From Russia With Love

Feb. 26, 2008

By Christian Caple
The Daily

As a 14-year-old kid, he had never set foot in the United States.

Now, a little more than six years, plenty of adversity and two cities later, junior Artem Wallace finds himself in the starting lineup for the Washington men's basketball team.

The story begins with Gail Wallace, a 76-year-old businessman from Toledo, Wash., who would eventually become Artem's father.

Gail does humanitarian work in the Ukraine and Russia, and came across Artem after asking around to see if there was a tall younger boy who enjoyed basketball and would be willing to come to the United States for a year through an exchange program.

Gail met with Artem, who at that time went by Artem Terechov, and consulted with his mother, who agreed that it would be a good idea. The plan was for Artem to stay in Toledo for one year, to attend school and play basketball before returning to his home town in St. Petersburg, Russia.

During the time that it took for those plans to be processed, however, Artem's mom developed cancer. She didn't know how much longer she had to live, and worried about Artem's future.

'She told me, `If I don't make it, I don't know what I'm going to do with my son,'' Gail said. Artem's biological father had left when Artem was only 5 years old, so his mother didn't want him to gain custody.

On the day before he was scheduled to head to the United States, Artem's mother passed away. Gail had agreed that if anything happened to her, he would take care of her son. But the decision wasn't all on him.

Artem's visa was only good for one year. After it expired, he would have to go back to Russia or choose to live with Gail as his adopted son.

Gail presented this option to Artem shortly after they arrived in the States.

'He thought about it for two or three hours,' Gail said. 'Then he said `I like you. I think you're a good guy. I'll stay here.''

The decision paid dividends for Artem's basketball career. As a senior at Toledo High School, he averaged 23.4 points per game while garnering Washington state Class A player of the year honors.

Even as a skinny 14-year-old -- back then he was 6'5' and closer to 165 pounds, a far cry from his listed weight of 250 pounds this season -- those around the Toledo program took note of his potential. He had started playing in Russia around the age of 10, competing on tournament teams with his friends.

'I'd never had a Division 1 player before,' said Scott Merzoian, Artem's coach at Toledo. 'But he had some fundamental skills at the age of 14 that were already pretty polished. I could tell he was going to be a pretty good player.'

For a kid who was used to playing basketball in a town of just over 600 people on a different continent, Artem fit in perfectly.

'One thing that I always told people is that the thing about Artem is that he never complained one time about anything,' Merzoian said. 'Rarely was there a day when I didn't see him smile. It seemed like nothing bothered him; he was always upbeat. It doesn't surprise me that he's made transitions. He's always been a guy that can adjust.'

As he hit the weight room and 'became a man, really,' as Merzoian put it, Artem ditched his skinny frame for a thicker, muscular body that has become the basis of his physical style of play.

'I didn't get big until maybe my junior year of high school,' Artem said. 'It made things a little easier on the inside as far as banging (boxing people out) goes.'

Playing small-time high school basketball meant that a player of Artem's size and caliber didn't meet much resistance along the way. Merzoian said that oftentimes, Artem would sit out much of the second half simply because the score was already out of hand.

'He probably could have set some scoring records and been the state's leading scorer if I had left him in,' Merzoian said.

While Artem enjoyed his time in Toledo, he added that there were times when he would have liked to be playing against more big-time opponents.

'It was kind of fun, but there were some moments where it was just like, man, get me some better competition,' Artem said.

He admits to entertaining the thought of transferring to a bigger school like Mark Morris, which is located in Longview, Wash., just 26 miles down Interstate-5. But he didn't go unnoticed at Toledo. Playing AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) ball for a team in Portland, he gained enough exposure for several big-time Division 1 programs to take notice.

'I had letters from all over the U.S., wanting him to play ball,' Gail said. 'It didn't take long before you look up and hey, the UCLA coach is at Toledo. The Oregon State coach is at Toledo.'

Artem gave his verbal commitment to UW coach Lorenzo Romar, and convinced Gail by supplying two reasons why.

'He told me that if he went to Washington, I could come watch him play,' Gail said. 'And secondly, he could come home on the weekends. I said that was good enough for me.'

His second adjustment came in Seattle. A big-time scorer in high school, Artem would have to learn a new role in college. His 6-8, 250-pound frame would be used primarily for defense and rebounding, which was just fine with Artem.

'I try to practice hard and help the team out whatever way I can,' he said. 'I like playing bruiser basketball. I enjoy it.'

Still, his athleticism didn't go unnoticed at the Pac-10 level. As a freshman, Artem ran the fastest mile on the team and knows how to move his frame around -- he can get all of his 250 pounds and 37 inches off the floor from a standstill.

'I don't get to do it much because I'm inside banging against guys like Kevin Love and [Aron] Baynes,' Artem said. 'It's just my role on the team, and I've accepted it and I'm enjoying it.'

Artem worked his way into the starting lineup earlier in the season, and it stuck. This season has seen him at his finest, including a 17-point, 10-rebound performance against California -- his first career double-double.

'What he's really concentrated on is what he needs to do to get on floor, which is defend and try to rebound,' Romar said. 'Sometimes guys try to do other things that maybe they're not as gifted at, and that doesn't help the team. He's really looked at what's going to help this team, at what his niche is. He's been rewarded by playing more.'

And if he needed to find another niche, it would come as no surprise if he did so successfully.

Adjusting is kind of his thing.

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