When teams in the Chinese Basketball Assn. began recalling international players in February and March, Americans in the United States were only beginning to understand the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. During his eight years in the CBA, Pooh Jeter became a mentor to younger Americans around the league. They asked him if he thought it was safe to return.
“Everybody’s watching on the news, they’re like, ‘What?’” recalls Jeter, a Gardena native who plays for the Fujian Sturgeons. “‘You’re going where? You’re going where? No you’re not.’”
Jeter felt comfortable with the information given to him by not only his team but other friends in China, including former NBA star Stephon Marbury, who coaches the Beijing Royal Fighters. So he returned to China in mid-March, as did about half of the American players under contract and several American coaches. Among the group that didn’t return, some, like former Laker Lance Stephenson, worried about their safety and others delayed their returns amid uncertainty about whether the league could resume play.
For the last few months, like other leagues around the world, the NBA had an eye on the CBA and how it is handling a return during this global pandemic. NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum has been in constant communication with CBA officials, who originally planned to resume play in early March.
“Because this coronavirus is at a different point of the curve in China, there are discussions, active discussions in China, about a return-to-play protocol, [and] we are attempting to learn from them,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “It sounds like, the best of my information is they’re not quite there yet in terms of precisely what conditions they would need to begin playing again even without fans.”
The CBA doesn’t have many answers yet as some parts of life in China have returned to normal, while health experts are struggling to determine what protocols would allow safe mass gatherings again. The league remains suspended in caution, as do its players, with a likely restart coming no earlier than July. Some teams are now planning breaks in training for their players.
There was more optimism in March when players started to return to China.
“I’m having the best season of my professional career, I want to come back and finish what I started,” Ray McCallum Jr., who plays for the Shanghai Sharks, said in the second week of April. “… I got on the flight with no hesitation.”
Kyle Fogg, who plays for the Royal Fighters, returned not long after China had implemented a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the country from abroad.
“[When] we landed it was something out of like a sci-fi movie,” he said.
He had his temperature checked multiple times and was surrounded by workers wearing hazmat suits. It took hours before he made his way to the government-assigned hotel where he was to be quarantined with security making sure he didn’t leave the room.
McCallum and Jeter went through similar processes in their cities as did other players and coaches returning from abroad. The travel to some CBA cities required back-to-back 14-day quarantines because local governments set their own rules.
“Everybody back home they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re quarantined,’” McCallum said. “But I see on the news they’re outside. No.”
In China the quarantine meant they couldn’t leave their hotel rooms. Their food was brought to them through contact-free delivery. McCallum worked on a literature course he needs to finish to earn his bachelor’s degree. Fogg was reminded of when he played in Finland and it was too cold to go outside. Jeter kept tabs on his Los Angeles sneaker boutique, which had to shift its business model online as the pandemic worsened.
They all streamed shows and movies and tried their best to work out in their small spaces.
By early April, society began to slowly return to normal. McCallum had grown to love Shanghai during his time there. He’d been back to his favorite restaurants and practices had resumed.
“There’s a few guys who didn’t come back, they were kind of saying no way I’m going right now, it’s dangerous,” said Fogg, a Brea native who returned to China in mid-March. "… I think it was a lot better than they thought it was.”
Jamaal Franklin, a former San Diego State guard who plays for the Shanxi Loongs, stayed in the United States for a different reason.
“I don’t fear living there,” said Franklin, who moved home to Las Vegas from San Diego during California’s lockdown. “Being in the airport where somebody could have it. … If you’re on a plane you’re breathing the same oxygen 12, 14 hours. Sitting in a chair you don’t know who’s sitting in it before. … I wouldn’t want to put my life into danger for no cause. I want to know I’m putting myself in danger for my team to play the season.”
The CBA had planned to finish the season with teams gathering in a pared-down list of sites to initially play without fans. Now that plan is in doubt. It’s unclear too how the CBA will handle paychecks for the players. Those discussions are ongoing.
“It’s not even for sure that we will be playing in July,” Franklin said. “For me it’s hard to trust what dates they will play now. … We’re walking on eggshells and making sure we’re staying ready. As players not just in China, Europe, NBA, everybody’s trying to maintain and stay as close to ready as possible.”
The Shanxi Loongs asked him to return in mid-February for the season to restart in early March. Then the date was pushed back to March 15. Then again to early April and then May. Each time the date moved, Franklin asked if he could stay home longer and the team agreed. Other clubs, though, had threatened their players with expulsion from the league.
Fogg hopes the teams that did threaten expulsion will soften their stance because of travel restrictions.
China closed its borders to international travel in late March for fear of importing a second wave of infections. Marcus Denmon, an American who plays for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls, posted on Twitter that he was at an airport on the way to China when he learned he had to turn back.
There’s no sign that travel ban will be lifted soon.
In the second week of April, China reported 51 new cases of COVID-19 that came from Chinese nationals on a flight from Russia. A week later, China’s ambassador to Russia posted a video on Weibo telling Chinese citizens they could not return until the pandemic was over.
“I think China wants to show people that they have everything under control,” Jeter said April 8 when he still thought the season would begin in May. “I think China wants to play.”
Two weeks later, Jeter was asked if he still thinks the season will resume at some point.
Replied Jeter by text: “They said we will.”