Nigel Hayes planned on following the basic safety measures that are now implemented around the world: hand washing, social distancing, and lots of time cooking in his apartment in Lithuania. The former Wisconsin power forward and Ohio native plays for Žalgiris Kaunas of the Lithuanian Basketball League. Despite the league cancelling the remainder of the season due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Hayes was staying put in the town of Kaunas, rather than head back to the United States.
“It’s safer here than in America in terms of cases, and they’ve taken drastic measures, a country wide shutdown,” Hayes said from his Kaunas apartment.
With a population of just under three million people, Lithuania currently has 105 reported cases of COVID-19 and one death. The country shut its borders on March 16th to nearly all foreigners. Lithuanian citizens were also banned from leaving the country, except for business trips.
“With the limited number of cases they've had and them being very proactive, you know, it’s kind of safer to stay put.”
Just 12 hours after Hayes made that decision the US State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory, the most severe warning issued by the department.
“Might have to leave now,” Hayes texted. When asked why he was leaving despite feeling safer abroad Hayes replied, “more or less, there was a warning to return before the border closed.” Four flights and almost 24 hours later and Hayes was back in Ohio. He received enhanced screening at the airport which just consisted of being asked by customs if he had any symptoms. He currently does not, but plans to voluntarily self isolate for two weeks.
On March 19th, The State Department urged Americans "in countries where commercial departure options remain available" to "arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period."
For the average traveler the decision is either, head back to the U.S. or have an extended vacation abroad in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. But for many athletes playing overseas, the choice comes down to contractual obligations and timelines set by their individual leagues.
Like many WNBA players, Atlanta Dream Forward Monique Billings spends her offseasons playing overseas. On March 1st, she headed to Hatay, Turkey to play for two months for the Turkish Women’s Basketball League (TKBL). Less than two weeks later sports leagues around the world were postponing seasons and some cancelling all together. Billings played the waiting game that crossed into the State Department warning.
Calling from her team facility in Turkey, she found herself in a state of confusion. “So this whole week has just been insane. The league has been like, okay, we're going to cancel it. We're not going to cancel it. We're going to cancel it. It's been so back and forth.”
Walking through town didn’t add any urgency to her decision. Grocery stores are full, people are going out to eat. “No one's talking about it. Barely. Barely anyone's talking about it.”
Like Hayes, Billings worried about the situation in the United States. “Honestly, it seems safer here (in Turkey). Like I'm not even gonna lie, like everything I'm seeing on social media, no toilet paper, no women's products in the grocery stores.”
Billings got word late Friday that the season was, in fact, canceled. With her entire family in California, she didn’t want to risk not being able to come home. On Saturday she boarded a flight from Istanbul to Los Angeles and saw some familiar faces from the NBA and WNBA. “There were probably 10-15 other hoopers on my flight. It was like a reunion.”
When they reached LAX the enhanced screening was hit or miss. “When I got to LAX I was so irritated because I got pulled to the side and questioned for maybe five mins, and my two WNBA friends were able just to slide by, and I was like those two over there are coming from the exact same place lol.”
Billings plans on taking the necessary precautions and social distancing, and was happy to see toilet paper available. She contemplated packing some in Turkey to take back home.
The exact impact of coronavirus has become a universal game of telephone. Social media and constant news notifications push players into making tough choices on whether to stay abroad or risk a possible border closing in either direction. There are still many sports leagues that are merely on hiatus, which means players are still in season and still contractually obligated to play if the season resumes.
What seems like an easy decision to come home, can mean forgoing a salary that a player is dependent on. Not everyone has been quick to jump on a flight back home. After two short stints in the NBA-G league, Gerald Beverly took his career abroad. Currently he is in one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak, Italy playing for the Amatori Udine of the Italian Serie A2 Basket. In the United States, the thought of becoming the next Italy has become a topic of FaceTime conversations. Live updates of the country’s death toll are like a scene out of a movie. But speaking with Beverly from his home in Udine, a province in northeastern Italy, his tone leans more pragmatic than panicked.
“Our league is suspended as of now until April 3rd. We were allowed, like, my team managed to get clearance from the local government to allow us to practice, but we could only practice three guys at a time individually and we had to be separated.”
That clearance was revoked three days ago. The small town went on complete lockdown. No one can leave unless it’s to go to the grocery store and only one member of the family can make the trip. People aren’t allowed to leave the town without permission from the government. Although Beverly would be cleared to leave in order to fly back to the United States, as of now that isn’t an option.
“I have to think about my job. The team told me you are free to go home and we will try to work something out for you, but if the season does resume, I would have to try to come back. And that is the major problem right there. If I can’t get back, I would be in breach of contract. This is my livelihood”
Beverly spends most of his days playing Xbox and working out in his home. Despite the ongoing situation in Italy, his biggest concern is back home in Rochester, NY where he mother is a nurse.
“Unfortunately, I do see America heading the same route as Italy. Like when I see people out on spring break it’s very disheartening.” Beverly says conversations are limited with his mother who has been working around the clock, and being in Italy he knows what could very possibly be next for his family.
“It’s tough. It’s tough to see.”
Beverly does have some advice if or when the United States goes into complete shutdown. “We are all in this together. You’ll get through it. No matter where you are.”