Bouncing Back

Meet Dima, Ukrainian basketball player, Hip-hop singer and hairstylist

If you’d asked Dmytro Guchko (call him “Dima”) 15 years ago what he was born to do, he wouldn’t have hesitated to tell you that his life’s sole purpose was to play basketball for the Ukraine. Like most professional athletes—including his father before him, who’d played volleyball for the Soviet Union—his chosen sport was all he knew.

Prepped since early childhood, Dima studied in Pennsylvania under an athletic scholarship, and then returned home to play for the big leagues. Everything was going according to plan until one day, after noticing that Dima had been left sitting on the bench for a few games, his father decided to go over the coach’s head and ask the president of the association what was going on. Word got back to the coach, who responded by cutting Dima from the team altogether. It was “Thanks for playing, Dima, your entire career is now over.” Where do you go from there?

You’ll be forgiven if your answer isn’t “go to Vietnam and open a hair salon in Thao Dien,” but these days that’s exactly where you’ll find Dima, training young hairdressers and dealing out some very fine international-style cuts. It’s not an exile by any means—since leaving professional basketball, he’s had an exceptionally successful career as a stylist (and he’s arguably been even more successful as a member of a famous Ukrainian hip-hop group, but that’s another story to be told another time). His greatest achievement in life hasn’t turned out to have anything to do with shooting baskets, but rather helping to save a child with spinal cancer following an unexpected encounter with Cristiano Ronaldo. If Dima’s story means anything at all, it’s that when you reach that point where you have nowhere left to go, that’s when destiny starts playing some of its best tricks on you.

“It was like a big drama,” says Dima of the day his world of basketball unraveled, “because I didn’t know what to do with my life, and my friend, he was a hairdresser, said ‘why don’t you come to my salon, I know you know how to cut hair…’” This wasn’t in fact true—Dima’s experience in grooming hair was essentially limited to knowing how to shave—but being drunk after a party at the time, the idea seemed to make sense, and so he soon found himself being introduced to his friend’s salon’s owner as “our new stylist.”

Inexplicably, the bluff worked. “She said ‘OK, what do you know how to do?’ and I said ‘I don’t know… nothing!’” says Dima. “Then she said, ‘sit down and watch, maybe one day…’ I was in this salon for two or three months, and she actually paid me. This lady actually paid me to be there. So that’s what made me go even more, because I could learn and have some money to get around the city. Two months later, I started cutting hair; three months later, I accidentally won a championship. There weren’t too many nominees, and those who were there, they just didn’t do a good job. I was the only one who did a very decent cut. So they just decided to give me first place, and I was like seriously cutting hair for not even two days. Everybody said ‘OK, he needs to learn now.’ Then everybody was just pushing me around in different schools… and at some stage—I just liked doing it. Even when I didn’t know how to cut hair, people left the chair like…. ‘Yeah… this is cool, man.’ That was my appreciation. That’s when I knew that I would stay there, because people appreciate what you’re doing. They did since the very beginning.”

Dima’s background as a professional athlete turned out to limit his options as a hairdresser in an unexpected way. “I went to different schools, to different courses and actually started calling people to practice on,” Dima remembers. “You have to understand, after being a professional basketball player, where you have newspapers writing about you and stuff, and then you call people, ‘let me cut your hair, man,’ I would have to step it up a notch with my emotional thing—because it was like I gave up basketball for hairdressing, and no one will understand this in professional sports. I was always hiding that fact. I was taken from the heavy athlete’s world to hairdressing, where at least 50 percent of the hairdressers are gay, minimum, especially where I’m from, you know what I mean? This put me in a position where I did not have the chance to be a regular hairdresser. I either needed to be really good or just get on with something else.”

Making the decision to take hairdressing seriously meant Dima had to “come out” to his staunchly athletic father. “When I told my dad I was becoming a hairdresser,” he recalls, “he was like, ‘is there something wrong with you son? Are you OK, want to talk?’ He did not understand, he got upset, actually, he was like, ‘how could you touch the hair of some girls or something like that, it was an ugly comment.” It wasn’t until Dima had completed studies in a fine Moscow academy that his father changed his tune: “Then, my dad couldn’t find the time to get a cut with me, because I was so busy with everyone else, and he was like bitching to everybody, ‘can I get a haircut please!’”

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Driven to be as exceptional a hairdresser as he’d been as a basketball player, Dima spent a number of years studying, traveling, and working in various salons picking up techniques. Before long, he was making more cutting hair for Toni&Guy in London than most people—let alone hairdressers—were making back in the Ukraine. The day he found himself staring at the back of the head of Cristiano Ronaldo, however, was another of life’s surprises.

“It was the European championship. I got a phone call, I was in my hometown of Lviv at the time,” says Dima. “Portugal were based in Poland, but they had a game against Sweden in the Ukraine. So they rented the whole hotel for them. I got asked if I could go to cut hair, simple as that. I went there, and I saw the whole Portuguese team, and I was like, what?? And then Cristiano comes and he says, ‘So you’re my hairdresser.’ I’m like, yeah, I’m the hairdresser. After I got searched by an army of police and stuff.”

“I gave him his regular famous cut that he cuts all the time, he doesn’t change his style,” says Dima. “That’s the sort of cut I like doing, those short lines, creative things for a guy. I gave him some advice, and I gave him the hair gel as a present, which is a purple hair gel. He went to the game later that day with purple hair, I was so happy.”

That one haircut proved to be a lucky break for Dima, who suddenly found himself both the focus of national attention and the proud owner of a new football jersey signed by the members of the Portuguese national team.

“All the TV shows in the Ukraine were talking about it,” he says. “It was the finals of the European championship, Portugal and Spain, and so they invited me to a big football show to talk in the studio. Then when I was waiting to go and talk about what I did, before me there was a little kid, he had cancer, and they were raising money for him. They were talking about him, and the whole story was about this boy, why he was sick, and that he was a big fan of Dynamo Kiev and the Ukrainian national team. Then I came out, it’s my turn, and they say ‘Hey, you cut Cristiano Ronaldo’s hair, how did it happen, how much money did he give you, how was he in person,’ and all this and that. I said, ‘Let’s cut that whole crap, I’d like to help this kid, and I want to sell this jersey that I have for as much as we can, and let’s make it a lot.’ And the next day we had another show, a political talk show. There was one guy, he was very rich, the owner of a football team. He called, he came to the program and brought two stacks of money, went on the TV, and he said ‘Dima, I want to buy that jersey.’ I sold that jersey for USD200,000.”

Months later, on the way to the airport to take a flight to Vietnam, where he’d been recruited to help set up a Toni&Guy salon, Dima received a call to let him know that the boy had recovered from his surgery. He never got the chance to see him again, however—by the time he landed in Saigon, the Ukrainian Revolution had broken out and there were violent clashes on the streets of Kiev. Even though the Toni&Guy position didn’t work out, he felt it wise to stay right here, where it was relatively safe.

Two years of unpredictable fortunes later—along with some fairly intense basketball matches playing for Saigon Heat—and you’ll now find Dima at 90/10 Quoc Huong fronting A Cut Above, a pleasant, well-equipped salon of his own in a warm Thao Dien villa. Be sure to ask him about his experiences as a famous rapper while you’re there—the man has a lot more stories to tell.

“I like to share things that can help other athletes realize that there’s a life after sports,” says Dima, who plans to write a book about his unusual life. “Where I come from, when you play professional, you make a lot of money, but then after, you spend it, and life is not interesting anymore. You have kids and stuff, but you don’t really play ball anymore, and you don’t really know how to do anything because you spent all your life playing sports, that’s it. So the message there is that if you want to achieve something else, you really can.”


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