WNBA players say life in Russia was lucrative but lonely

For WNBA elite athletes, playing off-season in Russia can mean making more money than they can go home.

But those who did it also explained the loneliness of staying away from family and friends, suffering from unfamiliar languages ​​and cultures, and living in winter hours of sunlight and sub-zero temperatures. increase.

Brittney Griner is one of the players who went to Russia in recent years to make extra money. But for the two Olympic athletes, it turned into a protracted nightmare.

Since arriving at Moscow Airport in mid-February She was detained by the police After reporting that they found an arc cartridge that allegedly contained hemp oil in her luggage. She is still in jail, but she is waiting for trial next month on charges that could result in imprisonment of up to 10 years.

Her arrest took place when political tensions over Ukraine increased. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine and has continued the war.

Six American players contacted by the Associated Press shared their experience playing in Russia. No one was in the same situation as Greener, but he explained the difficulties other than basketball, such as isolation and boredom.

“It wasn’t easy to play there because lifestyles and lifestyles are so different from what we experience elsewhere in Europe and the United States,” said one of the first Marquee American players to play in Russia. DeLisha Milton-Jones said. Early 2000s.

Milton Jones, who played for UMKC Yekaterinburg, the same team as Greener, said: ..

Two WNBA champions at Florida’s former All-American, WNBA All-Star, and Los Angeles Sparks said the decision to play in Russia was simply “business.”

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

Players say the Russian team is trying to be as comfortable as possible, including providing drivers and translators. The club also gives players extra holidays during breaks, knowing that if they go home, they will have more time to return to the United States.

The team-provided apartments are comparable to those familiar to players at the WNBA, such as Western-style kitchens and laundry facilities, with streaming services and video calling.

Milton Jones, 47, played in other European leagues, but said Russia paid the most at the time. And nothing beats UMKC Yekaterinburg, which continues to be an attractive destination for players.

Milton Jones helped the club win the first EuroLeague title. Team owner Shabtai Kalmanovich changed the wage and living standards of Russian WNBA players before being shot dead in Moscow in 2009.

“We chartered. Everything was 5 stars,” Milton Jones said. At USA Basketball Training Camp Early this month. “He only spoiled us. He sent us to France over the weekend and gave us thousands of dollars to go shopping on a private plane. Regardless of the club, you have money I didn’t know where it came from and didn’t care. You were there to work. “

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have also been playing in Russia for many years for Karmanovich and talked about luxury living conditions and the luxury travel he offers.

“Literally everything was top notch. We are staying at the best hotel. We go to Paris. We are like a bomb hotel in Paris.”

Its treatment in Yekaterinburg continues.

“To be honest, my experience in Russia was great,” said Breanna Stewart, who has been playing in Yekaterinburg since 2020.

But Milton-Jones also remembers the difference between life 20 years ago, when mobile phones and the Internet are relatively new.

“At that time, I had to go to a cigarette shop and buy a scratch card. I entered that number on the phone and I was able to speak in 25 minutes,” she said. Put the most popular apps on your phone these days. I had a hard time. “

Natisha Hiedeman of Connecticut Sungard said she returned home in March after spending this past season in Russia, but her daily routine was to go to the gym and go home. The only other place she went was a grocery store.

“When you can’t communicate, it’s hard to go out. Everything is ten times more difficult,” she said. “I stayed at home. Fortunately, I took my dog ​​and did something with him.”

Hedeman said he felt that being in Russia was more isolated than playing in Israel.

“In Israel, it was easy because everyone was 20 separated and there were a lot of Americans,” she said. “Russia is a huge country and I had to travel by plane to be near other teams.”

Hedeman maintained a family connection through technology, despite the time difference.

“I don’t know if the old cat was doing it without FaceTime,” she said with a laugh.

Brianna Turner, Phoenix Mercury and Greener’s teammate, also played in Russia in 2020-21. She competed with Nika Syktyvkar, a team based in far-flung northern Europe in Russia.

According to Turner, Syktyvkar didn’t have many shopping malls or places to go, but McDonald’s did, but she didn’t.

She was often at home, streaming movies and shows on her computer. When her team got out on the road, she tried to spend some time in the malls at those places.

“I didn’t do much other than basketball,” she said.

“My city was very cold. From South Bend, Indiana, Turner said,” When I first got there, the sun set at 3 o’clock. The weather was greatly adjusted. It was even colder. When I wake up, it goes negative in 20 days. Line. It was cold every day. “