WNBA players say life in Russia was lucrative but lonely

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - United States' Brittney Griner (15) plays during a women's basketball preliminary round game against Japan at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. Griner went to Russia to earn extra money. But the experience has turned into a prolonged nightmare after she was arrested in February by police who reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She is awaiting trial on charges that could bring a prison term.(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

For the elite athletes in the WNBA, spending the offseason playing in Russia can mean earning more money than they can make back home — sometimes even two or three times as much.

But those who have done that also describe the loneliness of being away from family and friends, of struggling with an unfamiliar language and culture, and of living in a place with only a few hours of sunlight in the winter and temperatures well below freezing.

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Brittney Griner is one of those players who went to Russia in recent years to earn extra money. For the two-time Olympian, however, it has turned into a prolonged nightmare.

Since arriving at a Moscow airport in mid-February, she has been detained by police after they reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Still in jail, she is awaiting trial next month on charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison.

Her arrest came at a time of heightened political tensions over Ukraine. Since then, Russia has invaded Ukraine and remains at war.

A half-dozen American players contacted by The Associated Press shared their experiences on playing in Russia. Although none found themselves in the same situation as Griner, they described difficulties such as isolation and boredom, apart from basketball.

“Playing there was not easy because the lifestyle and the way of living is a lot different than what you experience in other places in Europe and America,” said DeLisha Milton-Jones, one of the first marquee American players to play in Russia in the early 2000s.

“The extremes of the weather — it’s pitch black dark at 5 p.m. I had to wear my big jacket warming up sometimes since it was minus-40 degrees outside,” said Milton-Jones, who played for UMKC Ekaterinburg — the same team as Griner.

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

In the early 2000s, top WNBA players could earn about $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 another $1 million to $1.5 million.

Players say the Russian teams try to make them as comfortable as possible, including sometimes providing drivers and translators. The clubs also give players extra days off during breaks, knowing they have longer travel back to the U.S., if they go home.

Apartments provided by the teams are comparable with what the players are accustomed to in the WNBA, including Western-style kitchens and laundry facilities, and they also have access to streaming services and video calls.

Milton-Jones, 47, played in other European leagues but said Russia paid the most at the time. And none topped UMKC Ekaterinburg, which continues to be an attractive destination for players.

Milton-Jones helped the club win its first EuroLeague title. The team's owner, Shabtai Kalmanovich, changed the standard of pay and living for WNBA players in Russia before he was shot and killed in Moscow in 2009.

“We chartered. Did everything five-star,” Milton-Jones said at USA Basketball training camp earlier this month. “He would just spoil us. He'd send us to France for a weekend and give us thousands of dollars to go shopping on a private plane. No matter the club, you didn’t know where the money was coming from and you didn’t care. You were there to do a job.”

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi also spent many years playing in Russia for Kalmanovich and spoke of luxurious living conditions and the lavish trips he would provide.

"Everything literally was first-class,” Bird once said. “We’re staying at the best hotels. We go to Paris. We’re in, like, the bomb hotel in Paris.”

That treatment at Ekaterinburg continues.

“My experience in Russia has been amazing, to be honest,” said Breanna Stewart, who has played for Ekaterinburg since 2020. “They make sure they take care of the players by chartering everywhere.”

But Milton-Jones also remembers how different life was 20 years ago, when cellphones and the internet were relatively new.

“Back in the day, you had to go to the cigarette shop and buy the scratch-off cards and you'd type that number in the phone and it says you have 25 minutes to talk," she said. “We didn’t have the popular apps nowadays on your phone. It was a struggle”

Connecticut Sun guard Natisha Hiedeman, who spent this past season in Russia before returning to home in March, said her daily routine consisted of going to the gym and returning home. The only other place she went was the grocery store.

“It’s just challenging going out when you can’t communicate. Everything is 10 times harder,” she said. “I stayed in the house. I was fortunate that I had my dog out there, (to) do stuff with him."

Hiedeman said being in Russia felt more isolating than playing in Israel.

“In Israel, everyone was 20 minutes apart and there were a whole bunch of Americans, so it was easier," she said. “Russia is a huge country, and to be near any other team you had to get on a plane and travel.”

Hiedeman stayed connected with her family through technology despite the time differences.

“I don't know how the old cats used to do it without FaceTime,” she said, laughing.

Brianna Turner, a teammate of Griner with the Phoenix Mercury, also played in Russia in 2020-21. She competed for Nika Syktyvkar, a team based in Russia's remote European north.

Turner said Syktyvkar didn’t have a shopping mall or many places to go, but it had a McDonald's — although she didn’t go there often.

She often stayed at home and streamed movies and shows on her computer. When her team went on the road, she’d try to spend some time in the mall in those places.

“There wasn’t much to do outside of basketball,” she said.

“My city was very cold. When I first got there, the sun set at 3," said Turner, who is from South Bend, Indiana. “The weather was a big adjustment. It was even colder. Wake up, and it would be negative 20 multiple days in a row. It was cold every single day."

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