Parents of KU players making overseas journeys to see them play in Final Four
Svi Mykhailiuk doubled over at the free-throw line, hands on his knees, pulling his red Kansas jersey over his eyes to wipe away tears.
This was unexpected. A few hours earlier — just before an afternoon haircut at Downtown Barbershop on Mass Street — Mykhailiuk had said he wasn’t worried about his upcoming senior speech. He’d be done in five minutes, he said. And no, he didn’t feel nervous at all.
Things changed once he grabbed the microphone following KU’s 80-70 victory over Texas on Feb. 26.
Looking above KU’s bench, Mykhailiuk saw his parents, mom Inna and dad Iurri, smiling while holding up their iPhones to commemorate the moment.
Mykhailiuk had started to tell the story at Allen Fieldhouse before having to stop. Parts of it came out in bits and pieces — between sobs and sniffles — but not the whole thing.
Now, a few days before his team’s Final Four game against Villanova, Mykhailiuk is ready to explain why he was so emotional that night.
And also why his father means so much to him.
'Practicing and school'
The routine — and objectives — were the same each morning.
For Iurri, it was to get out of bed and make breakfast. For Svi, it was simply to wake up.
Weekdays always seemed to follow a similar rhythm, though: Leave in the Volkswagen by 6:30 a.m., follow the same roads, then make it to basketball practice by 7.
“My childhood was all about practicing and school,” Svi said.
Which meant that Iurri, literally, was beside him the whole time. Because Svi was still in high school, he couldn’t drive himself to workouts.
So Iurri would do it. He’d get to the gym with his son, watch the individual instruction from the sideline for an hour, then take him to school before heading to his job as a university history professor.
The afternoon would play out the same way. Iurri would take Svi to his national team practice, stay for the entire workout, then drive him home when the coach decided to end drills.
It was all part of a busy lifestyle that began shortly after Svi started basketball in first grade.
The sport found Svi, instead of the other way around. During an after-school program, Svi’s P.E. teacher, Alexander Molchanov, told kids they had the option of playing basketball at the high school gym. Svi decided to give it a try.
“It was fun,” he said. “That’s why I kept going. I didn’t know what basketball was.”
He learned quickly. Svi developed into one of the best players in Ukraine, his home country, and in the process, he made his father a hoops fan, too.
Iurri would watch EuroLeague games at home or even check in on an NBA game when time allowed.
“He doesn’t coach me, but he knows ball,” Svi said.
Though it meant less sleep and longer days for Iurri, Svi says he doesn’t remember him missing a practice or game.
The texts were waiting for Svi Mykhailiuk following KU’s 85-81 victory over Duke on Sunday: “We’re coming.”
Inna and Iurri understood the situation. The NCAA provides a travel stipend for players’ families if they reach the Final Four, and the Mykhailiuks had already started making plans.
The flight from Ukraine, Svi says, is about 20 hours. He figures when he first sees his father this week in San Antonio, he’ll be greeted with a hug.
It’s been an emotional journey over the past four years. Svi and Iurri first met KU coach Bill Self at the 2014 Nike Hoops Summit in Portland, Ore., with the two sides needing a translator to ensure they could understand each other.
Svi committed to KU the next month, and the weight of how everything was going to change hit Iurri in one moment outside the KU coaches’ offices.
When he had to tell his son goodbye before heading to the airport, Iurri started to cry — something Svi had never seen.
“Not seeing me for a whole year, that was tough for him,” Svi said.
The two have found new ways to stay connected.
Though KU’s night games often start at 2 or 3 a.m. in Ukraine, Svi has become accustomed to a new routine.
After each game, either his phone rings or a text message is waiting for him. That could be a long conversation or a message as short as "Good game."
Iurri, though, still has not missed one of his son’s games. And he’s not about to start now.
Beside him all along
The streets were familiar.
Iurri left work in his Volkswagen and followed the well-known path, making his way to the Ukraine national team’s practice after work around 6 p.m.
Once there, he watched on the sideline. When the workout ended, he drove home, knowing he’d be back the next day.
After a few weeks, national team coach Maksym Mikhelson decided to call Svi. He needed to know what was happening as well.
Svi waited to share the anecdote at Senior Night. And now, his words make sense.
“My coach told me story that … my dad kept going to practices even when I was not there,” Svi said. “Kept driving the same way, so he could think I’m still with him.”
The two won’t be apart Saturday. When looking above KU’s bench at the Final Four in San Antonio, Svi once again should see his father.
The man who's been beside him the whole time.