Broken bags. 4 am wake up calls. Packed airports. Cancelled playoffs.
This was the reality for Surge players competing this season overseas amidst the coronavirus. One day they were practicing for a game. The next day Donald Trump was announcing a border closure and players were scrambling to find a flight.
Three players from St. Louis’ women’s professional basketball team spent the 2019-20 season abroad. Reigning GWBA MVP Rebecca Harris played in Turkey and Germany, while her pick-and-roll partner Kristi Bellock traveled to Israel. For third-year Surge guard Kelsey McClure, who competed in France, it was her first season overseas. But regardless of how many years they had under their belt, none of them had dealt with an experience quite like the coronavirus — especially thousands and thousands of miles away from home.
Rebecca Harris’ teammate woke her up at 3 am. She had important news — Trump had just shut down the U.S. borders.
“From that point on, everything was literally hour by hour more so than day by day,” Harris remembers. “Things were changing by the minute.”
Less than two days later, the league informed its players that their season was cancelled. Players had up to two weeks to leave. Many other American players bolted out of the country, but Harris stayed put. Amidst all of the chaos, Harris, who grew up in Germany, visited her friend on a nearby military base. There, Harris found peace and quiet as the world turned upside down. “It was a great way to end the season abruptly before I came home,” she says.
But the cancelled season was also a big disappointment. Her team, Herner TC, had won the championship the season before without Harris and, at third place in the league, they had expectations for another ring with Harris.
“When you play professionally overseas, and you love what you do, you look forward to that, coming down to playoff time. For everything to be cut short there, it sucked on many levels, to say the least,” says Harris.
Since arriving back in the St. Louis area, the virus has given Harris the chance to pursue opportunities she wouldn’t have otherwise pursued. For instance, she has focused more on training young athletes through Zoom and socially distant in-person workouts. On her blog and social media pages, she’s constantly offering advice to up-and-coming players about how to improve their workout habits or navigate the recruiting process.
“I would not be going so hard in this direction if I would be in the middle of a [Surge] season right now,” Harris adds. “My schedule would be very different. I’m glad that I have some time that I can spare to workout with some younger athletes right now and do some things more on a higher scale than normal.”
Despite the virus, Harris is preparing to play overseas next season. As cases in America have continued to grow, many countries abroad have contained the virus. It has given Harris the cushion she needs to feel comfortable taking the court overseas for her 11th professional season. In the end, Harris just wants to hoop again.
Kelsey McClure remembers rushing through the airport and dragging her oversized bags behind her. “Hectic,” she called it. One of her wheels had broken. People were talking to her in French. And the virus was spreading like wildfire in tight confinements, just like the airport she was running through.
“It seemed like everyone had a sense of urgency,” McClure says. “I’ve seen packed airports before. But this was the most packed airport I have ever seen in a long time….It was crazy, because everything started to happen so fast.
Just 24 hours before reaching the airport, McClure had learned the season was cancelled and she must catch a flight home from France. Actually, 24 hours ago, she had been in basketball practice, gearing up for the playoffs. Her team U.S. Carmaux ranked top 5 of its league and intended to make a push in the standings during the last few regular season games. They had a game in two days and that was their focus. But, after Trump closed the borders, the owner informed the team at the end of practice that its season was over.
Almost instantly after practice, McClure’s agent booked her a flight back to the United States for the next day. But it took her much longer to pack up all of her belongings.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I love clothes. So it was like I was carrying three or four closets,” McClure says. “….I even got told that my bags were oversized, overweight that they couldn’t fly them and I had to pay quite a bit of Euros to just get on that flight.”
McClure carried those bags through three different airports before finally settling down. She took a flight from Toulouse, the largest city near her, to Paris, where she had a 13 hour layover. Although her immediate family lives in Oklahoma, McClure flew into Florida, the last flight to Florida from Paris, she says, where she quarantined with extended family.
It was still a transition moving back to the States. The food tasted different and she struggled to adjust to the East Coast time zone. During the first week back, McClure found herself “knocked out cold” by 12 or 1 in the afternoon.
But that didn’t matter. McClure was just happy to be home and no longer dragging her bags.
It was a year of firsts for Kristi Bellock and her team, Maccabi Haifa. Not only was it Bellock’s first year on the roster, but it was the team’s first season in the Israeli top division and its first with any Americans.
“That was a huge thing, I was pretty proud about that. Us Americans have to show you what America is about,” Bellock says. “We’re not all stereotypical, we’re not all assholes. I took some pride in showing them that there are some great Americans. We do have some open minded people that come overseas that want to experience the culture and want to dive into how they do things.”
Despite the team’s new players and increase in competition, they surprised the entire league by making a run to the Cup Championship Final Four, a league wide tournament. They were gearing up for the semifinals when Trump announced the travel ban.
Because of the time difference, word of the ban reached Bellock at 4 a.m. After noticing her phone flooded with messages and calls, Bellock hurried out of bed and into the hallway, where she spoke to her American teammates about the next steps. But Bellock didn’t bolt for the airport. As other overseas teams cancelled their seasons, Bellock’s team kept practicing. Most American players, like McClure, left almost immediately after Trump’s ban, but it would take more than a week for Bellock’s team to cancel the season.
For a split second, Bellock thought she might even stay. In many ways, she felt more safe in Israel. Numbers continued to spike in the United States, while Israel seemed to hold a decent grip on the virus.
“Is it more safe to stay over here?” she thought. “But then again, I was like –– I need to go home. I need to see my mom.”
By the time she arrived back in her hometown of New Orleans, the airports were empty. Everything in America was shut down. That wasn’t a problem for Bellock, who had been waiting for the chance to relax from basketball, after seven seasons overseas.
“I was like man I need a break,” Bellock remembers thinking. “I don’t know where or when I’m going to squeeze it in, but I need a break.”
Bellock got her break and took it for multiple weeks. She started reading more and since arriving back in St. Louis, she has worked at Amazon in transportation.
The break fulfilled its duty. Bellock is now back in the gym, gearing up for another season overseas.