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IOWA CITY - Matt Gatens lives and works less than 100 miles from the Crimean peninsula, but the unfolding chaos between Russia and the Ukraine has yet to reach the Iowa City native or his fiancee Erin Hake of Marion.
Yet the specter of violence is enough for Hake to return to the United States and for Gatens' team to move their home basketball game from Yuzhne, Ukraine - located about 30 miles east of Odessa along the Black Sea - to Istanbul, Turkey. Those events are happening today.
“We have paid close attention to the events in Kiev and now the ongoing situation in Crimea with Russia,” Gatens told The Gazette through email. “It has affected us in that our league was suspended for a week and a half at one point, and we are concerned for what could happen next.”
Gatens graduated from the University of Iowa in 2012 and ranks sixth all-time in scoring with 1,635 points. He was named second-team all-Big Ten selection two years ago.
Last year Gatens played professionally in Spain and moved to the Ukraine this year. He starts for his squad and averages more than 10 points a game. He's more of a 3-point shooter now than in college, he said. Gatens' team leads the Ukrainian Superleague with a 16-2 record and should advance to the 16-team Eurocup Tournament. He has traveled to several European countries and calls his experience overseas “fulfilling.”
Gatens describes his community as small and the arena modern. His team played a game in Kiev just blocks from the protests at Independence Square. Gatens said most of his American teammates are concerned by the violence but the Ukrainian nationals are confident the issue won't escalate.
However some of the league's teams in areas affected by the violence have sent home their foreign players, including Americans. That's not yet an issue for Gatens' squad.
“The city we live in is safe and we are told the situation should not spread into our area,” Gatens said. “I hope and pray things continue to head in the peaceful direction for our safety and the lives of the people of Ukraine.”
“I hope to be able to finish out the season here in Ukraine as long as everything calms down politically,” he said.
Gatens' season ends this spring and he plans to return to Iowa afterward. He and Hake will marry in August, and Gatens plans to continue his professional basketball career after meeting with his agency after he returns. He still keeps up with his former team despite the eight-hour time difference.
"I stay in the touch once in a while with a few of the guys and coaches," he said. "I'm proud of what they have done so far and looking forward to seeing what happens in March."