Still a better love story than Twilight.
This is real, and it’s actually a match made in heaven. Nope, not heaven.
But a pretty high place, that’s for sure.
Alex Len used to be the ‘Mysterious Foreigner’ fantasy in his college days..
NBA first-round draft picks usually could not have realized their hoop dreams without their mothers.
They also often have a coach who stepped into their lives and put them on a path to stardom.
Suns first-round draft pick Alex Len is no different in those regards. His mother, Juliya, watched web-streamed NBA games with him in Antratsit, Ukraine, and allowed him to move away at 13 to pursue basketball at a different school. He never would have found basketball if his grade school’s basketball coach had not taken the rapidly growing gymnast to a court and told him it was where he belonged.
They enabled him to wind up at the University of Maryland on a basketball scholarship two years ago, and Terrapins coaches and players helped him progress, but he might not have become the Suns’ No. 5 pick in June if it was not for his girlfriend.
Len arrived in College Park, Md., not knowing the language or culture of America, let alone an American. Essence Townsend changed all that, forming the Twin Towers of a different sort when the 6-foot-7 center from the women’s team and New Jersey met the 7-1 center from the men’s team and Ukraine.
It began innocently enough at an ice cream social for basketball players to start the 2011-12 school year. Townsend, a junior then, was just being social when she introduced herself to Len, yelling as people often do so that a foreigner can understand English.
A teammate told her, “That’s going to be your future man,” and she got mad.
Len friended her on Facebook. They high-fived in hallways. They rebounded for each other.
“One day, I guess he finally got the courage to ask me to come hang out,” she said.
That was 18 months and a few thousand English words ago. Len went from not doing interviews for his first year in America and talking to Townsend with Google translator to confidently and thoughtfully having English conversations this year. That helped him follow coaching, including the moves she showed him.
“If I could give a suggestion of how to learn the language quickly, find a girl,” Len said. “That’s the best way to learn it.”
For growing up nearly 5,000 miles apart, it was easy to be close. They both found a passion for basketball late in their childhood. Each is devoted to family. Neither had it easy growing up.
“I felt awkward at first because I wasn’t sure how his English would be, but it was really cool and nothing was forced,” Townsend said. “It was genuine. I could never, in a million years, think that I could go to another country and be thrown into the fire with new classes and culture, no friends and playing basketball. It’s mind-boggling.”
Len came to love Boston Market, Chipotle and Townsend, but not in that order. Her world rounded out, too, eating his mother’s Russian cooking on her visits and saying “poka” in departures.
“She liked Alex for who he was and what he’s about before he was a NBA player,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “Alex doesn’t like school, but she rode him pretty hard on that. She’s been a really good friend to Alex and taught him a lot.”
Their relationship progressed to games, puzzles and movies. Now, it is relegated to “Skype dates.” Townsend went to the draft and a Hawaiian vacation with Len and his mom and has spent time at their new Phoenix home. Then, she had to say “poka.”
She has another season at Maryland. There are Suns’ East Coast trips, school breaks and Skype to get them through a year apart after a year of living together.
They feel their relationship is strong enough to make it. Suns fans wish them well but would be more romantic about it if Len reaches his potential. After Len’s two ankle surgeries, there is some uneasiness.
“He was not happy to get up for morning classes in college, but when it was time to wake up and get to a basketball workout, he was the happiest person in the world,” Townsend said. “He’s really determined. He doesn’t want anything to hold him back. He’s ready. I’m excited to see his season.