As the world’s attention was focused squarely Thursday on war breaking out in Ukraine, one former Lobo basketball player spent what he called “the craziest day of my life” just trying to get out of a nation under siege.
Two other former Lobos also playing basketball in Ukraine’s top professional league got out of the country last week – both of whom played for teams in two of the cities hit with pre-dawn strikes as the Russian invasion began Thursday morning.
Joe Furstinger, who graduated from UNM in 2018, and three teammates on Ternopil-Tneu of the Ukraine Superleague, left their apartment in Ternopil, Ukraine, at 7 a.m. Thursday and drove south toward the Romanian border.
“Been traveling all day,” Furstinger told the Journal in an interview the was conducted over several hours via social media. “… This is the craziest day of my life.”
Furstinger first spoke with the Journal about 12:30 p.m. MT – 9:30 p.m. where he and his teammates were stuck with hundreds, if not thousands, of people trying to cross through a checkpoint at the southern border of Ukraine and Romania.
“I’m at the Romanian border now, just trying to get in,” said Furstinger early in the exchange with the Journal. “… I think we’re safe for now, we just can’t cross the border. It’s taking way too long.”
Nearly seven hours later – sometime around 4 a.m. Friday for Furstinger and his teammates – they had finally made it across the border.
“No clue,” Furstinger said.
Furstinger is one of about 50 American-born players playing in Ukraine, according to various rosters found online. The rest of the season is in limbo to say the least.
One former Lobo teammate from the 2017-18 season – Troy Simons – and another former Lobo who will be a teammate of Furstinger’s this summer when the two are both playing for “The Enchantment” Lobo alumni team in The Basketball Tournament – Drew Gordon – were both also playing in this highest league in Ukraine. When talk of the imminent unrest heated up, both got out of the country and returned to the United States last week.
“The family’s safe. Everybody’s good. I appreciate everybody who reached out and checked on us,” Gordon said in a video he posted to his Instagram page. “… For anybody who is still in the Ukraine that needs any help, please contact us – hit us up and we’ll try to get everything sorted. For now, everybody’s safe, happy, healthy. Obviously a little stressed. It’s a weird time, but if you guys need help out in the Ukraine, please reach out and we’ll do everything in our power to make sure that you guys are safe as well.”
Gordon played this past season for BC Budivelnik in the capital city of Kyiv – which was hit by Russian missile strikes early Thursday.
Simons, who played one season at UNM in 2017-18 before transferring, spent this past season with Kharkivski Sokoly. That team is based in Kharkiiv, Ukraine, another city struck early Thursday.
“I’m doing good. I got out of Ukraine a week ago,” Simons told the Journal on Thursday night. He noted how relieved he is to have left when he found out the city he lived in was one of the first hit in the attacks.
While he did get out of the country and home to the United States amid such a stressful time of unrest, it didn’t deter him from landing his next hoops gig in a hurry.
“I’m actually boarding my flight to London right now to finish my season,” Simons told the Journal.
Simons spent about a week at home in Pennsylvania before signing to play with the Plymouth City (England) Patriots in the British Basketball League – a team in its debut season.
As for the basketball futures of Furstinger and Gordon, they are to be determined, though neither has indicated they are done with the sport.