The decision to continue or resume playing basketball internationally — even without fans — is causing concern and second-guessing in some places.
Japan’s B League, which had just resumed play, has announced it will again postpone its season, this time until April 1, after what the Japan Times called a “chaotic weekend” of games revealed that significant issues remain, as previously reported by ESPN. The league previously had been on hiatus from mid-February through mid-March.
Arizona State alum Jeff Ayres, the No. 31 pick in the 2009 draft and a six-year NBA veteran, elected to return to the United States because of his discomfort with how the league and his team, the Shiga Lakestars, were handling the situation.
Ayres was leading the league in rebounding in his third season in Japan when he elected to depart.
“I decided not to practice or play due to concern regarding how the league, and my team specifically, was doing to keep players safe,” Ayres told ESPN. “I felt we were putting ourselves at risk. It was a reckless environment.”
Ayres, whose wife is eight months pregnant with their third child, said he didn’t feel the league was adequately prepared and did not have the players’ best interests at heart.
“Being able to come home was a big deal for me,” said Ayres. “What if they declared a state of emergency and closed the borders? I wasn’t going to miss the birth of my child. The league wasn’t doing anything to prevent us from getting sick and had no procedures in place for what would happen if someone contracted the virus. My team in particular was not taking any of the measures that were recommended, such as taking players’ temperatures daily, until it was already too late. The league was pressuring players to play in games due to pressure from sponsors, and my team was being dismissive of our concerns.”
Kawasaki Brave Thunders and Levanga Hokkaido players warm up in Kawasaki, Japan, on March 14 for a game that was soon canceled after Levanga Hokkaido announed three players had a fever. Carl Court/Getty Images
Ayres is among the many American players playing internationally who have elected to return home en masse after the U.S. State Department advised its citizens to avoid international travel and, if abroad, to return home immediately unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period. Many of the top teams in Europe have voluntarily allowed Americans to return home, but some have asked players to stay, threatening them with breach of contract if they leave on their own accord.
“The team is now saying they will terminate my contract due to breach of contract because I decided to leave,” Ayres said. “The league was mostly concerned about sponsorship money and that teams would go bankrupt. They were more worried about their bottom line than the safety of players. Japanese players were also voicing concerns.
“I do believe that the pressure of hosting the Olympics had something to do with that. They need to show people that Japan is safe so they could get tourism going again. They kept saying they have this contained. How do you know that when you don’t have enough tests to test people? The numbers say you don’t know who has it and where.”
The Shiga Lakestars did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Ayres.
• Japanese team Ryukyu Golden Kings streamed a live intrasquad scrimmage the team conducted Saturday morning for its fans. Russian EuroLeague team CSKA Moscow did the same.
• In China, the CBA remains on track for an April 15 return, with approximately half of the Americans under contract already back in the country and under strict quarantine, including former NBA players Jeremy Lin, Ty Lawson, Donatas Motiejunas, Sonny Weems, Ekpe Udoh, Marshon Brooks, Jared Cunningham, Pooh Jeter, Kyle Fogg, Ray McCallum, Antonio Blakeney and Joe Young.
The 20 CBA teams have been split into two cities, DongGuan (Guangdong province) and Qingdao (Shandong province). The league is expected to play approximately four regular-season games per week for four weeks before the playoffs start.
• In Turkey, players and staff of EuroLeague team Fenerbahce have shown symptoms of coronavirus, the club announced on its website. The team said in a statement that it will test players at a local hospital. Fenerbahce last played March 15 against Tofas Bursa, whose general manager, Tolga Ongoren, released a statement indicating none of his players are currently showing symptoms.
Turkey was the last league in Europe to stop playing basketball games, with defending champion Anadolu Efes playing a game behind closed doors on March 17, something that drew significant criticism from players and coaches who felt their health was being put at risk.
• Several Turkish teams have already taken steps to suspend player contracts, something that is happening around Europe and professional basketball as a whole, according to a number of international agents. One exception to that is French EuroLeague team ASVEL. Its team president, former NBA player Tony Parker, called every player individually to assure them that their contracts would be honored regardless of whether basketball resumes, a source told ESPN.
• In Italy, one of the hardest-hit countries of the pandemic globally, where the death toll has already exceeded 4,000, Virtus Bologna surprisingly elected to resume practice, according to Italian website Sportando. Coach Sasha Djordjevic was quoted as saying: “We are back to work again after this break. We continue to give our guys everything we can to help them do their job and recover their full strength and conditioning. We don’t give up. A company will come here to sanitize the practice facility in order for us to keep going. We hope that the season continues. Hopefully we’ll see you all soon and play some good basketball again.”
• Basketball leagues in Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Slovenia announced their decisions to cancel the remainder of their seasons this past week, joining Belgium, Bosnia, Cyprus, Ireland, Lithuania, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia and Ukraine, which did so previously.
• Certain leagues have only suspended their season so far, leaving individual teams within pan-European leagues to make their own decisions in some cases. BC Kalev Cramo from Estonia, which plays in the VTB League (which includes teams from Russia, Poland, Belarus and Kazakhstan), announced it has canceled the remainder of its games in all competitions. A member of Kalev’s coaching staff was diagnosed with the coronavirus last week following its game against Lokomotiv Kuban from Russia but is in good health, according to the team.