When Sixers forward P.J. Tucker thinks about his time playing in Ukraine over a decade ago, he can’t help but think of the fate of those he knew there. How some were forced to flee in the face of the Russian invasion 14 months ago, and how at least one former teammate has stayed to fight in the ongoing conflict.
But he also can’t help but think about the beforetimes – about things that were mundane, even amusing. About how he hated the food and the weather, and struggled with the language barrier. About his bemusement over a particular incident, which saw a duffel bag full of cash tossed in the middle of his team’s locker room to incentivize one and all. (More on that in a moment.)
“It’s different,” he said of playing there, as he sat shirtless in the Sixers’ locker room following their final regular-season home game last week. “It’s not for everybody, but I enjoyed it.”
He is also certain that his time there was vital to his development as a player, that it paved the way for an NBA career now in its 12th year.
“It made me grow up, build character and learn to be a pro,” he said.
Tucker, who turns 38 in May, spent parts of two seasons (2008-09 and ‘09-10) playing for BC Donetsk of the Ukrainian SuperLeague, and five years overseas in all. That sojourn also included stops in Israel, Greece, Germany and Italy, and came between his first NBA season (‘06-07), which saw him yo-yo between the Raptors and the G-League, and his second (‘12-13), when he finally found his footing in Phoenix.
Hard as it might be to picture now, he was the go-to guy in Ukraine, the scorer.
“I think that helped me be a good role player … because I knew what I needed guys to do, what kind of guys I needed to be able to win,” he said.
He embraced the sidekick role when he returned stateside, and it wasn’t too long before his toughness, defense and occasional three-point shooting were coveted throughout the league. He carried his lunchpail from Phoenix to Houston to Milwaukee, winning a title in the last of those stops. Then it was on to Miami for a season, and last summer he earned a three-year, $33 million free-agent contract from the Sixers.
This year has been fairly typical. He averaged just 3.5 points a game during the regular season – down from his career average of 6.8 – but shot over 39 percent from three-point range while jousting with whomever he was assigned to guard. (Particularly notable was his second-half defensive work against Denver’s Nikola Jokic on Jan. 28. Jokic managed just two of his 24 points in the fourth quarter of the Sixers’ 126-119 victory, despite a six-inch height advantage on the 6-5 Tucker.)
No less a player than retired Sixers Hall of Famer Bobby Jones said in an interview with Philly.com earlier this month that Tucker has made “a huge difference” for the team, because of his willingness to do the dirty work. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, for whom Tucker played last season, called the veteran forward “a competitive warrior” who is “all about the right things.”
“He does all the little things that so many players aren’t willing to do in this league,” Spoelstra added. “He’s willing to sacrifice his body. He defends, will take on any challenge. (He will) set screens, space the floor. He doesn’t need to have the ball in his hands to be effective offensively. So a lot of those winning, intangible plays.”
Certainly Tucker’s singular set of skills will be of particular value now, with the postseason upon us. Certainly the Sixers, who open the playoffs against Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon, are going to need him to get some stops and, occasionally at least, make some shots.
“He’s one of those guys you don’t want to play against, but everybody wants a P.J. Tucker,” Nets assistant Royal Ivey, once Tucker’s teammate at the University of Texas, told ESPN.com two years ago.
That same ESPN.com piece detailed the degree to which Tucker came to dislike Ukrainians’ dietary choices during his time in Donetsk, a city in the eastern part of the country that at the time was home to nearly one million residents. Their preference for goulash left him craving Chik-Fil-A sandwiches and occasionally settling for Snickers bars for dinner.
“You’ve got to have a certain mindset to play there,” Tucker said last week, as he listed the other everyday challenges. “In the winter, you’re not gonna see the sun. It’s gonna snow feet, a couple feet of snow. You know, it’s a lot. It’s a lot. Nobody speaks English. You just talk to your translator. … It’s hard, food-wise. It’s not like playing in Israel or Italy.”
Then there was, shall we say, the management approach. Last week Tucker reiterated a story he shared five years ago on the Jim Rome Show about BC Donetsk’s owner at the time, a man named Sergey Dyadechko. How Dyadechko routinely bet with the owner of Donetsk’s rival, Azovmash, on the outcome of the teams’ games. And how before one of those games, during the ‘08-09 season at Azovmash, Dyadechko decided to put his thumb on the scale.
First, the owner’s bodyguards – “he moves like President Biden,” Tucker said – made certain the team’s locker room was secure.
“And then,” Tucker said, “he came in with $100,000 cash money in a bag and dropped it. He didn’t speak English, so he had a translator, and he, like, translated: ‘C’mon guys, win this game.’ I saw my Ukrainian teammates. As soon as he walked out, they looked at me like, ‘C’mon, that’s like a whole year’s salary right there. C’mon.’”
By Tucker’s recollection, he had a big night and the team won. And the money?
“I didn’t take any of it,” he said. “I gave it all to my teammates.”
Time has spun forward. The team went bankrupt early the following season (though it was later resurrected), leaving the players free agents. Tucker wound up in Israel, where he had played two years before, and, eventually, the NBA.
His is now a comfortable life. Through last season he had earned over $57 million in salary, according to basketball-reference.com, with millions more to come from the Sixers. He has been able to spend lavishly on things like sneakers – he owned 5,000 pairs as of 2020, according to an SI.com piece, and recently agreed to have seven auctioned off to benefit the Sixers Youth Foundation.
He is also well aware of those who have been less fortunate, not the least of which are those in Donetsk. It sits in an eastern province of the same name, a province that was once the most populous in all of Ukraine, with over four million residents. But it is one of four provinces that was occupied by the Russians soon after their February 2022 invasion, and remains so. Cities have been destroyed. Fighting continues to be a daily reality.
“It’s very hard to see the pictures in the city,” Tucker said, “because I enjoyed it, had a lot of fun there.”
He added that many of his acquaintances have left for other parts of Ukraine, or other parts of Europe. And then there is the matter of the teammate who enlisted. Tucker politely declined to name him – “I don’t know if he would want me to say,” he said – but knows he’s out there, knows he is literally the warrior of whom Spoelstra spoke.
Meantime Tucker is left with his own memories of the beforetimes. Of a time when things were complicated, but not nearly as much as they are now. Of a time that changed his life in ways that might be difficult to fathom, given the current context.