WNBA players say life in Russia was lucrative but lonely

For the elite athletes in the WNBA, using the free season by playing in Russia can mean that they earn more money than they can earn at home – sometimes even two or three times as much.

But those who have done so also describe the loneliness of being away from family and friends, of struggling with an unknown language and culture, and of living in a place with only a few hours of sunlight in the winter and temperatures well below freezing.

Brittney Griner is one of the players who in recent years went to Russia to make extra money. For the two-time Olympian, however, it has become a protracted nightmare.

Since arriving at a Moscow airport in mid-February, she has been detained by police after they reportedly found vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Still in jail, she awaits trial next month on charges that could lead to up to 10 years in prison.

Her arrest came at a time of heightened political tensions over Ukraine.

Half a dozen American players contacted by the Associated Press shared their experiences of playing in Russia. Although no one was in the same situation as Griner, they described difficulties as isolation and boredom, except basketball.

“Playing there was not easy because the lifestyle and way of life is very different from what you experience elsewhere in Europe and America,” said DeLisha Milton-Jones, one of the first American players to play in Russia. in the early 2000s.

“The extreme weather – it’s pitch black at 5pm. I had to wear my big jacket and warm up sometimes when it was minus -40 degrees outside,” said Milton-Jones, who played for UMKC Ekaterinburg – the same team as Griner.

The former Florida All-American, WNBA All-Star and two-time WNBA champion with the Los Angeles Sparks said the decision to play in Russia was simply a “business one”.

In the early 2000s, top WNBA players could earn about $ 125,000 a year as part of a marketing deal with the league. Today, the salary of elite players is around $ 500,000. By playing in Russia, these players can earn an additional $ 1 million to $ 1.5 million.

Players say Russian teams try to make them as comfortable as possible, including sometimes providing drivers and translators. The clubs also give players extra days off during breaks, knowing they have longer trips back to the US if they take home.

The apartments provided by the teams are comparable to what players are used to in the WNBA, including Western-style kitchens and laundry facilities, and they also have access to streaming services and video calls.

Milton-Jones, 47, played in other European leagues but said Russia paid the most at the time. And no one topped UMKC Ekaterinburg, which remains an attractive destination for players.

Milton-Jones helped the club win its first EuroLeague title. The team’s owner, Shabtai Kalmanovich, changed the standard of living and living standards for WNBA players in Russia before being shot and killed in Moscow in 2009.

“We chartered. Did everything five-star,” Milton-Jones said at the U.S. Basketball training camp earlier this month. “He just wanted to pamper us. He would send us to France for a weekend and give us thousands of dollars to shop in a private plane. Regardless of the club, you did not know where the money came from and you did not care. You were there to do a job. “

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi also spent many years playing in Russia for Kalmanovich, talking about luxurious living conditions and the lavish travel he would provide.

“Everything was literally first class,” Bird once said. “We stay in the best hotels. We go to Paris. We’re like at the bomb hotel in Paris.”

That treatment in Ekaterinburg continues.

“My experience in Russia has been fantastic, to be honest,” said Breanna Stewart, who has played for Ekaterinburg since 2020. “They make sure they take care of the players by chartering everywhere.”

But Milton-Jones also remembers how different life was 20 years ago when mobile phones and the internet were relatively new.

“Back then you had to go to the cigarette shop and buy the scratch cards and you would enter that number on the phone and it said you have 25 minutes to talk,” she said. “We did not. Have the popular apps on your phone today. It was a match”

Connecticut sun guard Natisha Hiedeman, who spent the final season in Russia before returning home in March, said her daily routine consisted of going to the gym and returning home. The only other place she went was the grocery store.

“It’s just challenging to go out when you can not communicate. Everything is 10 times harder, ”she said. “I stayed in the house. I was lucky I had my dog ​​out there to do things with him.”

Hiedeman said being in Russia felt more isolating than playing in Israel.

“In Israel, everyone was 20 minutes apart and there was a whole bunch of Americans, so it was easier,” she said. “Russia is a big country, and to be close to any other team, you had to get on a plane and travel.”

Hiedeman remained connected to his family through technology despite the time differences.

“I do not know how the old cats used to do it without FaceTime,” she said, laughing.

Brianna Turner, a teammate of Griner with Phoenix Mercury, also played in Russia in 2020-21. She competed for Nika Syktyvkar, a team based in Russia’s distant European north.

Turner said Syktyvkar did not have a mall or many places to go, but it did have a McDonald’s – though she did not go there often.

She often stayed home and streamed movies and programs on her computer. When her team went on the road, she would try to spend some time in the mall those places.

“There was not much to do outside of basketball,” she said.

“My town was very cold. When I first got there, the sun went down at 3 o’clock,” said Turner, who is from South Bend, Indiana. “The weather was a big adjustment. It was even colder. Waking up and it would be negative 20 more days in a row. It was cold every single day.”

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