WEYMOUTH — Last Tuesday, as the jet he was on descended toward Logan Airport, former Boston University basketball standout Jake O’Brien’s spirits soared. The native of Weymouth snapped an aerial photo of Boston, and then tweeted: “Never looked so good.”
O’Brien, 24, was returning home early from a rocky rookie season playing professional basketball in violence-torn Ukraine.
The 6-foot-9-inch power forward spent the last six months playing for Ferro-ZNTU Zaporozhye, a team in the Ukrainian Superleague. He planned on returning home in May, but the turmoil in the country prompted an early exit
Although O’Brien visited both Kiev and Crimea, he was never close to the bloodshed there, he said.
But even his host city of Zaporozhye, a gritty, Russian-speaking industrial city in southeastern Ukraine, was affected.
In late January, police used tear gas and stun grenades against demonstrators there who were trying to capture a regional administration building. A local synagogue was also targeted with Molotov cocktails in February, according to news reports.
The entire basketball league was shut down for nearly three weeks in February.
O’Brien, one of four Americans on the team, was warned by the team manager to stay inside on several occasions as violence escalated.
“I wasn’t too scared,” he said. “I’m old enough to know how to stay away from trouble. Our team was good about keeping us in the loop. Our team manager said, ‘Do what you do during the day, but don’t leave your apartment at night.’ ”
One evening, O’Brien shot video of a pro-Ukrainian rally right from his apartment window overlooking Lenin Street. He was wise to use the high post location. The team photographer was attacked while photographing another demonstration on the Zaporozhye streets.
“The manager told me they broke his hand, they fractured his skull, they beat him up pretty bad,” said O’Brien.
In early March, with the situation deteriorating and many American ballplayers already gone, O’Brien received permission to leave from the team’s general manager.
“Enough is enough,” he said of his rookie experience.
O’Brien has had a year of highs and lows. Last March, he was swishing 3-pointers in the NCAA Tournament, then in June, he had a predraft workout for the Celtics.
Last week, O’Brien was snaking down back roads in the middle of the night to the airport in Donetsk, just 45 miles from the Russian border.
“Our driver had to avoid the highways to avoid being stopped by [presumed] Russian troops,” he said. “Took us a while to get there. I saw a few soldiers on the way. That’s when it got kind of scary and a relief when we got to the airport.
“I was happy to get out of there. I learned how great we have it here in America.”
O’Brien was having a good rookie season. As the starting power forward, he was averaging 10.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in 25 minutes.
The team’s green away uniforms looked a little like Celtics jerseys, but O’Brien never thought about that, even though he is Boston through and through.
His great-grandfather, Buck O’Brien, was the starting pitcher for the first game ever played at Fenway Park on April 20, 1912. He went on to win 20 games for the Red Sox that year. O’Brien’s uncle Joe was an ace pitcher and starting quarterback at Boston College; he graduated in 1978 and is in the BC Varsity Club Hall of Fame.
Jake’s dream was to play in the NCAA Tournament and then the NBA. He started young. Mark Jaehnig, program director of the North Quincy Sacred Heart League, taught him fundamentals in Grades 1-5.
“Jake was very thin, kind of timid, but always had good skills,” said Jaehnig. “He could shoot. Jake was just a real quiet kid but he worked at his game. He’s more a finesse player than a [Jared] Sullinger type.”
During a Sacred Heart League banquet last year, Jaehnig heard the unmistakable sound of a ball bouncing upstairs in the gym. It was O’Brien, who had gotten a key and was working on his game.
“I asked him if he’d talk to the kids, and he did,” said Jaehnig.
At BC High, O’Brien was a Catholic Conference all-star when the Eagles won their first state championship in his junior year. At BU, he was America East Rookie of the Year as a freshman. The future was bright. By his junior year (2010-11), he was leading the team in rebounding (5.8), and was second in blocks (14) and third in scoring (11.6 ppg) through 14 games.
But during a game against UMass on Dec. 31, 2010, he drove baseline, pulled up for a jump shot, got fouled, and landed awkwardly on the defender’s foot. He shot the two free throws but missed the next year and a half, needing two operations for a fracture of the navicular bone in his foot (“the same surgery had by Tom Brady and Dustin Pedroia,” he said).
He watched BU play in the Big Dance while on crutches.
O’Brien red-shirted the 2011-12 season and then transferred to Temple with the coaches’ blessings when BU became temporarily ineligible for the NCAA Tournament for switching leagues (from America East to the Patriot League).
At Temple, his dream of playing in the Big Dance came true. On March 22, 2013, in a second-round victory over North Carolina State, he scored 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting, including four 3-pointers, in 32 minutes,
“It was incredible,” he said. “To advance, that’s what you play for. All the injuries, all the setbacks to get back, to have it all together that one day was a great feeling.”
Temple lost in the next round, but O’Brien had been noticed.
Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, had kind words for him after the June workout.
“He said, ‘Great work, you shot it very well,’ ” said O’Brien.
But the phone never rang on draft day.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said O’Brien. “There’s just so many guys on the bubble of the NBA.”
So he signed with Ferro-ZNTU for more money than most people make in his hometown of Weymouth.
He had never left the US, never been west of the Mississippi before. But he reported to camp in late August.
Zaporozhye will never be mistaken for the Hub. The architecture is old Soviet concrete blocks. Lenin’s statue still stands, despite Ukraine’s independence. Culture shock set in for O’Brien.
“It’s an old city,” he said. “When you go there, you think it’s 40 years ago, back in time. The buildings are all broken down.”
Travel was by bus only — sometimes for nine hours — and the roads were bad.
“I just tried to take it in stride and learn what life is like over there,” said O’Brien. “People have the same interests in movies and clothes.”
The basketball was similar, but by February, the violence was creeping into his world.
“They kept canceling games, and we were left not knowing what was going next,” he said.
He spent some nights cooped up in his apartment on Lenin Avenue.
“I was homesick a little, but luckily I had Skype, Facetime, and a good Internet connection with friends and family back home,” he said. “I lived on my computer there.”
But he was a long way from Commonwealth Avenue.
Food was a problem. There were no sandwiches or subs, according to O’Brien, and just one subpar American-style restaurant. So he grilled chicken in his apartment night after night — the Ukrainian Wade Boggs.
The other American players stuck together, but they were scattered around the city. LaRon Dendy, a former Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, had his fiancée and 5-year-old son with him.
“There were definitely nights when I sat by myself and wondered, ‘What am I doing out here?’ ” said O’Brien.
“Basketball is my life. It’s given me so much. It hasn’t been the smoothest ride. But I’m over here playing the sport I love.”
He’d give himself pep talks.
“It’s OK,” he’d tell himself. “You get paid to play basketball. This is what you always wanted to do. How upset can you really get about it?”
Future is uncertain
Some scenes were jolting.
“When the [expletive] really started hitting the fan, there were lines at all the ATM machines,” said O’Brien. “Everybody was taking money out of banks. Everywhere in the whole country.”
The uncertainty was stressful.
“We were nervous they would cancel the league altogether,” said O’Brien. “You just didn’t feel safe there.”
On arrival at Logan Airport, O’Brien didn’t kiss the ground, but he did stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts in the terminal and wolfed down a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich with coffee.
He is looking to hook on with another team, and spends his days working out.
“I’m not going to get a 9-to-5 job," he said. “I’m going to keep working on my game to get better.”
The interview is cut short when a text message comes in about a pickup game in Dorchester that night.
Meanwhile, his agent is working the phones. O’Brien doesn’t know where he’ll end up. He’s not ready to abandon his long-shot NBA dream, either.
Told that Celtics Vitor Faverani and Gerald Wallace are both out for the season with injuries, he gets excited.
“I didn’t even think about Danny [Ainge],” he said with a smile. “Hopefully, he reads this article.”