Special for Infobae of The New York Times.
The war in Ukraine and the jailing of WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia have rocked geopolitics and virtually shut down the flow of American professional women who often play in Russian leagues to earn much more money than they do in the United States. Joined.
Yet there are still Americans on Russian courts: Dozens of male players, including some with NBA experience, are ignoring international conflicts and signing deals there, saying their careers and potential earnings are separate from politics. At least one American woman is also playing in Russia this season, at the same club Griner played for in that country.
“Russia was not my first choice,” said Joe Thomasson, 29, one of the Americans playing in Russia. “I wouldn’t have been the first choice of any American, just because of the Brittney Griner situation.”
Although several agents did not respond to requests to be interviewed about the players they manage in Russia, those that did identified nearly 30 American men’s basketball players who competed or planned to compete soon in the country. That figure represents about double the usual. Players can win over $1 million in Russia and often receive free housing and cars.
“Everyone will ask: ‘Why would you want to go there?’” said KC Rivers, 35, who is in his first season with BK Samara and has played for other Russian teams. “But at the end of the day, you have mouths to feed. You have a family to support. It won’t always be the easiest decision, but you have to do what’s best for you. You can’t make decisions based on what society in general says.”
At least four of Rivers’ teammates are American.
Many women’s basketball players who normally could have supplemented their modest WNBA salaries by playing in Russia during the inactive season are avoiding the country—usually in solidarity with Griner, who played for UMMC Ekaterinburg—and signing contracts with teams. in Turkey, Greece, Spain and other countries. The WNBA said it had no knowledge of any of its players going to Russia. Alex Bentley, who last played in the WNBA in 2019, will play with UMMC Ekaterinburg for the second straight season.
Griner has been at the center of a dispute with Russia that has been going on for several months. The US government has said the player was wrongfully detained at an airport near Moscow seven months ago, when she was accused of bringing illegal narcotics — cannabis-infused vape cartridges — into the country while traveling to play for her Russian team. Griner pleaded guilty in July and was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony in August. The player has appealed the sentence. US and Russian officials have been discussing a prisoner swap that could free her.
In the United States, Griner, one of the best players in the WNBA, earned around $230,000. But apparently UMMC Ekaterinburg was paying him more than $1 million.
“He was there for a reason,” said agent Daryl Graham, whose client Bryon Allen plays for Parma-Pari. “He made a lot of money there.”
Graham added: “The truth is that the situation is even better for the players, because the teams are now paying an additional bonus. They are giving more money to convince the players to go to Russia, because of the perception of what is happening there.
One agent estimated that Russian teams have offered as much as 50 percent more than in previous years — and sometimes as much as triple what teams from other countries pay — to persuade players to go to Russia.
Bentley’s agent, Boris Lelchitski, reported via email that Bentley signed a one-year contract extension with UMMC Ekaterinburg in December and “had to make a difficult decision” to play in Russia. Lelchitski claimed that his client had not received any offers from WNBA teams in the last two seasons.
“This is your opportunity to build your financial security,” he said.
During a phone interview, Lelchitski said that Bentley was “very good friends” with Griner and hoped that she would soon be released from prison. The agent said that Ella Bentley felt comfortable going back to Russia because she has dual citizenship and plays as a European, and because there are a lot of American men in Russia playing basketball.
The State Department advised Americans not to travel to Russia due to the war and possible harassment by Russian government officials. When contacted about the players in Russia, a spokesman stated that Americans “must leave Russia immediately” and that the embassy would have “limited capacity” to help them there.
A spokesman would not say how many US citizens are possibly in Russia, but added that for emergency planning, embassies are constantly changing estimates of the number of Americans abroad.
David Carro, who has been an agent for nearly two decades, represents Thomasson, Rivers and a handful of other players in Russia. He said the players liked going there because they knew they would get paid on time, the league is competitive and they don’t have to pay for apartments or cars. He claimed that Russia was not as dangerous as people would expect because “there is a war in Ukraine. But in Russia there is no war.
Rivers spoke about Samara, one of the largest industrial cities in Russia: “Everything is normal here. Honestly, since I’ve been here, I haven’t heard anything about the war.”
Nearly seven months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, there is no end in sight to the conflict. The entire ground war is taking place in Ukraine, and the Kremlin has worked hard to minimize the effect of the invasion—and the resulting sanctions imposed by Western nations—on the average Russian citizen. Although Ukraine recently recaptured large swaths of occupied territory in the northeast, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown no signs of retreating and has warned that he could further intensify his attack. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians are believed to have been killed in the conflict.
Russian basketball clubs will play fewer games this season due to their suspension from EuroLeague competition. CSKA Moscow, UNICS Kazan and Zenit Saint Petersburg participated in the EuroLeague last season, but their results were eliminated.
“Just because he’s not competing in the EuroLeague doesn’t mean he’s not a EuroLeague player,” Thomasson said. “It just means that I will get more money for working less. That’s how I see it.”
Jermaine Love, a 33-year-old point guard from outside Chicago, is living in Russia for the first time after signing with BC Nizhny Novgorod. He played for teams in Poland, Greece, Italy and Israel, but claimed “everyone” told him he was crazy to join a Russian team. He was relieved after speaking with a friend from Chicago who briefly played for the team last season.
Love has spent several weeks in Nizhny Novgorod, a large city in western Russia, and hopes to stay in the country until the end of the season in May. His wife, Thalia Love, and her two young children plan to move there in December.
“I want to be able to take care of my family,” Love said. “That is my most important job.”
In July, a client of veteran NBA agent Bill Neff asked him to gauge how interested Russian teams were. Neff said that a conversation with a Russian agent he had previously worked with quickly led to the other agent’s belief that the United States was to blame for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“I had a moral dilemma about what to do,” Neff said. “I thought, ‘Am I going to send guys into a situation like that?’ So I decided that I would only do it if they asked me again, but other than that, I really had a hard time dealing with that situation, unlike other agents who have not had that dilemma. And I find that interesting.”
Added Neff: “When you see what’s happening to Brittney Griner, there’s a side of me that says, ‘How could I send a player there and have a clear conscience? What happens if something goes wrong?'”.
The client asked again, so Neff tried to find him a deal, but no Russian team offered him a contract, he said. Today, Neff is waiting for a resolution that allows him to feel safe in sending clients back to the country.
“Believe me,” he stated. “If the war ends and things go back to normal, I’ll be first in line.”