Skip to main content

From Istanbul to Dallas, Inside the Quick Turnaround for WNBA Players Returning From Abroad

Six days after winning the women’s Turkish Cup as teammates, Kayla McBride and Satou Sabally were squaring off in Dallas as opponents.

Last Saturday in Dallas, Kayla McBride and Satou Sabally played in the same professional basketball game, much like they have done dozens of times before. That afternoon, they did so as opponents—McBride, as a leading guard for the Lynx, and Sabally, a centerpiece of the Wings.

Six days earlier, the two had both starred in another contest. That game was set in Mersin, Turkey, around 7,000 miles from College Park Center. McBride and Sabally had suited up as teammates with Fenerbaçhe Safiport in the women’s Turkish Cup finals.

Such abrupt transitions are not necessarily abnormal for professional women’s basketball players. And due to numerous players going abroad when the W season concludes (roughly half the league’s played overseas in 2022 as the financial benefits can be lucrative), players have grown familiar with such quick turnarounds, whether days-long or weeks-long, for themselves or for their teammates.

Satou Sabally-wings-lynx

(Consider the fact that two days before McBride squared off against Sabally in Dallas, the 29-year-old guard competed against Aces center Kiah Stokes, who is also a member of Fenerbaçhe and took part in the title game set in the Turkish port city.) But the frequency with which overseas teammates become almost-immediate WNBA foes does little to underscore what such whirlwind transitions actually entail. “It’s hard for us to explain because you have to really be in it to understand it,” says McBride, who recently wrapped up her eighth season abroad. “It’s not built for everybody. It gets exhausting, but it’s even more exhausting trying to explain how exhausting it is.”

Game 3 of the Turkish Cup finals tipped off at 3 p.m. local time on Sunday, May 15. After Fenerbaçhe’s resounding 97–71 victory, the team went to a Mersin-area restaurant to celebrate its championship. At around 11 p.m., it flew commercial on a one-hour flight back to Istanbul. Both McBride and Sabally say they didn’t get back to their apartments until around 2 a.m.

McBride’s return flight to the United States was hours later, at 8:30 that morning, so she pulled an all-nighter. “There was no point in me sleeping,” she says. But, rest assured (and rest taken), on the 13-hour flight to Los Angeles—the site of the Lynx game vs. the Sparks on Tuesday, May 17—she slept seven hours.

McBride spent the rest of Monday with family in Malibu, taking a daylong break. On Tuesday morning, she watched film of the Lynx’s WNBA opponent. Riding an adrenaline boost from the title win in Turkey, that night she scored 24 points, including the game-winning three-point play, to give Minnesota its first win of the season. Wednesday evening, she admits, she crashed.

Sabally, meanwhile, stayed up until 5 a.m. Turkish time on Monday morning, finishing some last-minute packing. “I really pushed it all out last minute and waited too long,” she says.

Her flight back to Dallas was at 2 p.m. that afternoon. Wanting to, in her words, “make a wise decision for my body,” she sat out Dallas’s Wednesday-night contest vs. the Mystics and did not travel to the team’s game vs. the Mercury, which took place Friday.

“I think I just learned my lesson last year from not taking that break,” Sabally says of her brief reprieve. “Really kind of winding down and recovering my body because I know it’s a long season ahead of me, and resetting the mind, too.”

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

There is, of course, no singular way for a player to reacclimate to life in the WNBA, and individuals are left to make personal choices as to how quickly they want to get back on the floor after rejoining their U.S. teams.

Sabally says this year’s switch was “less weird” than it had been in past seasons, “because at least I know the arena.” (Her rookie year in the W took place at IMG Academy, the site of the league’s bubble season, with 2021 being her first campaign set in Dallas.) McBride, an overseas veteran, has grown used to the turnaround and felt she was both physically and mentally prepared to jump with the Lynx.

kayla-mcbride-lynx-wings

Still, among more granular aspects of the flip-switch, she had to drag all of her belongings from Istanbul to L.A. and then to Dallas, due to Minnesota being on the road upon her arrival Stateside. (Her plan was to start unpacking Sunday when she got back to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.)

In future years, many players around the league will be pushed to make a decision whether to go abroad at all, as the current CBA has a policy regarding WNBA prioritization. In its simplest terms, starting in 2023, it will become punitive to miss the start of training camp, and players beyond their third year in the W will be fined. A player, with some exceptions like national-team obligations or being a rookie or second-year, who will miss the start of the regular season due to such commitments will then be suspended for the entirety of the WNBA regular season. In ’24, players, again with exceptions, will be suspended the entire season if they are late for training camp. Per ESPN, last season 35 players reported late to training camp, and 12 missed games at the start of the year.

But for now, one of the unique side effects of such absences is observed in overseas locker rooms, where Sabally says her WNBA-bound Fenerbaçhe teammates often engaged in banter about how their U.S. teams were performing. Such a phenomenon is also why season-concluding goodbyes became see-you-laters for many of her teammates. Despite the time difference, the Wings forward says she tried to watch as many live WNBA games as possible. “Maybe too many,” she says. “That’s why I didn’t have a good sleep rhythm.”

Watching sports in real time is among the things McBride says she misses most when she’s abroad. On her short list of other things she looks forward to upon returning is some cuisine she’s more familiar with. “You can’t underestimate a good burger in America,” she says. “And breakfast, it’s completely different there.”

McBride says all this from Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport—with commercial flights being another present reality of the WNBA experience. And as she looks forward to a break from air travel during the team’s ongoing homestand, she says “that being a pro at this level is really special.”

Sabally seconds that notion and feels “energized” being back with the Wings: “I’m just excited to play basketball at this point. I’m rested, I feel good and I feel strong.”

But she also needs to carve out some time to unpack.

More WNBA Coverage: 

The Rise of the Aging Rookie: Meet the WNBA’s Veteran Debutants
• On-Court Courting: How These WNBA Couples Came to Be
How Russia Pushed the WNBA to a Crossroads