Ball and Life

Tara Williams and Lucy Cohen

“Long story short: there were basically over 100 people murdered within 100 yards of where we lived with my wife and two kids there. It wasn’t a fun experience to go through at all, but, fortunately I was able to get back,” said Blake Ahearn, Clayton High School’s newest ISS officer and boys’ basketball coach.

Ahearn has played for a total of 12 semi-professional and professional basketball teams all over the world, including the NBA and the Euro League. After playing over 12 years of basketball, Ahearn has now settled in Clayton with his wife and three young kids.

One of the most noteworthy seasons of basketball for Ahearn was his 2013-2014 season playing for Ukraine in the Euro League. At the time, Russia was making attacks into Ukrainian territory, which angered many Ukrainians, turning into a full blown war.

During the attacks, Ahearn was living in Ukraine’s capital, downtown Kiev.  He was traveling on the road when one of the attacks occurred. Having lived in so many different parts of the world, Ahearn is no stranger to feeling alienated in a new country. This conflict, however, impacted Ahearn in a way that was different from his other experiences. This time, Ahearn feared for his life.

“When you get emails from your government saying sit in the middle of your apartment to basically dodge bullets and bombs it’s a pretty quick sign that you want to get out of there, but I am very fortunate nothing happened, everything is okay,” Ahearn said.

Fortunately, Ahearn and his family were able to return home unharmed after traveling over 5,000 miles from his door in Ukraine to his door back in St. Louis.

Not only did Ahearn and his wife fear for their lives, but their families back home in the States were also concerned.

“What was hard, too, was it was shown on CNN here – it was all over,” Ahearn said. “And what was more difficult was we were getting calls from family, friends, and it wasn’t like it just popped up and happened.  So my wife was definitely scared. My family, her mom, my mom and dad.  Both [of] our mothers were calling us like crazy.”

Ahearn’s family and friends were not the only one’s fearful of the violence in Ukraine.  As a result of the events that took place, other basketball teams didn’t want to come play them, so they had to fly to other countries and play the teams. In one of these instances, Ahearn was flying to Lithuania with his team, when the plane he was on was dangerously close to crashing.

“It was so windy the pilot just tried to slam the plane down, to get it down as fast as he could, but when he did it, the wind took us and I was sitting on the left wing and the wing just scraped the ground of the runway and from there he pulled it back up and we take off again,” Ahearn said. “I literally said goodbye to my kids, goodbye to my wife and everything like that.  It was the most stressful thing I have ever been through. Everyone on the plane thought that was it.”

Even though Ahearn’s experiences were frightening, he was able to develop close relationships with his teammates. After his terrifying experience in Ukraine, Ahearn still values the friendships he developed with his teammates and his opportunity to experience a different culture.  Ahearn’s friendships have helped shape his philosophy as a basketball coach.

“I still have friends from there and that is like the one thing I told the guys you are more than wins, losses everything, I value friendships more than anything.”

On the road, his friends helped give him a shoulder to lean on and help him through the cultural barrier. Particularly, Ahearn valued a friendship he developed with a Latvian teammate.

“I just talked to him a few days ago, but being European and a guy who speaks really good English – you know you can kind of bounce stuff off him and he can translate for you,” Ahearn said. “When stuff would be going on, I would always turn to him and he would translate for me and kind of keep me up to speed.”

Through basketball, Ahearn was able to travel the world, experiencing a variety of different cultures.

“I’m Catholic, so I got to go to Jerusalem, I got to see where the Last Supper was, and where Jesus was crucified. So for me all that was pretty neat. If you were to come and say ‘Hey, do you want to come take a vacation to Jerusalem?’ I would say no.  But the fact that basketball took me there was great,” Ahearn said.

Despite some of the frightening events Ahearn has experienced, he is ultimately grateful for all that he has back at home, and the fact that basketball has led him to experience so many cultures.

“We are fortunate to live here in the States and really not have to deal with a lot of that stuff, so I consider myself pretty lucky,” Ahearn said.