The first name that enters the minds of most European basketball fans when the words Ukraine, women and basketball are uttered in the same breath is Gorbunova.
Just 22 years old, Olexandra Gorbunova is on the verge of superstardom.
Last year, she decided to leave MKB Euroleasing Sopron in Hungary and signed with Russian giants CSKA Moscow.
Gorbunova is one of the finest talents to emerge from Ukraine in recent times.
The 1.86m forward is leading the charge for the Ukrainians as they attempt to win Group A of the EuroBasket Women Additional Qualifying Round.
She gave this interview to Basketball World News for FIBA Europe after Ukraine's vitally important 67-61 win over Bulgaria, a success that has allowed the national side to put one foot into this year's Final Round in Latvia since only a defeat of 26 points or more at Germany in their final qualifier will deny them.
FIBA Europe: Olexandra, congratulations on your triumph over Bulgaria. Great game! You had 32 points 10 rebounds, taking the initiative right when it was needed. Did you feel it was time to turn your game up a notch, or did the coach instruct you?
Gorbunova: Thank you. I just felt the rhythm, felt the shot. My teammates saw that and started to feed me the ball. We had a good start to the game and that allowed us to get a bit more relaxed, but when the Bulgarians caught up, we started to lose control. The girls that would sub in seemed lost ... The game ended 40 minutes ago and I am still shaking. We badly needed this win!
FIBA Europe: How difficult was it to adjust to the switch of defense your opponents made? They started to play a lot more aggressively, which allowed them to get back in the game.
|Gorbunova will look for more playing time from new CSKA coach Igor Grudin.|
Gorbunova: They played the same way in Bulgaria - very tough on defense. We knew it was coming, but it turned out we were not completely ready. I think we needed to play as aggressive.
FIBA Europe: The Bulgaria team knew they had to stop you in order to get a win. And still you managed to score 32 points. Does the fact that you know the opponents will be after you all game and the fact that their best player was guarding you most of the time give you special motivation?
Gorbunova: Yeah, I felt the pressure all game long. It's hard to play when someone is chasing you all the time and you feel their breath. But this opens up my teammates if they don't play help-side. If they do, I just need to get the ball, after which I'll penetrate or shoot or pass.
FIBA Europe: It's been a very busy year for you. Let's go back in time a bit. When you found out in 2008 that CSKA wanted you to be a part of their team, how did you react?
Gorbunova: I learned about it at the end of last season and said "yes" without hesitation. I was very happy such a team paid attention to me and invited me to join them. I had a lot of other offers, but this one seemed best for me as I wanted to continue my growth as a player.
FIBA Europe: At first, everything seemed great for you. You were getting enough playing time, but soon you lost it. A bit later the team ceased to exist. Did you have any regrets over the choice you made to go to CSKA?
Gorbunova: I don't usually regret the things I do and try to never look back. So I tried to find a way out of the situation I got into. I spent a week at home, looking for a new team. I even thought of taking the rest of the season off. But when we found out CSKA was out there again and returned, there was no limit to our joy. Our team had been like a family before the team collapsed, and we'd had a farewell party where we exchanged our addresses...
FIBA Europe: What does a player feel when she is told her team no longer exists and she is no longer employed? How were you notified?
Gorbunova: I think everyone goes through this in a different way. When the rumors started, we knew that the club had a week to find a new sponsor. When the week passed and we were called up for a meeting after a home game with Orenburg, we had a feeling that was it. So they just let us face the fact that there was no more CSKA and apologized. They said the financial crisis affected them as well. So that's when I headed home. It's great that the new sponsor did appear quite fast. We have no more problems, so hopefully this will last. Such a thing happened to me for the first (and I hope for the last) time in my life.
FIBA Europe: After you returned to the team, you lost your playing time. Did it have to do with your shape or with the coach's philosophy?
Gorbunova: Honestly, I don't know. I tried to do my best at practices to earn the playing time. This could have been the coach's vision of the game - after all we have a roster full of talented players. I guess at certain moments there were players who he thought would do better than me. I am hoping that this will change after I return, especially now that the team has a new coach (Gundars Vetra departed and took the reins of UMMC Ekaterinburg and Igor Grudin returned to the sidelines to become the CSKA boss again).
FIBA Europe: Perhaps your superb play for the national team is a chance for you to prove to someone over there that you are worth the trust?
Gorbunova: First of all, I have to prove to myself I am still capable of something. I need to feel the confidence once again.
FIBA Europe: Did you expect to be 3-0 at this point of the additional qualification with Ukraine?
Gorbunova: This is how it should be. We play to win. We have one more game left and it is extremely important. It will be hard for us physically, but should be easier mentally because we are in a pretty good situation. We were very disappointed in the summer when we failed to qualify for the EuroBasket directly. Now it's also pretty tough because we missed the entire holiday season, sacrificed the time without our families. Some girls sacrificed important club games. I guess this is what being a patriot is about.
FIBA Europe: Speaking of patriotism, are you disappointed so few people show up at the games to support you?
Gorbunova: I wouldn't say after these two games there are few. No matter how many or how little show up, it's important for us that they support us with their hearts. Of course the more the better, but the people that came to cheer for us at these two games have been fantastic. We didn't feel this during the summer game, so we are very glad to those who did show up.
FIBA Europe: Did you follow the men's national team during their EuroBasket qualifying campaign?
Gorbunova: Yes, when I had a chance, on TV or on the internet. When I was in Kyiv, I attended their games at the Sports Palace.
FIBA Europe: Don't you have a feeling of pride the women's national team is doing much better than the men's national team?
Gorbunova: Let's talk about that if we do qualify. It's been a while since Ukraine (women) last made it to the EuroBasket. I try not to compare men's and women's basketball. Men play much faster, they are more exciting to watch. The women's game could be a bit more intellectual, but it's definitely way more emotional.
FIBA Europe: You've been nominated for the FIBA Europe Player of the Year award. When did you find out and what was your reaction?
Gorbunova: My friends told me. I visit fibaeurope.com quite frequently, but there was a period of time I didn't have access to the internet so I missed the news. Of course it made me feel good. I know my friends and fans in Ukraine and Hungary are voting for me, but the final place I take will not really matter. It's a big honor to be on the same list with the girls that made it there and it tells me I'm moving in the right direction.
FIBA Europe: Well, good luck to you in Germany! Hope to see you in Latvia.