogram center, and Mescheriakov, a forward, are the team's top scorers, and Krivonos, a guard, is the team's top defender. Together, they have so far led the team to an 8-2 record and notoriety in a highly competitive basketball environment.

George Washington Coach Mike Jarvis says it's an unusual situation that may not happen again. "It's a very unique situation where a country that size has three players that have the ability and the desire and the courage to leave home for places unknown."

Officials at George Washington University say all three have attracted scouts from professional basketball leagues. Koul, because of his combination of size and skills, has attracted the most.

Jarvis believes Koul will play at the professional level. He says he may never be a star but he can make a pro career because of his skills.

"He's such a quality person he will make it work," Jarvis says.

Koul, from the village of Borovka in the Vitebsk region, told our correspondent (Dec. 15 interview) his goal is the National Basketball Association (NBA).

"I believe I have the physical skills to play there," Koul says. "However, I know that I need to work on many things to be ready to play on the next level.

Koul says if he fails to make it in the NBA, he will try the European professional leagues. If that doesn't work out, he will return to Belarus. "In the very worst case, everybody would be happy to see me back home," he says.

In the same way that Lithuanians, Croats and Serb basketball players came to be known to U.S. basketball officials, the Belarusian connection began with the discovery of a one star player and some daring scouts. Koul was the player.

He came to the attention of George Washington University coaches when he played in an exhibition game against George Washington University as part of a touring national team from Belarus in 1993. As an 18-year-old center, he had played very well against George Washington's star center at the time, Yinka Dare.

Koul says until he was approached by a George Washington scout, it didn't occur to him that playing in the United States was an option. But with dismal prospects to develop in his own country and with other talented players already moving abroad to play, he opted for George Washington.

Koul says: "If we would have a good level of competition and an assured salary, I would not even be thinking about playing somewhere else. However that's not the case, unfortunately."

There is a tradition of high-level basketball in Belarus, Koul says, which developed decades ago in the Soviet Union. Koul says his age group, which won consecutive championships in the Soviet junior basketball league, was a particularly talented group. When Koul and teammate Andrei Sviridov -- who has since returned to Belarus -- went to George Washington, word spread about the opportunities there.

Koul says the level of poor pay and support for basketball players in Belarus continues and so does the exodus abroad. In addition to George Washington, there are Belarusians playing basketball for Fordham University (New York City), the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and the State University of New York at Buffalo.

They have found a strikingly different environment to play the game in. Koul cites the difference in the status of coaches. In Belarus, he says, coaches also function as managers who have to find ways to pay for uniforms and feed their teams.

Koul says: "They have the headache not only of what defense they're going to play against a team, but how they're going to get" to the game. "Here coaches have to worry only about basketball."

Even if the situation was better in Belarus, Koul says, he would feel fortunate to be at George Washington. Last spring, he received his undergraduate degree in exercise science and is now working on a graduate degree in business. This is looking forward to the professional basketball draft this spring.

Considering the negative turn of recent events in Belarus, Koul feels doubly grateful to be at an American university. He says he recently found out about the banning of the newspaper "Svaboda" via the internet.

He has sympathy for what he calls "people on the periphery" outside of Minsk, who don't have the time to demonstrate for change.

Koul says: "They try to survive in this tough situation. It's not that they don't care. They have other things to worry about, and families to support.

"The only hope is that some day it's going to be different, some day it's going to be changed and I hope that some day I will be involved in it to make it better, to change it."