Straight Outta Lutsk: Bliznyuk

By Riley Baker, Staff Writer

It was almost blizzard-like as Bogdan Bliznyuk drove through Snoqualmie Pass on the way to his home in Federal Way, Washington, on the evening of Jan. 12. He had to get over the snowy mountains without the help of snow tires, but he overcame the storm on the other side.

Bliznyuk went home to attend an interview and take a test in order to officially become an American citizen early the next morning. He just had a team practice that afternoon, and with the heavy snow and traffic on I-90, he did not get home until nearly midnight.

The following morning he woke up at 6 a.m. to prepare for his test. He did a little last minute studying and left for his interview schedule at 7:45 a.m. “I was pretty nervous, it’s a pretty big thing — a really big thing,” Bliznyuk said. He aced the test, and the interviewer deemed Bliznyuk an American citizen.

He left directly from the interview and drove straight back to EWU in order to be on time for basketball practice that afternoon.

Bliznyuk is a 6-foot-6-inch sophomore at EWU and plays forward for the men’s basketball team. The 20-year-old was born March 31, 1995, in Lutsk, Ukraine, and has already overcome a number of obstacles in his life to be able to play the game he loves at the college level. Bliznyuk lived in Ukraine for six and a half years with his mother, Lyudmila, and his older brother, Dima. His father was a truck driver and died in an accident when Bliznyuk was about 2 years old.

Bliznyuk was too young to remember a whole lot about Ukraine. “I didn’t start school there,” he said. “I started school when I came back my first year here.” Because he was not going to school yet, the only things he remembered were living at his apartment complex and going to church with his family.

Bliznyuk described the complex as having big buildings boxed around a playground in the middle. He would play with his brother and the other children living in the complex on the playground. But despite his active childhood, he never played basketball during his years in Ukraine, or any sports for that matter.

When he was six, Bliznyuk’s mother moved the three of them to Federal Way to be closer to family. They have extended family scattered throughout the suburbs of Seattle, including family in Des Moines; Washington; Kent, Washington, and Auburn, Washington. “We have a pretty big family that is all pretty close,” said Bliznyuk. “So it was really big for us to come here and be with all of them again.”

Bliznyuk’s family moved into an active apartment complex in Federal Way upon arriving in the United States. There were always a bunch of kids around playing sports, and it was there Bliznyuk got his start in basketball. He would play sports like football, baseball and soccer, but he quickly found basketball to be his favorite.

“Everybody would be playing sports and we played basketball,” Bliznyuk said. His love for the game grew, and when he was not playing he was watching it on TV. Kobe Bryant came to be Bliznyuk’s favorite player to watch and emulate, and he began shooting fade-away jumpers pretending to be like his hero. He discovered that he had a real talent from a young age.

“I would always be competing against much bigger kids than me,” said Bliznyuk. “I was the little, young kid who would get picked on and picked last.” Playing against bigger and better kids set him ahead of the curve and really helped him in the long run. “Once I started playing with kids my own age I realized that I was pretty good,” he said. “I realized it was something I could do, something I could be good at and something I had fun doing.”

Although Kobe Bryant is his favorite player, Bliznyuk does not really model his game after him. “I just try to do what works for me,” he said. “Not everybody’s game is going to be the same. I mean you can look at people, how they do things, some of their moves and their approach to the game. But at the end of the day, you’re your own player and you’ve got to do what works best for you.”

Coming to America from Ukraine gave Bliznyuk the tools and the opportunity to move forward in his life, not only in basketball, but in terms of an education as well. “I just feel like there is more opportunity … I feel like I got a better education here,” said Bliznyuk. “Through basketball, getting a free education at a university, that is big for me and something that I’m pretty sure was never going to happen to me if I stayed back home. I was never going to be able to get a free education through basketball.”

Studying business marketing at EWU, Bliznyuk would like to get into promoting and marketing in his post-basketball career. “I always find it interesting and a little fun to just be creative with things,” said Bliznyuk. “Think of new ideas, and see how you could promote something in a unique way that reaches out to the audience.”

However, Bliznyuk would prefer to have a career in basketball. “If everything goes good and I stay healthy, it would be great to be able to play professional basketball,” said Bliznyuk. “It’d be great to play at the next level, any type of professional basketball. But I think with my level of the game, even if that doesn’t happen, I still want to be involved in the game in a way. Whether it’s coaching or if it’s helping a little cousin out, training them. I just want to be involved in the game of basketball.”

It will not be an easy journey for Bliznyuk to reach his goals, and it has not been easy for him to get to where he is now. Most kids who want to be scouted for college basketball play Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball in addition to high school ball. Although he played high school basketball, Bliznyuk was only able to play in this league when he was in fifth grade and for half of his senior year. This put him at a disadvantage to other players because they play year-round. Bliznyuk missed out on these extra games and fell behind his teammates and opponents, but he kept in shape by playing on his local court.

Another obstacle Bliznyuk had to overcome was surgery. He was born with a gap in his upper jaw and has had several surgeries to fix it. The summer after his sophomore year at Todd Beamer high school he had surgery after tearing two ligaments in his ankle, one partially and the other completely. He also chipped his lateral malleolus, the bone at the ball of his ankle. His recovery took about three months.

The summer after his junior year of high school he had his most recent jaw surgery for his underbite to widen the top part of his jaw. He missed two months of basketball recovering from that surgery. Bliznyuk was not able to use those summers to play more games in the offseason due to his surgeries and fell behind even more, but that did not deter him from playing the game he loves.

Despite all of these setbacks over the years, Bliznyuk came a long way to be the player he is today. As a freshman last year, Bliznyuk was a part of the Eagles team that appeared in the NCAA tournament and won the Big Sky Conference Freshman player of the year award. During the current season he continued his dominance, collecting the first triple-double in EWU history on Jan. 16. No other EWU basketball player had ever accomplished this feat. “It means a lot being able to do something that no other men’s basketball player has been able to do at this school,” Bliznyuk.

Coming from a different country, competing against bigger kids, missing out on AAU basketball and fighting through a number of surgeries has not discouraged Bliznyuk in the least. In fact he has thrived off of these obstacles. He came a long way from where he started to being where he is now; being an American citizen and successful in the game of basketball.

“Personally, I’m very pleased with my situation,” said Bliznyuk. “I’m very happy with where I am, and I’m very excited for where I can go and where I stand right now. I feel like there are great opportunities and a future for me. I’m just thankful that I was able to come and be closer to my family.”

Bliznyuk talked about how he came to have his own game of basketball. “It’s kind of like a trial and error. You try things, you learn things, you see what you can do and what you can be successful with and that’s kind of what I did, what I learned and I’m still learning,” he said.