Professional basketball appears set to return to the first countries in Asia inflicted with the coronavirus, though it likely will be played without spectators.
Games in South Korea, which drew worldwide praise for its success in containing the virus, seem closest to returning. South Korea’s league, the KBL, has games scheduled at the end of March, though in empty arenas. Many teams will see their American players landing in airports around the country over the next week, several agents told ESPN.
The South Korean league has been suspended since late February, and many foreign players elected to return home for their scheduled four-week hiatus. Not all foreign players will return, but it appears enough will to attempt to play games in two weeks.
In Japan, where leagues were suspended in mid-February, games were played behind closed doors this weekend, though a couple of events rattled players and raised questions over the viability of the remainder of the season.
A game between the Chiba Jets and Utsunomiya Brex was postponed after mandatory temperature checks for all participants revealed a referee with a fever, according to a notice posted on the teams’ websites.
The Shiga Lakestars played without any foreign players after their three American players asked to opt out of their contracts, according to local reports. Levanga Hokkaido did not suit up this weekend after three American players were diagnosed with fevers, the Japanese media reported. Several foreign players from the lower divisions in Japan also have elected to return home.
Representatives of several players under contract in Japan said they expect the league to be canceled for the remainder of the season, because of unease over the virus. An official announcement is expected in the coming days.
Japan is continuing preparations to host the Summer Olympics in late July.
The Chinese Basketball Association has been on hiatus since late January, but has taken steps to call Americans back to the country to prepare for games in early April, something that has been met with resistance from some players and agents who feel the situation is still too unstable to resume basketball competition, even behind closed doors. In spite of that, at least a dozen Americans elected to board planes for China this weekend, including some of the league’s biggest stars, and more players are expected to report back to their local clubs this week to begin the mandatory two week quarantine period, which will be conducted at hotels or team’s apartments.
A meeting for Chinese Basketball Association officials was held Monday to discuss the format for resumption of the league, several sources told ESPN. One of the main topics on the docket was whether to continue the league with only local Chinese players on rosters. The league was reportedly waiting to see how many Americans return to China before announcing whether to continue in a local-only format, but several agents ESPN spoke with say they have been guaranteed in writing that any American who returns will be compensated for the time they spend in China, as well as any back pay owed.
According to several people briefed at the conclusion of the meeting, it was decided that the CBA will not go to a local-player only format, as foreign players will be allowed to participate. Teams will only be allowed to bring back players that were previously under contract, being barred from signing new players. Teams will play four games a week, behind closed doors, for one month, before the playoffs start in mid-May. There were 15 regular season games left to be played when the CBA went into the Lunar New Year break in late January. Games are expected to be played starting April 15th in two cities, DongGuan and Qingdao, where the 20 teams will play out the regular season behind closed doors before moving onto the playoffs. The situation remains fluid “and could change at any moment,” one local agent told ESPN.
Trepidation about poor conditioning levels following quarantine periods and overall safety concerns still exist among players ESPN has been in contact with, but a growing sense among some is that “China could very well be a safer place to be in right now than the U.S., plus at least I’ll continue to get paid and not face a lifetime ban,” in the words of one veteran American. “With the way things are headed in Europe, and the damage being done to their economy, the gap in pay between the pro leagues there and China will likely only increase next season, which is something we have to consider in planning for our future financially.” One of the biggest unresolved questions is what will happen to Americans when they opt to return home — will they be barred entry or forced to quarantine?
N.C. State-graduate Allerik Freeman arrived in China in early January, after his contract was bought out from a team in Turkey, just as the coronavirus was starting to spread. He elected to stay in China for the past 10 weeks despite being the only American basketball player remaining in the country, practicing twice a day with his teammates.
“At first it was because my visa was taking so long, it’s normally a two week process,” Freeman told ESPN. “Because of the virus and the Chinese new year it ended up taking much longer, until around mid-February. By that time, I thought it would be counterproductive to leave and go play in another league and risk the same exact thing happening once the virus spread. My only regret is that I decided to send my fiancé and five-year daughter son back to the US. Sometimes I wish I kept them here with me because it seems it’s getting worse in America than it is here.
“It seems there’s a panic in America. Not here. People stayed home and just didn’t interact with each other. Now life is back to normal from what it seems. People are walking around. The streets are flooded. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. Most restaurants and businesses are open. If that’s any indication it seems its getting as close to back to normal as possible. People are still wearing marks and getting their temperature checked. I get my temperature checked every day. Sometimes twice a day. At my hotel, restaurants, grocery stores, at the security check entering the gym. I don’t know what happens to people who have a fever. I guess not let them in? I wonder about that sometimes”
In other international basketball action:
The games in Turkey, Australia, Brazil, Belarus, Chile, Russia and Serbia continue to be played, behind closed doors.
In Great Britain, a BBL Trophy competition game between the Newcastle Eagles and Solent Kestrels was played in front of several hundred fans. Three foreign players on Newcastle asked to be released before the game and were allowed to return home.
In Turkey, New Zealand national Tai Webster, who played at Nebraska, decided not to play for Galatasaray, joining former first-round draft pick Shane Larkin (considered the best player in European basketball), Adrien Moerman, Alec Peters, Bryant Dunston and Krunoslav Simon, all of whom sat out Anadolu Efes’ Sunday game against Turk Telekom.
In Belgium, the league was canceled, joining Bosnia, Lithuania, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Ireland and Cyprus. Filou Oostende were named champions, their eighth title in a row. Oostende is still competing in the FIBA Champions League playoffs, as their series with Spanish team Tenerife is tied 1-1, thought it appears unlikely that that series will proceed.
Spanish teams will meet Monday to discuss the possibility of canceling the ACB season, newspaper Mundo Deportivo reported Sunday. Cancellation will allow teams to terminate players’ contracts without having to pay them the remainder of their salaries. Several international agents say international basketball teams will have strong incentives to terminate players’ contracts and it will be difficult to compel teams to pay clients for the duration of the season even without force majeure language included in agreements.
FIBA Europe canceled the FIBA Europe Cup, which was in the Final Four stage, as well as the EuroLeague Women and EuroCup Women competitions. Two competitions, the Euroleague Men and EuroCup men’s leagues, remain indefinitely suspended. The organization also agreed to “monitor and decide by April any possible rescheduling or relocation of all upcoming summer events,” including youth tournaments such as the U16, U18 and U20 European Championships.