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Davis Bertans: Ukraine invasion means my family has made contingency plans to escape Latvia

Latvian Davis Bertans is one of four NBA players from the Baltic states neighbouring Russia and says he is constantly monitoring the situation because he knows the countries "are the first target" should Russia choose to invade elsewhere

Davis Bertans pictured on the sideline for the Washington Wizards in February 2022 prior to his move at the trade deadline
Image: Davis Bertans pictured on the sideline for the Washington Wizards in February 2022 prior to his move at the trade deadline

The moment Davis Bertans took a seat behind the basket, the Dallas forward's mind wandered to a different subject much more important than basketball.

As one of four current NBA players from the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia (Bertans and Kristaps Porzingis) and Lithuania (Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas) – Bertans has monitored the news closely on Russia and what potential fallout that country's decisions could have on his native Latvia.

Bertans reported that his family living in Latvia remains safe, including his parents and his brother, Dairis, who plays for the Latvian national team. But Bertans said that his family has set up contingency plans in case Russian president Vladimir Putin oversees an invasion into Latvia, which borders Russia to the east.

"Hopefully it doesn't come to that. But you never know what he's going to do," Bertans said. "If Russia is going in the direction of Europe, then the Baltic states are the first target. We have to be ready."

Bertans spoke to following morning shootaround, before the Mavericks beat the Los Angeles Lakers 108-102 on Tuesday about the Russian invasion, growing up in Latvia shortly after it gained its independence from the former Soviet Union, and more.

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How are your family and friends holding up in Latvia since Russia invaded Ukraine?

Right now, everybody is pretty calm. If the Russians cross the line with our borders, it's basically World War III. I don't think anybody is going for it or looking for it, especially them. In that sense, it seems pretty safe right now. But you never know what [Putin] is thinking. It seems like he's been pushed in a corner right now against the wall. I don't think anybody has a clue on what he's willing to do or capable of doing

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Given that uncertainty, have any of your friends and family made any contingency plans?

Right now, we have some simple plans in place if something goes down to how quickly we can get our family out of the capital city. We have a family countryside house close to the Lithuanian border. If something happens quickly, that's probably the safer option if you have to stay in the country and can't get out. But the other option is my brother is playing in Spain in Sevilla. So trying to get family there as quick as possible is the best step in that scenario.

Do you have any friends in Ukraine right now?

I've known of some Latvian players that played for the coach of the Ukrainian national team (Ainars Bagatskis). But they were playing in Spain when the invasion started. I know the Latvian Basketball Federation is putting them up in Latvia right now so they can stay there. We have a joint basketball league with the Latvian-Estonian League. They're allowing teams without any restrictions to sign as many Ukrainian players to help out in that way.

Do you have any plans with helping out any organisations that are assisting Ukraine?

Right now, as much as I can do is donate some money. That is what will help the most with whatever families are coming out of Ukraine as refugees and running away from the country. There are a lot of people going to Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. The financial help is going to be the biggest impact that I can make. I hope it can help people get roofs over their heads and feed their families. Some men have stayed back in Ukraine to fight for their country. But the women and children... we need to help them in any way possible.

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Latvia is obviously in a different situation. But growing up after there was Soviet influence during the Cold War, what was the day-to-day experience for you?

I was lucky enough to be born in a free country in Latvia with my parents. They've told me stories about living in a communist-Soviet country. You get coupons to go buy meat or sausage in a store. You technically have it, but it's not guaranteed that it will be there when you get there. You're waiting in long lines. Knowing now how much financially Russia has been affected with all of the sanctions, the country is in for a lot worse than it has ever been even before when it was considered the Soviet Union. They're getting hit in a lot worse direction than back then.

Though you were born in Latvia after its independence from the Soviet Union, what signs did you still see of Soviet influence?

In the Latvian population, more than 30 per cent speak Russian. Many of them are still following Russia media and believe whatever propaganda is pushed on that side. Now Latvia has canceled all of the Russian channels there, which most countries have done in that region. Hopefully, they don't see that propaganda and see some real news.

How far back did it hit your radar that Russia could invade Ukraine?

Knowing (Putin's) past and what he has done, I'm definitely not surprised with what has happened. We've seen small pieces of this before. The whole world is rallying around Ukraine. He didn't really understand. He doesn't understand how much patriotism there is in (Ukraine) and how much they are willing to sacrifice to protect their country. I would say 99 per cent of them are willing to die instead of becoming part of Russia.

What do you expect will be done and should be done moving forward?

With all of the sanctions in place, it has forced Russia's hands so far with however many Russian billionaires and oligarchs that they've lost. They've lost hundreds of billions of dollars in the last six days. So, I don't know how long they'll be backing Putin after that. Our best hope is that in Russia, the people actually take care of themselves. There are a lot of anti-war protests in Russia. How many Russians are living in Ukraine? They have families in Russia and Ukraine. Those people have their eyes open and see what's happening, they're out there trying to protest in Russia. Hopefully, those people in power that are technically right behind Putin in line can figure something out.

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How would you characterise how easy or difficult it has been to focus on basketball since Russia invaded Ukraine?

Luckily enough when I step on the court, I forget about everything else. In the past, there have been different things with family or whatever is going on in the country. But once you step on the court, I can live the game. All of the rest of the time, I feel like I'm refreshing (the timeline) to see what is going on.

Have you been able to be in touch with Alex Len and Svi Mykhailuk (the two active Ukrainian NBA players)?

I haven't been able to be in touch with them. I'm pretty sure they have a lot of people reaching out. I feel like they know that the support is there and can see the whole world is behind Ukraine and is helping any way they can.

I'm relieved that you and yours are okay through this, all things considered. Is there anything else you want to add that we didn't already address?

The one thing I'd want to add is you can't blame all of the Russians on this. We have about 30 per cent of people in Latvia that are Russian-speaking. Maybe some of them are, but I would say only a minority are pro-Kremlin (anything supportive of the Russian government). There are a lot of Russian people that didn't want this invasion to happen. I've heard stories of Russian people being bullied over things they can't control and things they don't want to happen. Spreading hate is not going to work in this situation. Putin's reason for invading Ukraine was to free the Russian people from whatever discrimination is against them in Ukraine. We don't need that to happen in other countries. For example, Latvia can't create bad [situations] for Russian-speaking people. That could be his excuse to go there as well. The more we can stop the hate and spread love, that's the way to go."

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