Despite War and Griner’s Arrest, American Men Hoop in Russia

The war in Ukraine and the imprisonment of the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner in Russia have roiled geopolitics and all but shut down the pipeline of American female professionals playing in Russian leagues to earn far more than they can make in the United States.

But Russians can still see Americans on their courts: Dozens of male players, including some with N.B.A. experience, are looking past the 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, for the same club that Griner played with in the country.

“Russia wasn’t my first choice to come to,” said Joe Thomasson, 29, one of the American men playing in Russia. “It wouldn’t have been anybody’s first choice to come to if you were American, just dealing with the situation of Brittney Griner.”

Although several agents did not respond to requests to be interviewed about their players in Russia, those who did identified roughly 30 American men’s basketball players who were competing or planning to soon compete in the country, about twice as many as usual. They can earn more than $1 million and often receive free housing and cars.

“Everybody’s going to say, ‘Why would you go there?’” said K.C. Rivers, 35, who is in his first season with BC Samara and has played on other Russian teams. “But at the end of the day, you still have mouths to feed. You still have family to provide for. And sometimes it is not always the easiest decision, but you have to do what’s best for you. You can’t make decisions based off of what the general society says.”

At least four of Rivers’s teammates are American.

Many women’s basketball players who normally could have supplemented their modest W.N.B.A. salaries by playing in Russia during the off-season are avoiding the country — often in solidarity with Griner, who had played for UMMC Yekaterinburg — and signing contracts with teams in Turkey, Greece, Spain and other countries. The W.N.B.A. said it did not know of any of its players going to Russia. Alex Bentley, who last played in the W.N.B.A. in 2019, will play for UMMC Yekaterinburg for the second straight season.

Griner has been at the center of a monthslong dispute with Russia. The U.S. government has said she 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 as she traveled to play for her Russian team. She pleaded guilty in July and was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony in August but has appealed her conviction. U.S. and Russian officials have been discussing a prisoner swap that would free her.

W.N.B.A. fans have pushed for Brittney Griner’s return from Russian imprisonment. Credit…Lindsey Wasson/Associated Press

Griner earned about $230,000 as one of the best players in the W.N.B.A., but UMMC Yekaterinburg was reportedly paying her more than $1 million.

“She was there for a reason,” said the agent Daryl Graham, whose client Bryon Allen is playing for Parma-Pari. “She made a lot of money there.”

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He added: “It’s actually better for the players, because the teams are paying a premium now. They’re giving more money out to get the guys to come, because of the perception of what’s going on there.”

One agent estimated that Russian teams have offered as much as 50 percent more than in previous years — and sometimes triple what teams in other countries pay — in order to persuade players to come.

Bentley’s agent, Boris Lelchitski, said in an email that Bentley signed a one-year contract extension with UMMC Yekaterinburg in December and “had to make a difficult decision” to play in Russia. He said she did not have any offers from W.N.B.A. teams the past two seasons.

“This is her opportunity to build her financial security,” he said.

In a phone interview, Lelchitski said Bentley was “really good friends” with Griner and hoped that she would be freed from prison soon. He said Bentley felt comfortable returning to Russia because she has dual citizenship and plays as a European, and because there are many American men in Russia playing basketball.

The State Department has advised Americans not to travel to Russia because of the war and the potential for harassment by Russian government officials. When contacted about the players in Russia, a spokesperson said that Americans “should depart Russia immediately” and that the embassy would have a “limited ability” to help them there.

A spokesperson would not say how many U.S. citizens are thought to be in Russia but added that for emergency planning, embassies have constantly changing estimates of how many Americans are 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 players enjoyed going there because they can expect to be paid on time, the play is competitive, and they don’t have to pay for apartments and cars. He said Russia was not as dangerous as people might think because “there is a war in Ukraine. But in Russia, there is no war.”

Rivers said of Samara, one of Russia’s largest industrial cities: “It’s 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 for the conflict. All of the land warfare is happening in Ukraine, and the Kremlin has worked hard to minimize the effect on average Russians of the invasion — and the resulting sanctions imposed by Western nations. Although Ukraine recently recaptured large swaths of occupied territory in the northeast, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has shown no sign of backing down and has warned that he could further escalate his onslaught. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians are believed to have been killed.

Thomasson, one of the American players, arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia, in late August with his fiancée, LaDresha Player Spear, and their three young children. Jet lagged and hungry after the long journey from Ohio, they headed to the grocery store.

K.C. Rivers said he understood people may question his decision to play in Russia, but he wanted to make a living. Credit…Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

Thomasson wanted nothing more than to leave quickly after buying a few items. But when he offered a debit card and a credit card to the cashier, neither worked. Player Spear’s cards also were declined. They did not know that Mastercard and Visa had suspended operations in Russia because of the war. A woman in line overheard the frustrated couple and, realizing they were Americans, offered to pay for their groceries.

Months ago, as Thomasson finished his season with a team in Manresa, Spain, he and Carro debated where he should play next. Thomasson, who has also played in Israel and Poland, has always regarded himself as an underdog and wanted to test himself in the Euroleague, Europe’s primary professional club competition. (Russia has since been suspended from the league because of the war, but its clubs still play within the country.)

Zenit Saint Petersburg, a top Russian team, offered him a contract. Thomasson mulled the offer and talked to the coaching staff and Americans who had played there. He reassured concerned family members. But he deleted his Twitter account after other users criticized him for making the deal.

Carro had advised Thomasson not to worry about politics.

“The common people are not very well-informed about the situation, and they want to make sports and sportsmen suffer for a political and geopolitical problem,” Carro said. “Of course, it is a very big problem and of course it should be worrying for all of us. But I don’t think the front where we should be fighting is the sports front, because those people in the clubs, they are not guilty of what’s going on.”

He rebuffed those who tried to talk him out of sending players to Russia, pointing to the dangers in the United States in places like Texas “where everybody carries a gun, where there has been shootings in the schools or in a supermarket.”

He added, “It all depends on how you see things.”

The Russian basketball clubs will play fewer games this season because of their suspension from Euroleague competition. CSKA Moscow, UNICS Kazan and Zenit Saint Petersburg participated in the Euroleague last season, but had their results expunged.

“Just because I’m not competing in the Euroleague doesn’t make me not a Euroleague player,’’ Thomasson said. “It just means more money for less work. That’s the approach that I took.”

Zenit Saint Petersburg and Anadolu Efes Istanbul in the Euroleague last season.Credit…Sergey Grachev/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

Jermaine Love, a 33-year-old guard from outside of Chicago, is living in Russia for the first time after signing with BC Nizhny Novgorod. He has played for teams in Poland, Greece, Italy and Israel but said “everyone” told him he was crazy for joining a Russian team. He felt reassured after talking to a friend from Chicago who briefly played for the team last season.

Love has been in Nizhny Novgorod, a large city in the western part of Russia, for a few weeks and expects to remain in the country through the end of the season in May. His wife, Thalia Love, and their two young children plan to join him in December.

“I want to be able to take care of my family,” Love said. “That’s my No. 1 job.”

There are some minor inconveniences. He has spotty phone and internet service, so he often relies on sending voice notes to stay in touch with friends and family back home. Love said he was also relying on his faith.

“I’m covered by the blood of God,” he said. “I know that things wouldn’t come to me if He wasn’t ready for me to pursue them. I wanted to come into this situation with an open mind, and that’s what I did. Everything is great so far.”

In July, a client of the longtime N.B.A. agent Bill Neff asked him to gauge interest from Russian teams. Neff said a conversation with a Russian agent he had worked with before quickly steered into the other agent’s belief that the United States was at fault for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I had a moral dilemma as to what to do,” Neff said. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m sending guys to a situation like that?’ So, I decided only if they re-ask me, I would do it, but other than that, I really struggled with it, where other agents have not, and it’s interesting.”

He added: “When you see what’s happening to Brittney Griner, there’s a side of me that said: ‘How can I, in good conscience, send a player there? And if something goes wrong, what happens?’”

The client asked again, so Neff tried to find him a deal, but no Russian team offered a contract, he said. Neff is now hoping for a resolution that allows him to feel safe sending clients into the country again.

“Believe me,” he said, “if the war stops and things get back to normal, I’ll be the first one in line.”

Scott Cacciola and Shauntel Lowe contributed reporting.

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