‘My family’s safety is first’: Drew Gordon recounts getting out of Ukraine

‘My family’s safety is first’: Drew Gordon recounts getting out of Ukraine

The email sent by the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine on Feb. 11 to Angela Gordon, the wife of BC Budivelnyk Kyiv forward Drew Gordon, was short and to a very urgent point.

“Angela, your husband needs to leave Ukraine, or Kyiv, at the very least!”

Even though the threat of an invasion of Ukraine by Russia was very real, the brother of Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon initially planned to stay in Kyiv to fulfill his one-year contract. But after the dire nature of the email sank in, Drew Gordon and his wife decided to depart with their children Zayne, who turns 3 on Sunday, and 3-month-old Brody, who was born in Kyiv, and were lucky to find flights back to America on Feb. 14.

“My advice to him was get your family out of a war that you don’t need to fight,” Aaron Gordon told Andscape.

Drew Gordon and his family are now safely residing in Denver near his brother and their parents. Gordon said his Budivelnyk teammates of Ukrainian descent, however, are still in the now war-torn country that he grew to love in his short time there.

“Ukraine is a proud country,” Gordon said. “The people are proud to be Ukrainian. There’s a lot of history that goes along with being Ukrainian and they fight hard for what they believe. They also make sure that whoever visits Ukraine sees its beauty for what it is. There’s a lot of monuments that are decades old from past run-ins and past conflicts that they were able to prevail with. And they’re good people, man. I really respect all of the people of Ukraine, not just because it’s a country I played in and they’re nice to basketball players. I’ve seen how they interact with each other. I’ve seen how just the day-to-day life is.

“And they’re just supersolid, solid people. And I hope that this war and the conflict right now is resolved soon, and they are able to keep the same energy that they’ve had about them, because it’s honestly something that people can take note of and learn from, because they’re good people, and I wish them well.”

Gordon’s pro basketball journey has taken him to the G League and all over the world, including Serbia, Sardinia, Turkey, France, Lithuania, Poland and three different teams in Russia. The former McDonald’s All American had a brief stint in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers and was able to play against his brother when he was with the Orlando Magic early in the 2014-15 season.

“Me and my family have literally been able to travel the world and see things that most people wouldn’t be able to see, whether it be one of the big cities in Russia or Turkey or France, Greece, you name it. We’ve been able to go and be a part of that culture and that lifestyle.”

The 6-foot-8 forward signed a one-year contract with BC Budivelnyk Kyiv late last summer in hopes of helping the club win a Ukrainian SuperLeague title that would qualify them for coveted and lucrative EuroLeague play. Other Americans on Budivelnyk included former NBA player Archie Goodwin, former G Leaguers Jerome Randle and Alec Brown, and Michael Stockton, the son of former Utah Jazz star John Stockton.

Angela Gordon arrived in Ukraine pregnant with their second son. Brody Gordon was born on the morning of Jan. 8 in Kyiv, the day after the traditional Ukrainian Christmas. Budivelnyk sent the family some team-issued baby clothes as a present.

Angela Gordon attempted to get an American passport for her newborn son soon after, but that was delayed since she and her two sons contracted COVID-19. (Drew Gordon tested positive for the virus last year and stayed with his family when they contracted it.)

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“Everything started to escalate, but with a new newborn, you should not travel,” Drew Gordon said. “And with a mother that has literally just gone through a crazy [cesarean section] operation and is very new to the postpartum, it’s not advised to travel. So, we were waiting on his passport, his birth certificate, Social Security number, things like that. Even his Ukrainian citizenship and birth certificate, we were waiting on that. So, we were in close contact with the U.S. Embassy, trying to get the paperwork done.”

Angela Gordon said that she is proud that Brody was born in Kyiv and looks forward to the day when she can explain the significance.

“It is so special to me that Brody will forever be connected to Ukraine,” Angela Gordon said. “Such a beautiful place with strong people. I hope one day we will get to go back to Kyiv and show our kids the city we lived in and where Brody was born.”

The Gordons started hearing news stories about a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine in January. Aaron Gordon and other family members reached out to them regularly, trying to convince them to come home. Drew Gordon was convinced that Western media reports of an impending invasion were overblown after talking to Budivelnyk officials. Although the threat of war caused Gordon to start considering sending his family home to America, he planned to finish out the season.

“Until everything popped off, it was business as usual,” Gordon said. “There are kids and families outside going for walks in the park. People going to dinner. There was no sense of urgency to leave except for our family members calling us and telling us this is happening.

“The Ukrainian news is literally just like: ‘Yo, Russia is being Russia. It’s nothing to worry about. Go about your business.’ ”

Back in America, Aaron Gordon and his family members were “extremely” worried.

“I was concerned when the news channels stopped talking about COVID and started talking about Ukraine and Russia,” Aaron Gordon said.

Aaron Gordon’s biggest fears came true when President Joe Biden issued a warning on Feb. 11 to any Americans still in Ukraine to leave immediately as Russia continued to threaten an invasion. While Drew Gordon planned to stay to fulfill his contract, his wife grew nervous as the options for departing flights from Ukraine became slimmer and slimmer. Luckily, the U.S. Embassy did give the Gordons’ newborn an emergency passport on Feb. 12 that would allow him to leave the country.

Angela Gordon bought plane tickets for herself and her two children on Feb. 12 to take a long two-stop flight on Feb. 14 from Kyiv to Munich to Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco. Angela Gordon told the U.S. Embassy in a reply in a Feb. 11 email that she was going to pick up the passport for herself and her children and fly out on Feb. 14. She added in the email that “my husband will be unfortunately staying here in Kyiv due to his work. Thank you for your help!”

Next came the response from the U.S. Embassy that it was urgent for him to depart, and she immediately told her husband.

Budivelnyk won a road game against BC Zaporizhya 81-69 in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on Feb. 13. Budivelnyk (23-8) was in second place in the Ukrainian SuperLeague behind Prometey with eyes on qualifying for EuroLeague. After returning to Kyiv that same day, Budivelnyk had a team meeting to discuss the impending invasion. It was during that meeting that Drew Gordon told his coaches, teammates and team executives that he was returning to America with his family, skipping the Ukrainian SuperLeague All-Star weekend and he wasn’t certain when he would return.

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“The coaches were like, ‘Nothing is going to happen,’ ” Gordon said. “ ‘We got a game in two days, three days. We’re going to play that game and then we’ll see whatever happens, happens.’ And I was like, ‘Bro, I’m going to miss that game because I’m flying my family home. I don’t think you guys understand. My family’s safety is first. It’s the paramount. I am going to make sure that they’re safe. And if I have to miss a game, if I have to get fined, so be it.’

“I essentially said, ‘I’m leaving.’ I don’t know how everybody else feels. I was one of the only guys on the team that had a family, that had kids and a wife, other things to think about besides ourselves.”

Budivelnyk told the players they could leave as early as Feb. 14. Early in the morning of Feb. 14, Angela Gordon was able to book a flight for her husband to return that day but initially it was a separate flight from the one for her and the children. A United Airlines ticket agent got the entire family on the same flight together from Kyiv.

Some of Drew Gordon’s teammates weren’t so lucky.

“It was a blessing that we were able to get on the same flight,” Angela Gordon said. “Some of his teammates couldn’t find flights home [right away] and traveled to Lviv [Ukraine] to get flights out.”

The Ukrainian government closed its airspace to commercial flights due to Russia’s military actions and declared a state of emergency. The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine issued a “Level 4 Do Not Travel” to Ukraine warning on Feb. 28 due to armed conflict and COVID-19. The U.S. Embassy also warned all American citizens in Ukraine to “depart immediately if it is safe to do so using any commercial or other privately available ground transportation options.”

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“I got home and saw on the news that everything was going south,” Drew Gordon said. “I started getting in contact with some of our teammates that remained in Ukraine to try to help them get to the border and try to help them find bomb shelters and things like that to hunker down in because they were in pretty immediate danger because the president of Ukraine was in Kyiv and [Russian president Vladimir] Putin was threatening and actually did bomb Kyiv. It was a little hectic for about two, three weeks after we got home trying to make phone calls to teammates and friends who are in Ukraine and tried to help them get across the border.”

ABC News recently reported that the United Nations has accounted for more than 5 million Ukrainians who have fled their homes during the invasion. About 7 million have gone to other countries, and the rest to different areas within Ukraine. According to Statista, as of April 17, there have been more than 2,072 Ukrainian fatalities, including 169 children.

Drew Gordon said he and his wife are keeping up with the reporting about the invasion in Ukraine daily and he is trying to keep in contact with all of his teammates.

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“It’s sad, man. The maternity hospital that we were at was housing wounded soldiers. And it’s pretty much no longer standing,” Drew Gordon said. “The bed that we actually were in for five days when my wife gave birth had injured soldiers in it and all the windows blown out from some bombs and rockets. My trainer actually sent me a video of the apartment complex that he’s next to being absolutely destroyed.

“It’s heartbreaking. I feel for the people because Kyiv was such a beautiful place, and it was an awesome place to be able to live and walk around and having did that. And now, we’re seeing places that we’ve been to that are engulfed in flames and just reduced to rubble. It’s rough, man.”

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said Aaron Gordon made him aware of his brother and family’s situation in Ukraine. Drew Gordon played for the Sacramento Kings’ summer league team when Malone was the franchise’s head coach. Malone said the war put his stresses as an NBA head coach in perspective.

“I’ve seen Drew and told him I’m just glad you made it home all the way safely,” Malone told Andscape. “You’re over in Ukraine taking part in your lifelong dream of playing ball overseas. Your family is with you and a war breaks out. I know there were people who couldn’t get out. He got out back to the Bay safely with his family and his newborn.

“I told our coaches the other day there is a war going on and we’re about to play Game 1 of the playoffs. People are getting shot and killed with missiles. We’re getting so numb to it. It’s crazy. I’m just thankful for Aaron and Drew and his family.”

The Gordon family has been in Denver since March 23 spending time with Aaron Gordon and other family members. They are awaiting Brody Gordon’s birth paperwork that the father says is locked in a vault in Kyiv at the U.S. Embassy. Meanwhile, Russia’s war on Ukraine is nearly 2 months old with no end in sight.

Aaron Gordon was ecstatic to see his brother, sister-in-law and nephews face to face far away from Ukraine.

“I was finally seeing my brother and my sister-in-law in the same place for the first time in a year,” Aaron Gordon said. “And it was the first time I saw my newborn nephew. Now my brother is in Denver just working out and getting stronger. He’s taking a lot of time to recoup.”

Drew Gordon will be at the Nuggets’ playoff game Thursday in Denver watching his brother against the Golden State Warriors while his American teammates in Ukraine are playing elsewhere. Goodwin is playing in Israel, Randle and Stockton in France, and Brown in Turkey.

Gordon said he has other offers to play overseas, but he is still respecting his contract with Budivelnyk until it ends in June despite the fact that he hasn’t been paid since he left Ukraine.

“Not getting paid at this point,” Drew Gordon said. “We’ll probably wait until everything settles down in order to at least sort things out and see what everybody can do. I’m still in contact with the team. But at this point in time, I don’t feel it’s right to be asking for a paycheck when everybody’s going through something that’s far worse than not being paid for a month or two.”