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‘It was pretty crazy’: How three basketball players with Utah ties competing overseas dealt with league shutdowns

Brigham Young Cougars guard Elijah Bryant (3) drives on the San Francisco Dons in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. BYU won 85-75.
Brigham Young Cougars guard Elijah Bryant (3) drives on the San Francisco Dons in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. BYU won 85-75.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As the Utah Jazz became in many respects the center of the basketball universe when center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11, there was a sizable contingent of players with ties to the Beehive State playing the game professionally outside the United States who were suddenly thrust into a chaotic situation thousands of miles away from home.

Take former BYU guard Elijah Bryant for example. Playing for Israeli power Maccabi Tel Aviv, Bryant and his wife, Jenelle, who is pregnant with the couple’s first child, had just welcomed Bryant’s mom and brother for a stay that had long been planned when the World Health Organization officially characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Maccabi was scheduled to play Spain’s Baskonia in Tel Aviv on March 12 with no fans in the stands, but the game was ultimately canceled and both the EuroLeague and the Israeli Winner League that Maccabi plays in concurrently were postponed.

For about the next week, Bryant and his family stayed, as they had not received permission from his club team to return to the United States. He was able to get some workouts in while also closely monitoring when he might be able to leave the country.

“I tried to play two sides of it,” he said. “Stay locked in but also make sure everything was good in terms of if we needed to leave.”

Eventually permission was granted to leave with the idea that he could return by himself later if either of the leagues Maccabi plays in resumes action this season.

They discussed how safe it would be for his pregnant wife to travel, but determined it was better to leave when they had a clear chance to as restrictions in Israel became more stringent.

Donning N95 masks and gloves and wiping down their seats on planes, they departed soon after his mom and brother did, going to Bryant’s hometown of Atlanta (his wife is from Utah) two weeks after his basketball life had been suspended.

Given that the EuroLeague is currently eyeing a May 24 return date, Bryant said he is doing his best to “be ready for when that time comes,” while at the same time keeping his sights set on the goal of making the NBA. On April 11, Sportando’s Emiliano Carchia reported that the New Orleans Pelicans are interested in Bryant, who has also played in summer leagues for the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.

Bryant signed a two-year contract with Maccabi last year but has an NBA out in his deal.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “First, we’ve got to make sure everyone’s safe, right? The goal’s always to get to the NBA.”

Stanford forward John Gage, right, guards Utah center Jason Washburn during game in Stanford, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Utah center Jason Washburn is defended by Stanford forward John Gage during game in Stanford, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012.
Paul Sakuma, AP

About 7,600 miles away from Tel Aviv, former University of Utah center Jason Washburn had just signed with the Saigon Heat of the ASEAN Basketball League in late February and was ready to play the home stretch of the season for the Vietnamese team.

For Washburn, it was a chance to prove he still has plenty left in his tank after he injured his back last November while playing for the Yokohama B-Corsairs in Japan and rehabbed in the United States, but he never got the opportunity.

The ABL has teams from around southeast Asia, including China, where the coronavirus originated. As early as Feb. 8, the league began canceling games involving the teams from China, and on March 13, the league officially suspended the season.

Washburn was grateful his club took care of him financially and made it easy to get back to his family in Illinois. He has a young son named Wade, and his wife, Beth, who was a gymnast at Utah, is pregnant.

“I’m 30 years old,” he said. “I have a kid and another baby on the way. I’m trying to have as little problems as possible. You wanted to be treated like a person, not just an investment.”

As far as basketball is concerned, he joked that “I went out to Vietnam for three weeks essentially for vacation,” but more seriously, he said, “It was tough because I was coming off injury and I really needed to play to show the world I was ready to play, so in that sense it was kind of a bummer and I like to play, obviously.”

Back up just 1,200 miles away from Tel Aviv in Rhodes, the second-biggest island in Greece, former Olympus High standout Nicholas Paulos had quite the rush in getting back to Utah in mid-March.

In early March, the A1 Greek League announced it would play with no fans in stands, but soon postponed games. Paulos said there wasn’t a whole lot of information coming to players at that point, so his team, Kolossos, hunkered down but kept practicing.

On March 15 as news spread that Greece would be closing its borders, Kolossos’ general manager told Paulos he could return to the United States, although there was a bit of a catch: Paulos had just two hours to pack his things and get to the airport.

West Jordan’s Tyler Kiesel shoots between Olympus’ Nicholas Paulos and Ben Sonntag (right) as Olympus High School defeats West Jordan High School 66-56 in boy’s basketball Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010, in West Jordan, Utah.
Olympus’ Nicholas Paulos, center, and Ben Sonntag, right, defend West Jordan’s Tyler Kiesel during game Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2010, in West Jordan.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

“It was pretty crazy,” he said. “I’ve gotten pretty good at packing all my things and moving around with how much travel I do, but this was like a new thing to add.”

He was all packed in about 45 minutes, but still had to get some things from the gym where his team practiced. Somehow, he made it to the airport in time to catch his first flight from Rhodes to Athens.

“I didn’t know it was possible, but it happened,” he said.

Kolossos was just barely in playoff contention when its season was canceled, but Paulos believed the squad could have made a run, which left him with a feeling of unfinished business. That said, he knew there were more important things at stake, both where he was and around the world.

“You want to see what you could have done for the rest of the season. As a competitor, that’s always something that you look forward to,” he said. “At the same time, there’s bigger issues at hand and you understand that they have to take whatever precautions they feel are necessary.”