WNBA players say life in Russia was lucrative but lonely

For elite athletes in the WNBA, spending the season playing in Russia can earn them more than they earn back home – sometimes two or three times as much.

But those who did it also describe being away from family and friends, struggling with unfamiliar language and culture, and living in the sun for a few hours in the winter under a blanket.

Britney Greiner is one of the players who went to Russia in recent years to earn extra money. However, for the two-time Olympian, it turned out to be a long dream.

He has been detained by police since they arrived at a Moscow airport in mid-February after they reported the discovery of web cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in his luggage. He is still in prison, awaiting trial next month on a charge that could carry up to 10 years in prison.

He was arrested at a time when political tensions were mounting in Ukraine.

About half a dozen American players contacted by the Associated Press shared their experiences playing in Russia. Although no one found themselves in the same situation as Griner, they described difficulties such as isolation and boredom other than basketball.

“Playing there is not easy because the lifestyle and lifestyle is very different than what you experience in Europe and the United States,” said Delisha Milton-Jones, one of the first Marquee American players to play in Russia. Early 2000s.

“The weather was extreme – it was pitch dark at 5pm, it was minus -40 degrees outside, so sometimes I had to wear my big jacket warming up,” said Milton-Jones, who played at UMKC Ekaterinburg – the same team as Greener. .

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

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

Players say Russian teams try to be as comfortable as possible, sometimes providing drivers and translators. Clubs give players extra days off during breaks so they can travel longer to the United States if they go home.

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

Milton-Jones, 47, played in other European leagues, but said Russia paid more at the time. And UMKC Ekaterinburg has never been ranked No. 1, which continues to be an attractive destination for players.

Helped the Milton-Jones club win its first Euroleague title. Shabdai Kalmanovic, the team’s owner, changed the pay and living standards of WNBA players in Russia before he was shot dead in Moscow in 2009.

“It simply came to our notice then. I made everything a five star, ”Milton-Jones told the USA Basketball Training Camp earlier this month. “He will spoil us. He would send us to France for a weekend and give us thousands of dollars to go shopping on a private plane. Whatever the club is, you never know where the money is coming from, you don’t care. You came to do a job.

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi also played for Kalmanovic in Russia for many years and talked about the luxurious living conditions and the luxurious trips he offers.

“Everything was first class,” Bird once said, “We stay in the best hotels, we go to Paris, we stay at the Bombay Hotel in Paris.”

That treatment continues in Ekaterinburg.

“My experience in Russia is amazing, to be honest,” said Brenna Stewart, who has played for the Ekaterinburg team since 2020. “They’re swearing everywhere and making sure the players are taken care of.”

But Milton-Jones remembers what life was like 20 years ago when cell phones and the internet were relatively new.

“That day you had to go to the cigarette shop and buy scratch cards. You type that number on the phone and you have 25 minutes to talk,” she said. “We’re not talking. Keep popular apps on your phone nowadays. It was a struggle.

Connecticut Sun Guard Nadisha Heidemann, who spent most of her time in Russia before returning home in March, said her daily routine was to go to the gym and return home. The only place she went was the grocery store.

“Going out is challenging when you can not communicate. Everything is 10 times harder,” she said. “I stayed home. I’m lucky to have my dog ​​out, to do things with him.

Heidemann said being in Russia was more lonely than playing in Israel.

“In Israel, everyone was 20 minutes apart, and there were a lot of Americans, so it was easy,” he said. “Russia is a big country. You have to board a plane to be close to any other team.”

Heidemann was reunited with his family through technology despite time differences.

“I do not know how the old cats did it without FaceTime,” she laughed.

Brianna Turner, along with Phoenix Mercury, also played in Russia in 2020-21. He competed for the Nika Siktivkar team in the far north of Russia.

Turner, Siktivkar did not have a shopping mall or many places to go, but there was a McDonald’s in it – although she did not go there often.

She often stayed home and streamed movies and shows on her computer. When his group went on the road, he tried to spend some time in the mall in those places.

“There’s not much to do outside of basketball,” he said.

“My city was very cold. When I first got there, the sun was setting at 3, “said Turner, of South Bend, Indiana.” The weather was a big adjustment. It was still cold. Wake up, it will be negative for 20 several days. It was cold every day. “

Leave a Comment