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News brief: Ukraine latest, Kentucky flooding, remembering Bill Russell

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The world food crisis prompted by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine may be showing signs of easing.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Tens of millions of tons of agricultural products have been trapped in Ukrainian ports because of the war. But this morning, for the first time since the outbreak of the war, the very first shipment holding grain has left Odesa. But meanwhile, violence is continuing, claiming the lives of dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from Kyiv.

Tim, let's start with the food crisis. Just over a week ago, the U.N. and Turkey helped put together a deal to export grain from Ukraine's Black Sea ports. And today it sounds like there's progress.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Right. Well, so the first ship left the port of Odesa this morning carrying 26,000 tons of corn and flying the flag of Sierra Leone. It's bound for the city of Tripoli in Lebanon. It's a step forward in easing this food crisis that has developed due to the war in Ukraine. Now, you've got to remember that 40% of the world food programs' wheat supplies come from Ukraine. And food prices all over the world have soared since the war's begun. But the agreements between Russia, the U.N., Turkey, Ukraine - they're still tenuous.

Just a day after these agreements were signed, Russian missiles struck the port of Odesa, and it raised questions about whether these deals would hold. The agreements also don't address another brewing crisis, and that's that President Zelenskyy said yesterday that Ukraine's harvest this year could be halved due to the war.

MARTINEZ: And just a few days ago, there was also a bombing of a prison in Russian-held territory holding Ukrainian prisoners of war. What do you know about that?

MAK: Well, you'll remember that we've spoken a lot about this group of Ukrainian soldiers that held out in a steel plant in Mariupol for nearly three months while being surrounded by Russian forces. These soldiers are viewed as heroes in Ukraine. And they ultimately surrendered to the Russians in a deal brokered by the Red Cross and the U.N. On Friday morning, the Russian government announced that a prison holding some of these prisoners had been bombed, killing dozens and injuring many more. Now, Russia claims that Ukraine bombed the prison, killing its own soldiers and using American-supplied HIMARS rockets. Ukraine has said that Russia bombed the prison in order to cover up the torture and execution of prisoners of war.

And there's reason to doubt the Russian claim. The Washington, D.C., think tank the Institute for the Study of War had looked at the images of the attack after the attack, and they say that it doesn't really show the sort of damage that HIMARS would cause. The Russian Foreign Ministry has also announced that it has invited the Red Cross to investigate the site of the bombing in Russian-held eastern Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: And what has the U.S. government said about this?

MAK: Well, Bridget Brink - she's the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine - she called the attack on the prison, quote, "unconscionable." Meanwhile, there's been this push in the U.S. government, supported by the Ukrainian government, to formally designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. This would trigger new sanctions on the Russian government and additional penalties for those doing business with the Russian government. Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the Biden administration to make exactly that designation.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Tim Mak is in Kyiv. Tim, thanks.

MAK: Thanks so much.

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MARTINEZ: The death toll from flash flooding in eastern Kentucky is now over two dozen.

KHALID: And the governor expects that number to continue to grow significantly in the coming weeks. Cleanup is slow going, and rescue efforts are still underway.

MARTINEZ: Stan Ingold of member station WEKU in Richmond, Ky., has been covering the flood.

Stan, a lot more rain in the last few days - that, I'm sure, has complicated things there. What have officials been able to do?

STAN INGOLD, BYLINE: Well, the terrain in this part of Appalachia is beautiful but unforgiving. It's a collection of mountains, hills, valleys, rivers and tributaries. It's hard to get around on a good day. So when all this rain poured in, it flooded everything out. It washed out roads. It damaged bridges. There were rock and mudslides. And you can start to understand why it might take so long to find everyone who's missing.

We spoke with resident P.J. Collett, who had been moved to a local high school during the flooding.

PJ COLLETT: We're here because the place we were staying at, the water got up to our back door. And I reckon it's in the parking lot, and it's in the building. We've lost everything.

INGOLD: Collett is one of hundreds of people in this area who've been displaced. Hundreds of homes and businesses were either washed away or left damaged by the surge of water.

Willie Bush from Breathitt County has little left of his home.

WILLIE BUSH: Frame's still there, and the roof. But everything else is gone. Three houses, five cars right at my place - my daughter's place and my trailer, too. I had a trailer there, too. It's gone.

INGOLD: And these were some of the people lucky enough to make it.

MARTINEZ: Now, we said the death total is expected to keep climbing. What about the people missing?

INGOLD: Governor Andy Beshear said that unfortunately he expects more bodies to be found in the days and even weeks to come. He said finding lost Kentuckians is a priority.

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ANDY BESHEAR: Make sure that we ultimately learn about everyone that's missing, check on every single one of them, hopefully reunite them with their families. But if not, we're going to be there with them through the toughest of the tough.

INGOLD: Cellphone service has been down for much of the area since the floods came, and that's complicating the rescue efforts. It makes it hard to communicate. There's also a glimmer of hope, though. It's possible that some people who were counted as missing just haven't been able to make contact with loved ones or authorities just yet. And that actually happened recently during a round of tornadoes in Kentucky last December. So the governor is holding out hope for now.

MARTINEZ: And we mentioned that more rain is expected, Stan. How's it looking there?

INGOLD: Well, the rain has been off and on for a few days here. And sometimes it slows enough for the waters to recede, giving rescuers the chance to get into areas where - that were previously inaccessible. There's a new weather concern just around the corner, though. The National Weather Service says that the rain is expected to move out. But high temperatures and high humidity are expected for much of this week, with heat indexes expected to be in the upper 90s or even higher. And many people are still without power and water. So officials are working to set up cooling stations to help people escape the heat as they try to continue search and rescue efforts and try to rebuild their lives.

It's not going to be easy. This part of Kentucky is very poor. But there's a strong sense of community and people who want to help each other. That being said, though, it's just not good here right now and probably won't be for days or weeks still, if not longer.

MARTINEZ: That's Stan Ingold of member station WEKU in Richmond, Ky.

Stan, thank you.

INGOLD: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: The sports world is mourning the death of an icon. Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell died yesterday. He was 88.

KHALID: Russell was one of the all-time greatest in NBA history. He led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships. He was also a social activist, a Black athlete who spoke out against racial injustice when it was harder to do that.

MARTINEZ: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman is now with us to talk more about Bill Russell's legacy.

Tom, a very sad day, not just for the NBA, but for the world - what kind of reaction has there been to Bill Russell's death?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It's been widespread, A, obviously, from lots of current and former NBA greats. Interesting the messages from outside basketball - you get a sense from those of his impact - messages from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who presented Bill Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Obama said yesterday, I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached and the way he lived his life. Billie Jean King, the great tennis player, an advocate for women's rights, said, Bill Russell was a once-in-a-generation activist athlete. He had a huge influence on my career.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. He was an icon, and he was definitely larger than life in so many ways.

GOLDMAN: He certainly was, you know? But there was at least one recollection of a small moment that also told you something else about Bill Russell. Comedian Jon Stewart tweeted this. Bill Russell was one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I've ever met - once called out of the blue because he thought I looked sad on TV.

MARTINEZ: Oh, wow.

GOLDMAN: Best pep talk of my life. Other condolences included one from the mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu. And the Boston Red Sox held a moment of silence in their Sunday game. You'd think those actions would be a given. But in fact, for many years, Russell had a great deal of resentment for the city he played for his entire career because of the racism he endured from Boston fans, many who'd cheer his heroics, then some who'd say vile, hateful things.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. But he did not suffer in silence - not at all.

GOLDMAN: Oh, absolutely not. You know, he was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He helped organize a boycott of a Celtics game in Kentucky when he and other players were denied service at a restaurant. After the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi, Russell went there, and along with Evers' brother, started an integrated basketball camp. And, you know, he kept speaking out late in life. Two years ago, he wrote an article that included this about the police killing of George Floyd - yet another life stolen by a country broken by prejudice and bigotry.

MARTINEZ: Bill Russell, though - first and foremost, a great basketball player - what made him so special on the court?

GOLDMAN: He revolutionized the way the game was played in the 1950s and '60s. He was a phenomenal rebounder, ended up with the second-most rebounds in NBA history. It was his shot-blocking, though, that changed the game. In a 2013 interview, he talked about how defenders always had been taught to stay grounded.

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BILL RUSSELL: No good defensive player ever leaves his feet. Well, basically what I was doing was bringing the vertical game to a game that had been horizontal.

GOLDMAN: And, A, Russell also changed the game by becoming the NBA's first Black head coach. When his longtime Boston coach Red Auerbach retired, he named Russell to take his place. Russell didn't want the focus to be on him being the first. He wanted people to understand he was the best man for the job. And he proved it, leading the Celtics to two titles as player coach.

MARTINEZ: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

Tom, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.