Yegor Meshcheryakov:
Tsmoki-Minsk is stronger, younger and more motivated

Among the top players in Belarusian basketball history, Yegor Meshcheryakov returned to his homeland after retirement and began a career in sports management. Tsmoki-Minsk's new sports director spoke with VTB-League.com about the club's primary goals for the upcoming season, introduced the team's newcomers, looked back on his playing career and discussed his experiences studying at an American university and working on the radio.

- During your career, did you think often about what you would do when you stopped playing?
- I always knew about the risks of our profession and that the time would fly by. No athlete can guarantee what's going to happen tomorrow. One bad break, one bad injury can derail a promising career. I always say this to young players who spend too little time on their studies and can only see themselves in professional basketball. That's why I think every player should be ready for the question of "What's next?" Of course, I thought about it, too. I didn't see myself as a coach, but I really wanted to be in a profession that was directly tied to my favorite game. As it worked out, after my last season with Spartak St. Petersburg, I decided to return to George Washington University, where I had first enrolled in 1998 as a student-athlete. This time I came back for a graduate-level sports management program. Since that time, I really began to seriously think about life after sports.

- How did the opportunity at Tsmoki-Minsk come about? What are your responsibilities at the club?
- Back in 2009, when I played for Spartak, my teammate Valery Gorelikov and I founded a children's basketball team, BC Meshcheryakov, in Minsk. As a result, while working on various organizational work for the club, I partnered last year with the Belarusian Olympic Committee and the president's sports advisor, Maksim Vladimirovich Ryzhenkov. That's how I got the opportunity to be involved with the country's biggest club.

As for my duties, I'm responsible for overseeing the club's vertical structure, which includes the Tsmoki youth team (U-20) drawn from the youth sports school, in addition to the men's and women's teams. There's more than enough work.

- You're going to make your front office debut in the VTB United League. What do you remember about the League from your time as a player?
- For me, of course, it'd be easier to put on a jersey right now (laughs). Joking aside, though, I'm going to do everything I can to help the coaching staff and guys instill a championship mentality in our club. I take a philosophical view of success; the process of self-perfection is most important, both as an individual and as a player.

As a player, I experienced the VTB United League in its infant stages, back in the 2009-2010 season when the league was still just getting off the ground. The season was short and there weren't many teams, and my Spartak St. Petersburg team was left out. But even then it was clear that such a project was needed.

The VTB United League is vital for many clubs in Eastern Europe, and Tsmoki-Minsk is no exception. We're all in favor of the new round-robin format, seeing as how it will make the season more complete. Now every team will play each other team twice during the regular season. Plus, spectators will be able to see every team in their arena, which is sure to have an impact on attendance.

- Briefly describe the club's newcomers. Americans Rashaun Freeman, Reger Dowell, as well as the young Pastukhov and Semenyuk - what can they offer the club?
- Head coach Andrei Krivonos and I managed to attend the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. It was a great opportunity for me to learn about the finer details of scouting work. In the end, we signed a very interesting point guard in Reger Dowell--his speed and quick decision-making should give the team's offense a boost. Rashaun Freeman is an experienced and versatile center, who's able to anchor the team under the basket. Our youngsters--Pastukhov, Semenyuk, as well as Liutych, Meshcharakou, Beliankou, Kozlov and Rubinshteyn simply must take advantage of the trust they've been shown and make an impact in the League. We're going to pay special attention to developing young talent. It's no accident that Lithuanian coach Rimantas Grigas and our youth coach Rostislav Vergun were added to the coaching staff.

- Let's talk separately about Aliaksandr Kudrautsau. What does his return mean to Tsmoki-Minsk? VTB United League fans remember his incredible 37-point performance against Neptunas, which set the League record for points in a game at the time.
- I was still Sasha's agent a few months ago. Kudrautsau is a real fighter and any fan at the Minsk Arena will tell you that as long as he's on the court, you don't have to worry as much about the outcome. He didn't have the easiest season in Turkey and Lithuania and, knowing Sasha, I'm confident he's missed our fans and will have something to prove like always. He's an extremely motivated person and player!

- Kudrautsau returned from Turkey, where you also played for several years. In your opinion, which is the strongest league right now and where does the VTB United League rank?
- No doubt, the Spanish ACB League is the favorite. After that, I'd say the VTB United League and its roster of famous teams, which attract plenty of players and coaches, is next. The Turkish league is in third. There's a real basketball boom right now in Turkey. After that, I'd list the Italian, Greek, German and French leagues, which are traditionally quite strong, but have been hurt significantly by the European crisis.

- Will your studies and at an American university and work experience in the U.S. help in your current job?
- Yes, during my studies in the USA I had an internship and managed to do it with the NBA's Washington Wizards, in GM Ernie Grunfeld's office. It gave me the opportunity to see the NBA from the inside, after seeing it as a player in 1999: first with the New Jersey Nets summer league team, then during a trial with the Chicago Bulls. When I finished graduate school in 2011, I got an offer to do radio for a season. Together with professional commentator Byron Kerr, I did radio for all of my university's home games and also worked in the sports division of the office. Soon after, I decided to become an agent and received a license from FIBA. Until recently, I was doing that. It's not easy, but it's interesting work. There's no question that all of that will help me in my new position.

- You've admitted several times that your dream was to play in the NBA. In your opinion, what can European teams learn from that league in order to become better?
- You need to dream about the NBA and always strive to adopt the best ideas that are there. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. In order to be more effective, European teams need a financial base and high standards, both in terms of players and management. The lion's share of an NBA club's budget comes from selling rights to TV broadcasts, licensed merchandise and club apparel, sponsors packets and, of course, tickets. When we reach that stage, the club will be self-sustaining with only minimal government support. In order for the team to have enough talent, you have to motivate coaches to work with young players, so that the job title of youth basketball coach carries more weight.

- Let's talk about your new team. What are Tsmoki-Minsk's expectations for the upcoming season? What will you consider a success?
- We want to achieve our best result yet, although we understand that with our relatively small budget, by League standards, you can't be too ambitious. But I will say that Tsmoki-Minsk is stronger, younger and more motivated. We made some much-needed additions and consciously sought to emphasize the development of our youth players, coupled with the support of veterans and foreigners. The team has one goal: battle for a win in every game and never back down from the opposition. We need our spectators to feel pride in their club and want to keep coming back to the games.

Photo credit: Yegor Meshcheryakov's personal archive