'I Just Need to Be Home'

Inside the frustrating, fearful lives of American athletes competing overseas during COVID-19 pandemic
photo of Mirin FaderMirin Fader@MirinFaderB/R Mag ContributorMarch 19, 2020

Dearica Hamby started panicking. Started thinking of every possible outcome if she decided to violate her quarantine—if she decided to leave Italy.

If I leave, how will the government know?

If I get to the airport, will I be safe?

If I check in, will an alarm go off?

Should I take the risk?

Hamby had been told not to leave her apartment and placed on a no-fly list after she and the rest of her team, Passalacqua Eirene Virtus Ragusa, based out of Sicily, traveled for a game to Milan, a hotspot of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Her Italian agent told her that if she left the country, she would be denounced and, worse, arrested.

Still, she wondered if she could make it out.

She decided not to try. It wasn't worth the potential consequence. But speaking to Bleacher Report from her apartment in Sicily over FaceTime Audio on the eighth day of her quarantine—days before it would end on March 18—the temptation, the desperation, is still in her voice.

"I gotta get out of here," Hamby says. "I couldn't care less about being publicly shamed, being denounced. I just need to be home."

Home is America. Atlanta. The 26-year-old Las Vegas Aces forward plays abroad during WNBA offseasons to supplement her income, as most WNBA players do. This is her third year doing so in Italy, and this year, the conditions are dire: The country has more than 35,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, and more than 2,900 people have died, according to the World Health Organization. Hamby's fears have only intensified as Italians have been placed on complete lockdown except for grocery stores and pharmacies. Streets are empty. Movie theaters, restaurants, bars, museums and malls are closed.

"As far as my safety, I'm fine," Hamby says. "But it's being in limbo—the uncertainty of everything…it's scary."

Hamby and a teammate, who lives in the apartment below her, often shout to each other out their windows, jokingly but not so jokingly: "Help! Let us out!" Hamby can't even walk her Maltese Poodle, Kaiden, because she fears neighbors will tell the police, so she lets Kaiden run outside then quickly run back inside.

Even though she's never exhibited any symptoms of the virus, under the quarantine, Hamby has been told that if she steps outside her apartment, she will be arrested and sentenced to three to five months in prison. If she leaves and infects someone? One year in prison. If she leaves, she infects someone and they die? Three to five years in prison.

When she looks outside, she can see Punta Secca beach and imagines she is there, in the beautiful blue water. Then her gaze turns to a stray little black dog that always seems to find its way to the gate that encloses her apartment, and she feels she is living out the movie I Am Legend—living out a true apocalypse. At least she has leftover pancake mix that she brought from the U.S. At least a team staffer drops off rice, chicken, zucchini and protein bars at her doorstep.

Hamby is frustrated that games continued as long as they did. Had they been canceled sooner, when the crisis began, she might have been able to leave with her daughter. Hamby's three-year-old daughter, Amaya, and Hamby's mother, Carla, were living with her in Italy until President Donald Trump's recent travel ban, which exempted Americans, prompted them to return to the U.S.

Cassy Athena/Getty Images

A piece of Hamby cracked when she had to say goodbye to her daughter, the one who will usually wake her up every morning, knowing she's asleep but still asking her: "Are you up? Do you want a cappachini?" Hamby laughs at the mispronounced drink every time.

"You'll get to be with Grandma. You'll get to play on the trampoline. Get excited!"

"But Mommy, are you coming with me?"

"No, I have to stay."

"Mommy, will you come soon?"

"Yeah, I will be there soon."

"Mommy, can you come now?"

As she relives the heart-wrenching conversation, Hamby at least knows that her personal nightmare is almost over. Her quarantine has an end date, and she will fly home that day. But she is just one of the many U.S. athletes caught in the crosshairs of the pandemic.

As the virus has spread over the past week, B/R has spoken to a number of those athletes, from Italy to China to Spain to Turkey to Japan. They all tell stories similar to Hamby's, stories of being stuck in limbo. Some are still quarantined abroad. Some have been forced to keep playing with little control over what happens next.

Athletes who play overseas aren't always guaranteed money on time, or at all. They are thousands of miles away from friends, from family. And as this crisis rages on, their careers hang in the balance. And their lives.

Theresa Plaisance felt too weak to lift herself out of the taxi and into the hospital. Luckily, she had gotten that far, thanks to her translator, who pulled her out of her bed in the hotel she was living in about five miles away in Xi'an, China. Once they got to the hospital, a nurse came outside and helped move Plaisance into a wheelchair.

On this afternoon—back in early December, back when Plaisance, a 27-year-old forward for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun, fell ill while playing for Shaanxi in the offseason—there was no name for the pain she was enduring. No name for the 103-degree fever, the headaches, the cough, the vomiting, the body aches, the body chills, the difficulty breathing we now know to be among the symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

She felt guilty that her translator, barely 100 pounds, had to push her 6'5", 200-pound frame around the hospital, her knees hanging out over the wheels like straws out of the top of a cup. But Plaisance couldn't function through pain like she normally does, like when she played through two broken feet or a torn ACL.

All of the beds in the hospital were taken. A woman tugged at a towel on her head, which looked wounded to Plaisance. A nurse ordered another woman to get up from the bed she was lying in and motioned for Plaisance to hop into that same bed—without it being cleaned first.

Plaisance paused. She was stunned, disgusted. I don't care how sick I am. I am not getting in that bed. She is a germaphobe: Anytime she pumps gas into her car, she wipes her hands with a sanitized wipe, then wipes her steering wheel, too.

So she refused to get in the bed. Once a properly cleaned one opened up, she sprawled onto it instead. It was much too small for her, but she would stay in it for much of the next four days, hooked up to an IV, barely able to eat or drink. She was scared. Really scared. She just slept. "It was the sickest I've ever felt in my life," she says now.

She started feeling better, well enough to stand on her own, but wasn't fully recovered. Doctors diagnosed her with "pneumonia and an unidentified virus," which, though there was no test to identify it at the time, she now believes to have been the novel coronavirus, having consulted several doctors in the U.S. upon returning home in January.

She was admitted to the hospital on a Tuesday, but her team forced her to play in a road game that same week on Saturday. She had lost eight pounds during that span. She could barely breathe, but her coaches were adamant that she play. "They don't really believe in rest," she says. "They didn't really care. It was all about winning." So she was given more IV treatments, and she gulped down a large coffee right before the game.

Playing on god knows what, she dropped 51 points and 31 rebounds. Her lungs felt like they were going to pop. During free throws, she could barely see the rim. It spun and spun. I wish the rim would stay still for one second. After the game, her body wouldn't cool down.

As she continued playing over the next two weeks, she felt her breath was behind, as if it were constantly trying to catch up. She played a game in Wuhan, where the outbreak is thought to have begun, as cases were starting to pile up. Doctors scrambled for answers but still hadn't yet come to conclusions. The Women's Chinese Basketball Association held a winter break from Jan. 2 to Feb. 13, unrelated to the virus. Plaisance flew back home to New Orleans with the intention of coming back afterward.

Then she watched from afar as thousands in the region contracted the virus. She refused to go back, even though she is contractually obligated. She self-quarantined for two weeks and then consulted doctors about her lungs and heart. "They say I am in excellent condition," she says.

UNCASVILLE, CT - OCTOBER 04:  Theresa Plaisance #55 of the Connecticut Sun high fives teammate during practice and media availability during the WNBA Finals on October 4 2019 at the Tribal Government Building in Uncasville, Connecticut.  NOTE TO USER: Use
Khoi Ton/Getty Images

She has returned to the court and feels completely normal again but still has concerns. No one knows what the long-term effects of this virus might be. Medical science has only begun to accumulate the relevant data. "What if something pops up years down the road from this? It's a thought in my head," she says, "but I can't control that right now."

When Italy's cases skyrocketed, the Northern region was hit the hardest. That's where Keifer Sykes, who is from Chicago and played basketball at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, was playing—in Milan for Olimpia Milano of the Italian Lega Basket Serie A (LBA) and Euroleague.

The Italian league shut down, but Euroleague wasn't. Sykes' team played its next two Euroleague games but without fans. He wanted to honor his contract and represent his team well—it is one of the most successful teams in the world, and he was appreciative of such a great opportunity—but he was nervous to play, concerned for his health.

"The only thing I was thinking about was my son," says Sykes, 26. He feared that if he or one of his teammates contracted the novel coronavirus while playing an away game, he'd have to be quarantined in a different country for two weeks, which would leave his son, nine-year-old Keifer Sykes Jr., aka "KJ," who is living with him in Milan, without a parent (Sykes' sister currently lives with him, though). If that happened, if he couldn't return, he feared authorities might place his son in state care.

Sykes thought of how much fun he and his son had playing at the local arcade—how little KJ screamed in delight with his virtual reality goggles on, as if he were on a roller coaster and not inside of a mall.

Luckily, the team was spared from traveling when Euroleague shut down after the NBA decided to suspend its season. But when Sykes found out that an opponent he had recently faced tested positive for the novel coronavirus, he and his teammates were quarantined for 14 days, unable to leave their apartments for any reason.

Sykes has been doing push-ups, dips, squats, sit-ups and lunges in his living room. He walks from the front to the back of his apartment hundreds of times. He is thankful he is safe and has food: chicken, fruit and vegetables. "Who knows how long this will go?" he says. "Right now it's hard to think about playing another basketball game when people are dying."

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 03: Keifer Sykes, #28 of AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milano, looks on during the 2019/2020 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season Round 17 match between AX Armani Exchange Milan and Zenit St Petersburg at Mediolanum Forum on Janu
Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

Drew Crawford, a teammate and fellow American who played for Northwestern, feels similarly, except that he's completely alone. Crawford, 29, FaceTimed his girlfriend on her birthday, trying to celebrate as best he could through the screen. "I'm worried about my family back at home. I'm worried about everybody," Crawford says. But his friends and family are worried about him.

"It's the fear of being trapped," Crawford says. "Seeing the way [the outbreak] escalated in Italy makes me fearful about the U.S."

A few days before Spain went on lockdown, John Shurna and his wife went to the grocery store to stock up on food. Shurna, who also played basketball for Northwestern, is currently playing for Herbalife Gran Canaria of the Liga ACB in Las Palmas, Spain.

Everyone kept their distance in the market and wore gloves. "It was a little spooky," Shurna says. The markets were bare. There was no chicken, no meat at all, no potatoes, barely any fruit. "People were getting their groceries for the month, ready to bunker down," he says. "That was the first time I think we really felt the fear."

Shurna has additional fears. His wife is pregnant. "She's been a trooper," he says. There's not enough data yet to determine potential risks to pregnant people, pregnancies and infants, but while the two have been quarantined, they've been doing as much research as possible, consulting with doctors by phone who say that the virus will not affect the baby. "You just want to do everything you can to make sure everyone is healthy and safe," he says.

Still, so much is unknown, and watching the news between games of Monopoly and Connect 4 only increases his anxiety. "There's a high level of uncertainty. You read every day things seem to be getting worse and worse."

And yet, as nearly every country has suspended or canceled play, some are still playing basketball.

The gym in Istanbul felt eerily quiet and loud at the same time. Elizabeth Williams and her teammates kept hearing echoes when they'd yell after a good play, the acoustics in the empty arena bouncing for this rivalry game against Galatasaray on March 14.

Williams, 26, a forward for the WNBA's Atlanta Dream who is currently playing for Fenerbahce in Turkey, was not accustomed to playing without fans, but the Turkish League is continuing its season despite Euroleague being suspended indefinitely. "It's a little weird because everybody here knows that the virus is here. We just don't know where," Williams says. Turkey was the last of the world's major economies to report its first case of the novel coronavirus, on March 11, but information on the spread of the virus there is limited and the country has arrested at least 93 people for "spreading panic and fear by suggesting that the virus had spread widely," via Reuters. As of Tuesday, the WHO was confirming 98 cases.

Fenerbahce isn't under quarantine, but Williams says she and her teammates are washing their hands frequently and that the team has provided wipes and sanitizers and masks. Still, their game this coming Sunday hadn't been canceled as of midweek. "I don't think we should keep playing at this point," Williams says. "It doesn't help anything, and it doesn't hurt us to not play. It really doesn't hurt to stop playing."

M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Williams, who was born in England but is an American citizen, doesn't necessarily feel unsafe being in Turkey, though. The situation in the U.S. looks grim, too, with grocery stores empty and state and local governments taking various measures to stem the spread of the virus. "I read stories, and I'm like, 'I think I'm good here,'" she says. She tells herself that all she can do is stay vigilant. "I want people to understand that this isn't fake or made up. People should take the proper precautions."

If they can.

Jack Cooley, who played basketball at Notre Dame, is currently playing for the Ryukyu Golden Kings in Okinawa City, Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan. The team had a two-week break to try to combat the spread of the virus (plus another two-week break before that that did not have to do with the virus), but it is now back to playing. Cooley, 28, had games Saturday and Sunday, both played without fans.

Team doctors perform daily health checks on players, including temperature checks and asking about symptoms such as a cough or runny nose. "Players are inclined to be honest because nobody wants to be sick, nobody wants to make this any worse than it is," Cooley says.

He is trying to stay informed, but that can be difficult when he doesn't know the language.

He remembers an earthquake in Okinawa in January. It was minor but caught him off guard. An announcement popped up on his phone in Japanese. He didn't know what the message said but quickly realized what was happening. His room started shaking.

Now he feels it again.

That is what facing the novel coronavirus is for him and other athletes in his situation. It's unsettling. It's unpredictable. And it leaves them looking for answers as the world continues to shake.

Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.

​To protect yourself and your community, please follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ​

Editor's note: The Turkish League suspended play after this story was published.


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