You might think that the influx of foreign basketball players is a 21st century innovation, but the trend first gained momentum well before that. The NBA has had several players from the Ukraine (Viktor Khryapa, Slava Medvedenko, etc.), but the greatest of all was Vitaly Potapenko. He got his start in America at Wright State, where he averaged over 20 points per game in only two years on campus. He was also one of the best shooters in the country, making over 60% of his field goals for two straight years before becoming a 1st round pick by Cleveland. Jon Teitel got to sit down with Vitaly to discuss what it was like to be one of 12 players ever drafted ahead of Kobe Bryant.
Your nickname was “The Ukraine Train”: how did you get the nickname, and how did you like it? It was due to my style of play: I do not mind the nickname.
You were born in Kiev: how did you first get into basketball, and how did you end up coming to America? I was chosen from my class because of my height, and was later offered a scholarship to Wright State.
During your two seasons at Wright State you led the conference in FG% and were named All-MCC each season. How were you able to come in and contribute from the start, and did you feel like you were 1 of the best players in the conference? I did not care very much about my individual stats: I just enjoyed playing with my teammates.
Your career-high of 33 points came in a game against Illinois-Chicago: was it just one of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were “in the zone”? Yes.
In the summer of 1996 you were drafted 12th overall by Cleveland (one spot ahead of Kobe Bryant). Did you see that as a validation of your college career or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA? Both.
In 1996 you scored a then-career-high 22 points in a two-point OT win at Washington, while scoring 18 straight points during a six-minute span in the 2nd half. Was that the best six minutes you have ever played in your life? Yes.
You averaged 6.5 PPG/4.5 RPG during your 11-year NBA career. How satisfied are you with your career? I just feel very lucky to have played 11 years in the NBA.
After your NBA career you played professionally in Spain, What did you learn from this experience, and how did it compare to the NBA? Pro basketball in Europe is a very different game than pro basketball in the US.
You are one of six Ukranians to ever play in the NBA (Kyrylo Fesenko, Stanislav Medvedenko, Oleksiy Pecherov, Alexander Volkov, and Viktor Khryapa): which of them of you do you think will end up being considered the best? Stanislav is a champion, but I like Fesenko.
You previously were an assistant coach with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the D-League, and later took a job as an assistant with the Pacers, how do you like the current gig, and what is the biggest difference between the NBA and the D-League? I like it, but the NBA season is much longer and much more intense.