George Maslennikov says he’s trying his best to remain optimistic. He wants to be strong and resolute, like his brave countrymen back in Ukraine. He calls home to support family and friends, donates what he can to the military on a mobile app.

“It’s difficult, even without the things going on back home,” said Maslennikov, a senior forward on the Canisius basketball squad and one of seven native Ukrainians currently playing for Division I men’s basketball teams. “I only see my family once a year.”

Now, he can only watch from afar as Russia continues its brutal war on Ukraine, which moved into its seventh day on Wednesday and advanced ever closer to the south and the resort port city of Odessa that Maslennikov and his immediate family call home.

Maslennikov is a prime example of how the politics of Vladimir Putin’s Russia have divided a proud nation. He was born in Kerch, a small city of about 150,000 on the eastern edge of Crimea. In 2014, the Russians annexed Crimea, a coveted peninsula at the south of the country on the Black Sea.

“I was in the middle of it,” Maslennikov recalled Wednesday in a Zoom call with the media. “I remember going to school every day and trying to live my regular life.”

But in 2015, his parents left Russian-controlled Kerch and moved to Odessa, the third-largest city in Ukraine. It was around that time that Maslennikov left to play high school basketball in Atlanta, Ga., and prepare for a college basketball career in the United States.

George Maslennikov, a 6-10, 240-pound forward from Ukraine, has started eight games so far this season for Canisius. (Courtesy of Tom Wolf Imaging)

Maslennikov’s hoop odyssey took him to Chicago, where he played one year at DePaul, then to Mission Viejo, California, where he played a year of JUCO ball at Saddlebrook Community College. He has spent the last two seasons at Canisius, where he’s a backup big man for the Golden Griffins.

It has been a tumultuous two years. Last year, Canisius played only 13 games due to the pandemic. Now, as the Griffs embark on the biggest week of the season, he has a war to worry about.

“Yesterday, I couldn’t get in touch with my parents,” Maslennikov said. “I was a bit nervous. My dad called me. He’s at work on a ship in Spain, because he’s a sailor. He literally left like two days before everything happened.

“None of us knew things would escalate this quick. So my dad and I are a little bit nervous for my mother. But we know she’s a strong woman. I called her this morning and had a chance to talk to her. It’s difficult, as I said.”

It’s even more unnerving to know that the Russian military has its eye on Odessa, a key seaport and transport hub in the southwest part of Ukraine, considered crucial to the economy. The early stages of the invasion were focused on Kiev and the north, but an attack on Odessa is said to be inevitable.

According to the New York Times, early this week Russian rockets struck a village near Odessa and a radar installation. Putin’s navy is a menacing presence in the Black Sea.

“I believe it’s already happening, where they have ships in the ports,” Maslennikov said. “They’re just waiting to deploy their troops. This, at least, is what my mom tells me, because our house is close to the water.

“The mindset of the people back home is very positive. A lot of my friends are strong mentally and physically, trying to do their best to stay connected with each other and try to support each other as well as they can.

“At times like this, the community and the spirit of the little people matters the most.”

Maslennikov said his mother isn’t going anywhere. She’s tied to her home, to her friends and family in Odessa.

Canisius’ George Maslennikov moved from Ukraine to Atlanta as a teen to prepare for a collegiate basketball career. (Courtesy of Tom Wolf Imaging)

“First of all, she’s on her own,” he said. “Also there’s a lot of people back in my city she knows and a lot of family members who moved there from Crimea and she’s kind of taking care of them. So she is going to stay there. We know we’re going to get through this stuff.

“So, my mom’s trying to keep a positive mindset. I’ll contact her every day and encourage her to do the right things, the good things, and hoping we’re going to get through it.”

While some of his family members are in Odessa, many of them remain in his native Kerch. His grandparents still live there, which is now part of Russia.

“That makes it almost difficult to impossible,” Maslennikov said. “I haven’t seen my grandparents or cousins. I have about 30-40 cousins back in Russia and I haven’t seen them eight years, probably. I see my grandmother once every two years.

“The borders are pretty heavy. It takes people 9, 10, 11 hours just to cross the border.”

Maslennikov has no plans to return right now. He’ll continue to help from a distance in any way he can. He said if he went back, he would likely be conscripted into the military, and he’s “no solider or combat-ready guy.”

You could sense how conflicted he was about the war back home, despite the Russian invasion. He talked of “propaganda and brainwashed soldiers” who “go and kill their own people.”

George Maslennikov played a season-high 23 minuts against Fairfield in mid-February. (Courtesy of Tom Wolf Imaging)

“Ukraine and Russia, at the end of the day it’s the same nation,” Maslennikov said, “just two different names to the countries.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. As of 2011, 49 percent of Ukrainians said they had relatives in Russia. In 2015, there were 2.6 million Ukrainian citizens living in Russia.

It’s a global tragedy that they could be killing each other. Maslennikov tells his Canisius teammates that it’s “basically Russians trying to not allow NATO to build rocket bases or military bases in Ukraine.”

Maslennikov seemed a bit uneasy about criticizing Putin, pointing out that he has a lot of family still living in Russia. But he said it was hard to believe what a dictator Putin has become.

“He was supposed to be a different president,” he said. “But he brought all the power onto himself so he can be president until he decides to leave, which is not going to happen any time soon. I feel like him being that way just sets up a very hard tension between his country and smaller countries like mine.

“He’s just trying to take them over, trying to bully them.”

But Maslennikov has faith in his Ukrainian countrymen’s ability to stand up to a bully.

“I still try to call my friends and people back home to keep their spirits up,” he said, “because I know you can’t beat a man if he’s mentally strong. And I think that’s why our country is standing up right now, because they’re mentally strong people.”

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Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.