Basketball, Features, Sports

Former BU star escapes Ukraine days before Russian invasion

When Max Mahoney walked into Case Gym to watch Boston University men’s basketball face off against Loyola Maryland, he was treated like royalty. 

Seemingly everyone in the building close to the Terriers’ organization –– students, players, staff and parents –– seized the opportunity to embrace Mahoney as he made a surprise appearance for the Terriers home playoff game on March 3.

Max Mahoney Ukraine basketball
Max Mahoney, a former Boston University men’s basketball player. Mahoney, a member of the Ukrainian Basketball Superleague with the team Kharkivski Sokoly since September 2021, decided to leave Ukraine just before Russia invaded — leaving his ties to the country and his career on pause. MADDIE MALHOTRA/DFP FILE

 Mahoney’s presence could very well have played a factor in the high energy performance which led the Terriers to win their first game of the 2022 Patriot League playoffs. As one of the few, if not only, attendees standing at 6-foot-8 without a jersey on, he was hard to miss. 

However, less than a month before Mahoney made the four-hour trip from his New Jersey home to his former home at Case Gym, he was living in a country, Ukraine, that would soon become a dangerous battleground.

Mahoney’s promising collegiate career at BU came to an end in 2020 after the Terriers won the Patriot League championship. He then played professionally for a year in Germany before signing with Kharkivski Sokoly of the Ukrainian Basketball Superleague in September 2021. 

Before Mahoney signed with the Ukrainian club, he conducted his own research regarding the safety of the country. “While I was there I felt safe,” Mahoney said. “Even up until I left I felt that I was safe.”

Recently, though, Ukraine has been catapulted to the forefront of international news, since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of the sovereign nation on Feb. 24. It is the largest military attack in Europe since World War II and, just yesterday, a United Nations refugee agency announced that more than two million people have fled Ukraine over the past 12 days.

When the prospect of a Russian invasion became a little more real in Ukraine, Mahoney’s teammates and personnel within the organization assured him there would be nothing to worry about. Mahoney said his Ukrainian teammates told him,  “‘We live next to Russia, so we’re constantly under pressure, Putin is constantly breathing down our necks. This is part of our life here.’” 

But when things started to ramp up in the country, and a Russian invasion seemed inevitable, Mahoney and his American teammates were faced with a tough decision of whether or not to leave the country. 

“We decided that whatever we did we would do it together, whether we were staying or leaving,” Mahoney said. “After some discussion, we decided that it was in our best interest to leave.”

Mahoney and his teammates then spoke with the club president to inform the team of their decision. However, the team still had its doubts about an impending war and urged the players to remain. 

“We spoke back and forth about it and I would say we weren’t really seeing eye to eye,” Mahoney said. “He wanted us to stay, we wanted to leave, and at that point, the decision was kind of made.” 

Despite the club president’s resistance, Mahoney and his teammates decided to leave the country on Feb. 13. 

Since Mahoney has been back in the United States, his primary concern regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the safety of his teammates still within the Ukrainian border. 

“I think the thing that’s really impactful to him is that he knows people that are in [Ukraine],” BU head coach Joe Jones, who coached Mahoney during his tenure at BU, said. “They’re sending him photos and videos and I think that’s really heavy on his mind.” 

In fact, Mahoney has tried to stay in touch with his Ukrainian teammates as much as possible. “Some have stayed where they are and sheltered and bunkered down. Some tried to make their way more west, away from where Russia is invading,” Mahoney said. 

Mahoney has even received messages from fans of the team informing him of their situation. “It’s unbelievable what’s going on there and the danger these people are in,” Mahoney said. 

Because of the situation in Ukraine, Mahoney is unsure of what his professional basketball career will look like in the near future. “It’s a difficult situation,” Mahoney said. “It’s something I’ve been in contact with my agent about.” 

However, while Mahoney is in the U.S., his focal point has been keeping up to date with the safety of his Ukrainian teammates, and catching up with loved ones at home. “The main focus of the past week and a half is seeing my family, seeing some of my closest friends, and now coming to Boston [to watch BU play],” Mahoney said. 

It’s rare for a collegiate athlete to have a profound impact on an organization. It’s even more extraordinary when that player comes back two years later to find that the mark he left on the organization remains as noticeable as it did the night he played his final game in a Terrier jersey. 

“Anytime you lead your team to the conference championship and do it in the manner that he did it in, you have [earned] legendary status,” Jones said. “He deserved to have that welcome when he came back into the gym.” 

Although Mahoney is unsure what his future holds, Jones has faith that his former star will display his talents on the court whether it’s in Ukraine or somewhere else. “He loves to play and I think he wants to continue to play,” Jones said. 

One Comment

  1. Lisa Nehus Saxon

    Great story, Brett!