As soon as President Trump announced the United States’ international travel ban because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, DeQuan Jones started to look for a flight home. The former Miami Hurricane has been playing basketball overseas almost nonstop since 2014, and his international journey this season took him to northeastern Italy, where he was playing for Pallacanestro Trieste in Lega Basketball Serie A. He had been self-isolated for about a week while his wife and seven-month-old daughter were back home in Atlanta. On March 11, he knew he needed to get back home.
His wife, Allison Jones, found him a flight into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport for the next day for about $500. She asked her husband to confirm it and refreshed the page.
“Just from my wife finding the flight, confirming with me, hitting refresh on the page, it jumped up to $2,000,” Jones said. “I want to say in the span of five minutes we deliberated on if we were going to do it, she hit refresh to check out and was just like, ‘Oh, yeah, hey, I know we said $500, but now it’s $2,000.’”
Still on March 12, Jones was back home in Georgia, out of Italy just days before the country became truly overrun by the coronavirus outbreak, which has now left nearly 700 dead in Italy alone.
Julian Gamble, another former Miami star playing in Serie A, followed him home to the United States a few days later. Neither had particularly harrowing ordeals in the foreign country nor did they feel unsafe potentially staying in Italy, but they were both on the ground, witnessing the earliest stages of a country overrun by an out-of-control epidemic.
“For me, it wasn’t really about a fear thing,” said Gamble, who plays for Virtus Pallacanestro Bologna. “It really was just I missed my family.”
Said Jones: “I didn’t want to get stuck there.”
Coronavirus, basketball and Italy
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In Italy, it progressed similarly to the way it has in the United States. Throughout February, Jones was reading about the coronavirus spreading across Asia. He had friends playing in South Korea’s Korean Basketball League, so he saw them go from playing in front of sold-out crowds, to playing games with no fans in attendance to not playing games at all. At the end of February, the Korean Basketball League suspended play indefinitely. On Monday, the league canceled its season.
In Italy, it was all accelerated. Lega Basketball Serie A (LBA) took off about two weeks from the end of February through the start of March when the outbreak started to affect Italy. When play resumed, no fans were allowed in the arenas.
On March 5, Bologna and Gamble were slated to play a EuroCup Basketball game in Turkey against Darussafaka Basketbol of the Basketball Super League, but Turkey was already banning Italians from traveling into the country, so the game got moved to a neutral site in Serbia, where they played in an empty 25,000-seat arena. Jones and Trieste played in one of only two LBA games March 7 before the league decided to suspend play indefinitely ahead of a March 8 slate of games. Like in the NBA, teams were playing and practicing as if everything was relatively normal one moment, then left in a state of limbo the next.
“Talking to team medical staff and like team personnel, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, hey, yeah, it’s nothing to worry about. We’re going to take the proper precautions,’” Jones said, “to, ‘Hey guys, practice is canceled.’”
For the next few days, Jones and Gamble thought they would ride out layoff. Neither had any sense of how long this latest break would last and American players abroad all wondered what it meant for their contracts, particularly if they decided to return to the United States. They both had self-isolated for about a week when COVID-19 started altering American life.
March 11 was the whirlwind day when everything seemed to change in the United States. The NBA suspended play indefinitely after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. Within minutes, Trump announced he would be banning virtually all travel to and from European countries for at least 30 days starting March 13. Jones checked with his team to make sure he would be allowed to leave and got permission, so he flew out of Italy the next day. He said he drew criticism from fans and local media because he was one of the first Americans to leave. He has been self-quarantined at home since he landed in the United States.
“I think that was the determining factor for me coming home because as I’m over in Italy I see how cases were rising in America at the same rate they were in Italy,” Jones said. “I was contractually obligated to the team, but the league — everything was in limbo, everything was in a standstill and rightfully so. This was a pandemic that the world has never seen, but the uncertainty was kind of weighing on me.”
Gamble got out a few days later. He checked with his coach and general manager and got permission to fly home March 15. Nonessential travel was banned, but his trip — an American citizen trying to get home — was still allowed. He is also still self-quarantined.
“Initially, I was going to stay,” Gamble said, “because I felt like even though things were progressing in Italy it was kind of maybe a little bit safer just to stay still, and just kind of stay in your zone and just stay in a place where you can control everything that you’re doing.”
Gamble has four other Americans on his team and said they all are still in Italy, hoping to be ready when — really if — the season resumes. Bologna is in first place and the season was scheduled to end in May.
European basketball in limbo
Just like in the NBA, the financial effects of the coronavirus will be jarring. In Europe, it has a chance to be catastrophic. Players frequently play on one-year deals and bounce from country to country to find the next contract in a high-profile league.
While Jones and Gamble are now well-established international players with about 15 years of combined experience overseas, less-accomplished players stuck on those one-year deals have no assurances they will be able to make a living playing basketball again, particularly if teams are severely hampered financially or have to fold.
Jones and Gamble aren’t unique in their decisions to return home, but they also aren’t part of an overwhelming majority. Players stayed out of worry their next paycheck wouldn’t come if they went back to the United States or because they hoped play would resume soon. They now find themselves in a state of limbo.
“It is definitely something to think about, not just this, but the ripple effect on the market for next year, where players will be, where the financial of the makeup of certain teams in certain places, so this is definitely something that will affect the entire European basketball market as a whole,” Jones said. “There are guys that are still there in Italy who were afraid to leave out of fear that the team would not pay the rest of their salary under the assumption or the accusation that the players voided the contract by leaving, so there are guys that are still there sacrificing their livelihood and their safety for that certainty, but it definitely will have, in my opinion, some lasting effects that we won’t see until next season or further down the road.”