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The Ripple Effects of the Basketball Shutdown Reach Americans Abroad

It’s one thing to be told to stay home. It’s another to have to decide whether you can make it there. For U.S. players hooping overseas, the pandemic brought about an immediate crisis—and plenty of long-term concern.

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When basketball stopped in Italy around early March, Aaron Craft faced a decision that many U.S. basketball players abroad had to consider: go home or wait out the pandemic on foreign soil?

Two of Craft’s American teammates on his Italian club, Aquila Basket, didn’t hesitate; they flew home as soon as possible. Craft had a personal holdup. He didn’t think it would be safe for his then-13-month-old baby to travel in the middle of such a frenzy, so he and his wife bunkered down in Trento, six hours north of Rome.

“Another factor was we were obligated contractually [to stay] at the time,” Craft said. “If we left and couldn’t come back, we forfeit the rest of our contract and salary. So we just didn’t think it was worth the chance.”

While quarantining, the Crafts settled into a routine with their son, but outside things were getting worse. The death counts were rising both at home and in Italy, and lockdowns were tightening locally. Craft’s wife was stopped multiple times by Italian police on outdoor runs and told to go home. A few weeks into their decision to stay, the scales started to tip the other way. A return for basketball in Italy looked increasingly unlikely, and the risk of staying there outweighed the risk of losing any money.

“We were like, ‘OK, we’ll leave and just take our chances,’” Craft, now in Ohio, said. “‘If I need to come back, I can come back by myself and not put my wife and son through it.’”

The flight from a deserted Rome airport to New York had just 37 adults, three kids, and one dog in the main cabin—Craft counted. He and his wife thoroughly wiped down their seats and settled in for the transatlantic trek. After landing at JFK on March 28 and boarding a flight to Detroit (this one had only nine people total), Craft breathed a sigh of relief once he saw initial reports that the Italian league’s season was going to be canceled. Two weeks later it was official. Craft’s salary had been cut by 20 percent—a pay cut that the team told Craft was instituted across the franchise in order to protect players and employees.

As basketball calendars continue to get pushed back across the globe, the uncertainty hasn’t diminished, and the lasting effects on the nomadic players, teams, and leagues—including the NBA—only grow. Craft considers himself lucky, in large part because he and his family are safe, but also because he had decided before the season that this would be his last one playing basketball; the 29-year-old is planning to return to Ohio State to finish medical school.

“Contracts next year for players are going to be abysmal, unless you had a guarantee that you had signed from this previous year,” Craft said, referencing clubs’ reeling financials. “I do not envy those players that are having to make these decisions moving forward.”

At first, Eric Moreland thought the black masks looked cool. His team, the Shanxi Loongs of the Chinese Basketball Association, had started handing them out at the team hotel January 22—after the final game before the Chinese Lunar Year break. Moreland was headed to Bali the next morning for a much-needed respite after his first overseas stint following five years in the NBA. He found it strange that he was told he needed to get to the airport early and was put in a different, longer line at security the following morning. But soon enough he was in Bali, and relaxed.

The CBA shut down on January 24, but Moreland was told to return to China by the 28th. Then, the date was pushed back to February 1. More vacation, Moreland thought. Great. Then vacation quickly turned into something different.

“Every day you kept hearing something different. Each day [was] a process,” Moreland said. “I felt like I was right there where it all began … it was some crazy shit.”

Moreland eventually was able to make his way from Bali to Los Angeles and is now working out while keeping in close touch with his family in Houston, especially his dad who works at a hospital. But the strangeness with the CBA hasn’t subsided. The league has tried to resume play multiple times, only to push back their projected restart date every time, the latest being sometime in July. From Moreland’s perspective, part of him is glad that he wasn’t able to go back and have to endure 14 days in quarantine in China (“it’s not like America, they don’t let you do anything”) before being able to join his team, which like most other teams is now just practicing in a prolonged limbo. But part of him is also ready to head over there once there’s basketball for him to play.

“You don’t know if you’re going to be able to go back, you don’t know if you’re going to get paid,” he said. “It’s a hot mess.” Moreland has been hearing different potential return dates since January, including a notice from the CBA that if he didn’t return, he could be banned. He has yet to be paid since the shutdown.

Unlike Craft, Moreland didn’t hear from his team about a possible pay cut or salary stoppage. That type of uncertainty underlines the general feeling when relevant parties are asked about the status of overseas basketball: No one knows when it could actually return or what it will look like when it does.

Beyond receiving current paychecks, there’s concern about what the financial landscape could look like in the future. Among agents I spoke with, one said he’s been hearing from teams abroad that budget cuts will be necessary across the board. Another believes the money won’t matter, but players won’t feel comfortable flying overseas any time soon. Some wonder whether it’s even worth recommending players take overseas deals at all given the current situation. One agent who recently signed a Division I product not expected to be drafted said he received immediate interest from teams abroad. The first team that called, though, was in Italy.

“I’m like, ‘No way.’ That’s the heart of [the pandemic], that’s out of the question,” the agent said. Even though a lot of countries might be ahead of the virus curve in relation to the United States, other factors may come into play. “There’s nothing like staying home and being in a place you’re familiar with, especially right now. So I am telling him it’s probably better for him to take his chances here, try to get a two-way deal, maybe get a 10-day call-up and try to make money that way.”

The reluctance goes both ways. Jon Solomon, an agent who’s worked with players in various leagues overseas, said he expects teams in Europe to emphasize signing local players now because their contracts are often cheaper than those of American players, and the talent is good enough to keep the league thriving.

“For at least this upcoming season, there will be a lot fewer jobs available because the demand won’t be there,” Solomon said, noting the sponsorship money that some European teams depend on may disappear. Unlike in Asia or South America, Solomon sees Europe as being better prepared to eschew pricier American contracts. “When I first started this business 10 years ago, there were a lot more American players getting hired, a lot more jobs available. Now the world has kind of caught up a bit, and Europe is now hiring a lot of guys within, and they’re developing their local players so that they don’t have to pay American players as much or at all … this could make that trend go even faster.”

Stateside, there are also questions about the ripple effects of the shutdown. With more high-level American players likely staying put, one agent expressed concern about how tough it could be for prospective NBA players, drafted or undrafted, to score a two-way deal in the G League. While that trickle-down scenario could be beneficial for G League teams hoping to put out a better product, it makes decisions even harder for players who could be caught on the fringes.

“This is something you can’t prepare for,” the agent said.

The overseas option has often been more attractive than the G League for players in recent years, with more lucrative deals, better accommodations, and livelier game environments. The competition, like in Spain’s ACB league, is also better. That’s what appealed to former Wofford star Fletcher Magee this past summer when he saw his minutes on the Bucks’ summer league team declining and representatives from the Spanish club Monbus Obradoiro expressing interest. Magee inked a deal and began his pro career in Santiago de Compostela, located on the northwest coast of the country.

Magee felt he was improving by playing in a more physical, competitive atmosphere, but when the pandemic hit, things deteriorated quickly in Spain. The league went from fully active to completely shut down in a matter of days. The team told American players that given the circumstances they were allowed to go home, so Magee and his girlfriend traveled from Spain to London to Chicago to his home in Orlando over the course of three exhausting travel days.

Now, Magee is trying to stay in shape, lifting and working on his game on an outdoor hoop and hoping that he can improve during the lull so that he can be ready for an opportunity once basketball eventually returns.

“I feel like very few people even know what’s going to happen next year with the teams in Europe, or even in the NBA,” he said. “Are they still going to be paying the same amount of money?”

Moreland said he’s got enough money saved up to not be affected by missing a few paychecks, but he’s a five-year veteran who has made NBA money before going abroad. Magee, though, is just beginning his journey after graduating in 2019. Last month, the EuroLeague announced it would determine by May 24 whether it would cancel the season. The latest reports suggest there’s optimism they could return in July and Liga ACB could resume in June, with a tournament between the 12 best teams. Magee’s team was in 13th place, so he’s likely done for the year, but the hypothetical still leaves him with a conundrum he may have to answer next season.

“I would definitely have gone back and played,” he said. “But if the virus was still around and there wasn’t really a cure, coming back to the United States, back to my family and back to a lot of my loved ones, I think that part of it would have been harder than going back over there.”

In some ways, the G League is in far better shape to attract guys like Magee now than it was a few years ago, even if the money falls short of what’s potentially offered overseas. There’s no risk of not getting paid, like Moreland’s situation in China, there’s a plan in place to unionize in the near future, and the league is reportedly raising per diems and improving travel accommodations. Select contracts have also gone up to $125,000 as of last season. And yet, as one front office executive pointed out, decisions might also come down to timing. If leagues abroad open up before the G League, teams abroad could potentially scoop up waiting players depending on how much of a health risk both the players and the teams are willing to take. If the timelines are the same, though, this could be a catalyst for more players staying stateside, a development that, alongside the NBA’s attempted splash to attract top high school prospects, could turn the G League into a better, more attractive product.

Regardless of how it shakes out, one agent believes whatever trickle-down ramifications ensue, it won’t change the ultimate factor when building a team.

“There will be an effect, but it’s still survival of the fittest,” the agent said. “If you’re good enough you’re going to make a team.”