How COVID-19 is Affecting US Basketball Players Overseas

LeBron James might have initially balked at the prospect of not playing basketball in front of fans, but the NBA is now shutting its doors with the news that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert has tested positive for Coronavirus.

The world simply has to take note of the serious problems that could arise from this pandemic (and seems like it is moving, slowly, in that direction).

But for some of the USA’s best athletes, COVID-19 shut down basketball more than a week ago.

Dallas Wings center Isabelle Harrison has played her non-WNBA basketball for Virtus Segafredo Bologna this year. The team is located in the largest city of the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy. It’s the oldest club in the country, with a proud heritage dating back to 1929 that is packed with a list of top talent, including NBA players: Last year they signed former LA Clippers guard Miloš Teodosić. 

But perhaps the biggest addition in 2019 was its first-ever professional women’s team, and one of its big signings included former Lady Vol and Dallas fan favorite Harrison. However, just a few months in, the team’s inaugural season looks like it will end early. 

Italy is on lockdown as it tries to stop Coronavirus from spreading further. Tanks were patrolling the streets this week to restrict movement, and nearly all public events have been canceled as the death toll continues to rise.

It’s a worrying situation for Harrison who is now stuck far away from home. She agreed to speak to The Basketball Writers early in the week, but as the situation progressed, her attentions rightly turned to getting out of Italy and back on US soil.

A flight was secured for Thursday afternoon, but at the time of writing, it is not known whether President Trump’s ban on European flights will affect this.

The USA’s best male ballers play exclusively in the NBA, but this isn’t necessarily an option for all WNBA players, who typically must travel overseas to earn better salaries. Beyond that, there are hundreds of lower-tier athletes and thousands of internationals who make their living in China, and in Europe, which is becoming more infected.

These people love basketball, they’ve worked incredibly hard to reach the level they’re at, and they want to continue working their way up the ranks. They are invested, so the emerging situation can lead to frustration. 

Carl Wheatle plays in Italy’s Serie A for a team located in Pistoia, Tuscany, but the remainder of his season is now just a list of TBDs.

His compatriot, Hannah Shaw, was the third leading scorer for Basket Sarcedo in Venedo this year. Her team is further north than some of the other major cities affected, so they felt more protected than others.

But things changed quickly.

Earlier this week, she said: “Our league had canceled one weekend of games for everyone, and then this past weekend they canceled all games on Sunday, right after we had been in Piedmont competing on Saturday, so we seem to be ahead of it. The team we played is now a lockdown province, but thankfully we found all this out on the bus home from the game.

“We played with no crowd. It was horrible, even when we used to play in juniors, you got some parents shouting to create some noise. But last weekend we only had the president of the opposition yelling from the empty stands. I think maybe it helped some of our younger players, who can get a little spooked by angry crowds, but I love an away game, especially in Italy. They seem to love yelling at the opposition, and that atmosphere helps light a fire under me.”

The playbook for Italy was replicated in other parts of Europe, with the UK and now the United States following a similar script of shutting doors to fans or canceling games altogether.

It starts out as light-hearted: People want to take it seriously, but they joke among friends whenever someone coughs or sneezes. Social media and broadcast personalities express surprise that people are just learning to wash their hands for the first time.

A few more cases are reported, and the numbers of people who died are included in the reports. Organizations prepare their businesses for temporary closures, and people decry any need to shut down events or offices. Further incidents are reported and competitions and public engagements are scaled back and canceled.

And now, freedom of movement in Italy is almost gone.

In Europe, the popular rugby tournament “The 6 Nations” has postponed games that feature Italy. Now France and FIBA has now canceled all competitions

In the UK, the government has been taking action more slowly. Perhaps it’s the benefit of being a small, island nation, but for that reason the British Basketball League is still operating.

Head of Communications Selina Conroy confirmed that they were following all government advice: “We are in constant contact with all BBL clubs and at this stage, all league games and events are taking place as planned. 

“There are a number of contingency plans open to us dependent on any updated guidance from the government over the next few weeks, and we will update accordingly should we need to deploy these.”

One of the reasons some leagues might have been slower to stop or slow their season is because of how deeply it will impact team profits and fan entertainment. But it will also affect the families of the players who depend on the salary they draw from playing basketball.

The likes of LeBron James might not have wanted to play basketball without an audience, but the income he has secured so far in his career has, quite rightly, set up the 16-year veteran comfortably if he retired today. The elite players in the NBA might be OK, but those further down the salary cap might not be as secure. 

Back in Europe, Shaw has still been productive at the age of 30, but this might be her final season playing overseas. Much like Vince Carter in the NBA, it’s not ended how she had hoped.

“I am concerned about my income if the season is to end,” she told TBW. “It isn’t really something you can argue about receiving. It is one of those ‘act of god’ clauses. I know my agent is working very hard to get me the best possible outcome so it is all a case of waiting.”

However, she also wasn’t overly concerned about gaining sympathy. Shaw is now in the UK and will have to be isolated for a few weeks until she is cleared of any symptoms, but she says, “I can appreciate that Italy has been the worst hit and they are prioritizing the right things. At the end of the day, basketball doesn’t matter.”

England’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries told the BBC that the vast majority of infected just feel “pretty rough” for a few days. However, the rising number of people who have died from the infection shows why the NBA, WNBA, FIBA and other leagues, as well as their fans, must likely live without basketball for an extended period of time going forward.

It’s not that basketball, or sport in general, doesn’t matter. But there are bigger things at play here. 

The scale of this pandemic means that, while only a fraction of the population might ever become ill, everyone will be affected by its ancillary outcomes and socioeconomic after-effects.