When your father is a former professional player and current coach, your mother played for Dynamo Moscow and your sister suits up for first division side Kazan, it is no surprise that this person is passionate about basketball, plays for the Russian club team Avtodor Saratov and represents Russia on the national team competition level.
However, it is surprising — not to mention impressive and intimidating — if this person is only 18 years old.
Such is the story of Yaroslav Korolev, or “Jerry” to his Western teammates.
However, his first sports experiences ironically began in a swimming pool. After moving to Costa Rica where his father took on a university coaching assignment, young Korolev achieved 2nd place in a national competition for his age category for the 50 m freestyle.
“I didn’t even have a chance to think about what sport I would like to do because [since I was 3], my dad started to take me to the pool,” Korolev said. “But then when I was 6, I went to Costa Rica, and there I started to play basketball in [school].”
The long, sunny days kept Korolev on the playground late into the evening, banking passes off of a wall, shooting baskets and receiving instruction from his father, Igor.
When young Korolev was 10, he returned to Russia and lived with his grandmother. While his father finished his contract in Costa Rica Korolev began to attend a nearby basketball school.
The coach of the team there noticed Korolev’s ability to keep up with older players even at his young age and took him into the team. When Korolev’s father returned from Costa Rica, he started his own team. Young Korolev’s skill increased on this new team, in which he emerged as the leader.
“I was making passes to everybody, just scoring, more scoring than anything,” Korolev said, until 2001, when Russian Superleague men’s club Avtodor Saratov recruited him.
|Korolev in action during the European Championship Challenge Round|
Since joining Saratov, Korolev has also made his presence felt on the Russian national team. He was a key member of the Russian U16 team that won a bronze medal at the 2003 European Championship. The 206 cm forward has since made the leap to the U18 team and figures to play a main role at the upcoming European Championship in Zaragoza, Spain.
On the U18 national team, Korolev is used to being a team leader, but in Avtodor, he splits his time between the senior and youth teams and has no trouble stepping back to let his more experienced senior teammates occupy the spotlight.
“I just understand that this is a men’s game,” he said of playing with the senior side. “If I’m alone, of course I will shoot. If somebody [else is] alone, of course I’ll pass.”
The team concept is not beyond Korolev. When Avtodor made it to the Final Four of the FIBA Europe Cup Men Northern Conference Final, Korolev warmed the bench for all but six minutes of the game, but he understood that he had to do what was necessary to put the team in the best position to win.
“I was mostly sitting on the bench, but it doesn’t matter because I really wanted … to get to the Final Four,” Korolev said. “And when I was on the court, I was very emotional because I really wanted to help the team as much as I could, not just scoring, but [helping] to get the ball to the leaders, [so they could] score. I’m not just a player to score, but also to pass, to do [what is necessary].”
As Korolev’s father is the coach of Avtodor, as well as the Assistant Coach of the U18 Men’s national team, young Korolev has faced the challenge of bearing the token title, “Coach’s Son.”
“Maybe when I play more than others, they think ‘Oh, he’s the son. He’s playing more,’” Korolev said. “I try to play hard to let them see that I have to play, … not because I’m the son.”
If Korolev’s father can be blamed for anything having to do with his son’s placement, it can be his dedication to helping his son develop into a more versatile player. Though documented as a forward, young Korolev is learning to play as many positions as possible.
“I think that I play more outside because inside I don’t have too many skills to play with,” he said. “But my father is looking at that because he knows; he’s telling me that in basketball everybody has to know how to play, even me, and I’m 206 cm.
|Korolev made the FIBA Europe Cup Conference North Final Four with Saratov|
“He says, ‘You have to know that working with me means practice.’”
The practice pays off, but Korolev is honest about his abilities. When asked if tough defense was the cause of his uncharacteristic performance in the national team’s game against Greece in the Qualification Tournament for the U18 Men’s Championships ( he scored 13 points but made just 1/6 three-pointers), Korolev took the personal blame.
“I was alone. I don’t know what happened. Maybe I just wanted to score too much … and missed it. I was so angry that I just scored in the other games and then in the main game I didn’t score.”
Korolev places credit where and when it’s due. Some opponents in the U18 category he currently admires are Igkor Milosevits of Greece and the Ivanov twins from Bulgaria.
“That man (Milosevits) is good,” he said of Milosevits. “He is very good. Every team has a little guy. We have three or four little guys. They tried to play defense against him, but nobody could. He does what he wants.”
Korolev also looks to Russian NBA great Andrei Kirilenko for ways to improve his game, but plans to play in the NBA are not in the picture right now. For now, he is content to be at Avtodor.
“I think [my future with Avtodor] is a very good future,” he said. “I don’t want to go to another club … or a better club because I will just be sitting on the bench. I don’t want that.”
Korolev plays for the love of the game and the good of the team.
Mom, Dad and Julia may have set an example with their impressive resumes, but Korolev has embraced the game as his own.