In the Midst of the Coronavirus Pandemic, the Turkish Basketball League Plays On

While the Turkish BSL has closed its games off to fans, some American players like Shane Larkin and Aaron Harrison are urging the league to go dark amid the Coronavirus pandemic.
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On Sunday, Trae Golden was attacking the rim during a home game for Bahcesehir, his club in Turkey’s top-tier Basketball Super League, when the 28-year-old shooting guard lost his footing and fell to the floor. As he lay there, two fellow Bahcesehir players instinctively hustled over to help him up, extending their arms and offering their hands.

It was the sort of ordinary interaction that Golden had experienced countless times in his career, which has wound through Finland, Italy, France and Russia following NCAA stops at Tennessee and Georgia Tech—and never with so much as a second thought. But this was different. Waving his teammates’ hands away, Golden rose alone before chuckling in a moment of gallows humor. “I was like, ‘It’s all good, bros. I got it,’” he recalls. “Just trying to be cautious.”

Players across the country found themselves facing similar quandaries over the weekend as the BSL pressed forward amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As March Madness is canceled, the NBA is postponed through mid-May (at least), and virtually every other major domestic European hoops league—not to mention the EuroLeague and EuroCup—has suspended games while the novel coronavirus spreads, the BSL held a full slate of eight games with closed doors and no fans. (The Süper Lig, Turkey’s leading soccer outfit, has continued to do the same.)

One such contest unfolded at Istanbul’s BJK Akatlar Arena, where Golden and Bahcesehir hosted OMG Orman in a battle of sub-.500 squads. The emptiness of the 3,200-seat building alone produced an eerie feeling on the court, Golden says, which resurfaced with every plainly heard play call or bit of trash talk. Then there was the omnipresent spectre of the virus.

High-fives were replaced with fist bumps and elbow taps. After the starting lineups were announced, rather than convene at center court for handshakes as usual, players simply nodded from a safe distance and said good luck. Golden asked Bahcesehir’s trainer to ensure that no teammates wiped their sweat on his sideline towel or drank from his Gatorade bottle.

“Something I never want to experience again, let me say it like that,” says Golden, who finished with 29 points and nine assists as Bahcesehir lost in overtime, 111-105. “It’s a tough situation to be in. I’ve never played basketball in that type of mind state before. Of course you want to play, you want to compete. But you’re also like, ‘Wait, let’s hope nothing bad happens.’ ”

Deciding to take the floor at all had been difficult for Golden, who says he was reassured by team management that he was free to sit out if he felt uncomfortable. But he’d made a “last-minute decision” only after seeing other BSL players suit up on Saturday, while “assuming too that this will be our last game, maybe of the season, because of how things were going.”

Sure enough, late Sunday night, Golden was chatting with relatives in the U.S. when he saw a news alert: Turkey’s count of confirmed cases had tripled from six to 18. “That’s when I got really nervous,” he says. “Like, ‘Wow, this is even more serious than I thought.’”

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Others refused to accept the risk in the first place. Based on conversations with five Americans in the BSL, as well as a recent ESPN report, more than a half-dozen players around the league are believed to have declined to play on Saturday or Sunday due to concerns about the virus, including erstwhile NBA guards Shane Larkin (Knicks, Nets and Celtics) and Aaron Harrison (Hornets, Mavericks).

In addition to staying home, many of the BSL’s biggest American stars also issued social media messages en masse—the result of a hastily coordinated plan that was hatched, fittingly enough, in an Instagram group chat—that urged the BSL to join its European counterparts and go dark as a precaution. And every player on Harrison’s club, Galatasaray, posted a joint statement that Harrison says was crafted by two of the team’s Turkish-born captains.

“If players don’t feel 100 percent safe, if they don’t feel comfortable, then I don’t think basketball should be played,” says Harrison, who reached the 2014 NCAA championship game at Kentucky alongside his twin brother, Andrew. “If you’re in a position to think that you can’t touch your teammate’s hand, it shouldn’t be played.

“Greece is right next to [Turkey]. They’re suspending their league and shutting it down, and we’re still going to carry on with the games? I just didn’t think that it was the right thing for the league to do. We definitely felt like we weren’t being looked out for.”

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Despite a tough season in domestic BSL competition, sporting a 7-15 record entering their matchup with OMG Orman, Golden and his teammates were thrilled as they bused to the airport in Riga, Latvia, and prepared to fly home to Turkey last Thursday. The good vibes stemmed from their 112-90 trouncing of host Ventspils, thanks in no small part to Golden’s 41 points, which advanced Bahcesehir into the semifinals of the FIBA Europe Cup.

By then, the sports world was already reeling. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell had tested positive for COVID-19, causing a domino effect of leaguewide suspensions in the States. So had one of Golden’s childhood friends in the Atlanta area, Trey Thompkins, while playing overseas for Real Madrid. Naturally, buzz began spreading on the Bahcesehir bus as players speculated about what this all meant for the BSL. “By the time we went through customs, got ready for our flight, everyone was like, ‘We don’t know if the league will continue,’ ” Golden says.

As he was boarding the plane, though, one of Bahcesehir’s captains passed along some surprising news: The league would indeed continue, the games to be played as scheduled, albeit without any crowds. “A lot of guys were really nervous, including myself,” Golden says. “It’s hard being aways from home. You don’t want to be going through this without your family. We thought that before the games, they’d say, ‘O.K., it’s postponed, let’s see how it plays out.’”

Upon landing in Istanbul, Golden checked his phone and discovered that he’d been added to a group chat on Instagram with fellow BSL players. The thread had been started as a small discussion by Jordon Crawford, 29-year-old ex-D-League shooting guard now with Afyon Belediye, who initially invited around 10 Americans whom he knew from around Turkey. But it wasn’t long before players of all nationalities were getting added, typing out their feelings about the non-hiatus—specifically whether they planned to attend their next game.

Opinions were all over the map, Crawford says. Many cited the obvious coronavirus health concerns when relaying why they wanted to sit, whether because they were skittish about catching it themselves or because they feared spreading it onto loved ones. Harrison, for instance, had been feeling under the weather all week, which he attributes to seasonal allergies; even after a team doctor evaluated him and declined to test for COVID-19, citing a lack of relevant symptoms, Harrison watched from home as an extra precaution. “I was cheering like I was there,” Harrison says. “[But] I didn’t want to put my teammates to feel uncomfortable around me.”

Others were adamant about ensuring their next paycheck and avoiding potential repercussions from their teams. (One BSL source estimated that salaries for non-Turkish, foreign import players, whose roster spots are limited, generally range between $250,000 and $450,000 but can eclipse $1 million. "Most guys want to come home," says another BSL source, a FIBA-licensed agent with multiple American clients in Turkey. "But there’s a lot weighing on the contracts. If they just walked away and the league was still playing, you can only imagine how that’d hurt their chances [of gaining future employment]." 

“It was a real difficult situation for us to try to come up on the same page,” says Crawford, who ultimately played for Afyon in a narrow 83-81 loss to Darussafaka, “because you have some players saying, ‘I don’t need the money, so I’ll go home [to the U.S.].’ Then another class is saying, ‘Hey, I still want to play because I need the money.’ I think we all realized that regardless of what it was, it wasn’t safe for us to play. And that we needed to take this thing into our own hands and really speak up about it—that was the biggest thing.”

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One player taking heed in the thread was Tofas big man Devin Williams. An all-Big 12 selection in 2016 at West Virginia and the BSL's reigning leading rebounder, Williams had been waffling all week on his decision for Sunday’s game against Fenerbahce—at times defiant about playing, other times concerned. 

A few factors influenced his eventual decision to sit. The outspoken tweets from such peers as Larkin, a point guard on first-place Anadolu Efes, and Fenerbahce’s Ali Muhammad, a member of the Turkish national team who also goes by Bobby Dixon, were definite motivators. So was what he saw as radio silence from BSL headquarters. “I didn’t think it was a time for our league to feel special or anything like that,” he says. “I just didn’t think it made sense. The league itself never took precaution to just postpone, or suspend. They never even sent an email out to calm the athletes and the organizations. No one has made any type of effort to put anybody at ease.”

And so, for that matter, was hearing that his team captain planned to sit, too.

***

Sammy Mejia has made a home in Turkey. Drafted in the second round by the Pistons in 2007, the Bronx native has logged eight BSL seasons, including the last three as Tofas’s captain. He and wife Nanette live in the city of Bursa, where daughters Sienna, eight, and Penelope, five, attend school. The culture is lively there, marked by restaurants and nightclubs with house bands that attract floods of locals, Mejia says. Of course, all of those establishments are closed now.

The statements from Larkin, Harrison and others might have earned more eyeballs back home, but Mejia’s stance was just as big of a deal in Turkey, considering his tenured status in the league. He reports catching some social media flak—mostly anonymous accounts telling him to quit being selfish by letting fear run his life, or some likewise nonsense—but stands by his choice to sit on Sunday as Tofas lost, 84-75. (Like Golden with Bahcesehir, both Mejia and Williams report having the support of Tofas management to miss their game.) 

“I felt bad to a certain extent,” Mejia says. “I just wanted to stick with my gut feeling and choose safety. I wasn’t trying to challenge my club or the [Turkish basketball] federation. It was about me trying to join the other millions of people out there who are trying to slow this thing down and do something that’s going to help. There are a lot of people suffering. People are dying. I didn’t feel comfortable playing, knowing the kind of consequences we were having as people.

“I’m sure if it was up to the players, completely up to the players, no imports would’ve played this weekend. But there’s a lot to factor in. There’s a lot of people who rely on these salaries, just like people in the business world. Because of that, I feel it’s important to have the people that are above us, the people that run the show and … they should assume that responsibility and make that decision and make it easier for the players to feel comfortable.”

As Turkey braces for the virus, ordering nationwide shutdowns of restaurants, movie theaters, and other event venues—not to mention Sienna and Penelope’s school—Mejia waits for news, battling concern about the virus and boredom while waiting for an update from the league. Among BSL players, he is hardly alone. Williams ordered cases of bottled water, candles and batteries to be shipped to family members in Cincinnati, helping them stock up for a potentially lengthy self-quarantine. Golden worries about his mother and diabetic father back home in Atlanta, where his sister drops off groceries but leaves them outside the garage, just to be safe.

“Every day, we’re supposed to hear something tomorrow,” Harrison says. “Haven’t left my house since Thursday. That’s frustrating—not knowing whether we’ll play, are we going to go home, are we going to stay?” Just as bothersome, Harrison continues, has been the ongoing lack of transparency from the BSL over its decision to continue games.

No doubt the relatively low case count in Turkey, at least heading into the weekend, played a role. Perhaps, as one agent with multiple American BSL clients speculated to SI, the league wanted to further capitalize on an exciting season—unlike other European outfits that simply declared early champions, the BSL has two teams, Anadolu Efes and Pinar Karsiyaka, virtually tied atop the standings—by squeezing as much basketball in as possible before its inevitable coronavirus-caused shutdown. (An email to the Turkish Basketball Federation from SI went unreturned.) Whatever the reason, players haven’t been told.

“No rationale, no explanation,” Harrison says.

As the sun rose on Tuesday morning, the answers remained unclear. Absent any edict from the BSL—or perhaps the Turkish government, which could address the Süper Lig too—some teams had independently canceled practice, players say. But a game between Anadolu Efes and Bursaspor was still on the calendar, scheduled to tip off at 8 p.m. local time. Meanwhile, 29 new cases were confirmed overnight by Ministry of Health officials.

“If we’re closing nightclubs and stuff, we think that maybe basketball should be the same,” Golden says. “I told my parents, I can’t personally see myself practicing or playing again. It wouldn’t make any sense. I don't think anybody should at that point.”