Azamat Kutlukov: More Than Just a Teammate

To us, his teammates, Oz is more than just someone who we practice with, play pickup with, and eat at Taco Bell with. He’s more than just a teammate: He’s our friend.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Ava Quarles

Azamat Kutlukov, a member of the varsity football and wrestling teams, was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2023. He is making a strong recovery under the care of New York City’s best doctors.

I’ve known Azamat, better known as Oz or Ozzy, for two years. My first impression of him was not one of some superstar athlete; in fact, it was quite the opposite. Let me set the scene for you: It’s the beginning of the wrestling season, in the cafeteria, on just another autumn afternoon. On the mat duking it out were Oz and Justin Kim––the captain of the team. To say that they were “duking it out” is putting it lightly. In truth, Oz got destroyed. He got tech-falled, 15-0. You don’t need to know much about wrestling to know how badly he lost. While others poked fun at him behind his back, my respect for him could not have been any greater. You see, I revered the captains with an air of untouchableness. They were not people you were supposed to mess with. Period. For Oz to come in on his first day of practice and challenge one of them was unthinkable to me. Some may say that what Oz did that day was egotistical or downright cocky, that he had it coming for him. Perhaps they’re right. But to me, he was a maverick. He was brazen. He was him. I did not revere Oz in the same context as I did the captains. Instead, I revered him as someone who doesn’t cower in the face of a challenge. Rather, as cliché as it might sound, he embraces it. That’s how I know that he is going to beat cancer. He’s going to face it with the same confident attitude he had that day he wrestled the captain. Only this time, he’s going to come out on top.

I’ve shared the gridiron, basketball court, and wrestling mat with Oz more times than I can remember. I can’t say for sure how many times I’ve mossed him or posterized him on an eight-foot rim, but one thing I am certain of is that his presence can always be felt. Oz exudes a contagiously positive energy. Simply put, he makes everything more fun. Big plays feel even bigger when he’s the first one to pick you up and tell you “good [EXPLETIVE].” His playful banter turns pick-up games at BMCC into the last two minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. His hunger to score a takedown cannot be quenched, no matter how “gassed” he may be. This energy that he brings to the table day after day makes every practice and every game all the better for everyone. Ask any of his teammates. They’ll provide a testimony not so different from mine. To us, his teammates, Oz is more than someone who we practice with, play pickup with, and eat at Taco Bell with. He’s more than just a teammate: He’s our friend.

An Interview With Kutlukov:

What’ve you been up to since you were diagnosed with leukemia?

“I spent the first two months in the hospital, but after I got out, aside from having to go to the clinic weekly for treatment, I’ve just been staying at home and going outside for walks, bike rides, and occasionally linking friends if I’m feeling good enough to.”

What challenges have you faced in balancing your treatment and recovery with your athletic pursuits?

“I would say my hospital visit spanned roughly two-to-three months, and in that time, I was basically bed-ridden the whole day, and it wasn’t until the last couple of weeks there that I even started walking again. Going from someone who did a lot of exercising and working out every day to nothing so suddenly took a pretty drastic toll on my body, as I lost about 30 pounds, including a lot of muscle, too. I really struggled and couldn’t even do some basic everyday tasks that I didn’t even have to think twice about before, like walking up the stairs and opening bottle caps and jars. Now that I’m out of the hospital again, I’ve been just walking a lot and taking small steps to work my way back in a manageable way. I’m even able to bike again. Aside from the muscle and weight loss though, sometimes, the side effects of chemo, like headaches and nausea, stop me from moving much and force me to have to pause to lay down and rest.”

How do you stay motivated and maintain a positive mindset despite the physical and emotional obstacles you’ve encountered?

“Well, it’s definitely been hard at times, especially at the start, but my mom and family show me nothing but love and positivity, so even if I’m feeling down, it still rubs off on me. Also, I have some great friends that I always keep in touch with. They even came to visit me in the hospital. Shoutout [to] Efe [Kilic], [Sam] Glusker, J[ustin] Fern, Anvar [Kadirbekov], [William] Opich, [Navid] Zunaid, Peter [Carini], Tenzin [Monlam], and Joseph [Kim]. I’ve also had a lot to look forward to and keep my mind on besides my condition, like getting into Bing[hamton] University] (go Bearcats) and thinking about what I’m gonna do over the summer. Lastly, my counselor actually found out that I had enough credits to graduate once I ended up in the hospital. She initially tried to get me to do online schooling, but that didn’t work out. It’s nice being able to graduate early and not having to worry about any schoolwork or classes. It was a nice load off of my mind and let me focus on my recovery, [though] I’ll admit that life is sometimes a little boring now without school.”

Do you plan on making a comeback to sports?

“Most definitely. Before all this, I played basketball and football pretty much every day, but given the conditioning required [for] those sports, I’m taking a long break from them for the time being until I can get back in shape. I also need some time and experience easing back into rebuilding my confidence since I used to be a very physical player, but I’m unable to play like that now given my much smaller frame and condition. I still try to play sometimes with my friends. I just have to make sure I’m feeling good that day and let them know to take it easy on me, but I definitely can’t just pop in and play pickup at any given moment like I used to.”

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

“If there’s one thing or lesson I would give to anyone reading this, it is to not take the simple things in life that you might think are givens like your health and friends for granted. Always count your blessings and try to look for positivity in any situation, even if things might not be going the way you want them to, because you never know what life will throw at you. Lastly, I hope that the scanner ladies can be more amicable in the future.”