‘The virus brought us closer’: How international NBA players have stayed connected to home

THE NATIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION knew it needed to step in and help.

As the NBA has become more international in recent decades, its ranks have grown in kind. About a quarter of players on opening night rosters — 108 of 450 — hail from 38 countries and territories other than the United States. Many of those countries, such as Spain and France, were ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic well before it slammed the United States, where the death toll surpassed 100,000 on May 27.

Many of these players first experienced COVID-19 as it affected friends and family in their home countries before it spread in the U.S. For the NBPA’s chief international relations and marketing officer, Matteo Zuretti, long phone calls, text messages and emails presented a specific picture of angst, fear and stress. “When your loved ones are in danger or they’re going through a tough moment,” Zuretti said, “every mile that separates you from them is multiplied.”

In mid-May, after the NBA suspended its season, officials at the NBPA organized a Zoom call with players. They sought to focus on mental health — to listen to concerns and provide resources — and wanted to interact with a specific group that they found was experiencing the pandemic in a different way.

The session was led by Dr. William D. Parham, the NBPA’s director of mental health and wellness, and former NBA guard Keyon Dooling, the director of the NBPA’s mental health and wellness program.

“[Letting them know] that they have support of the brotherhood is very important,” Dooling said.

About 30 international players dialed in from cities around the U.S., sharing concerns about loved ones thousands of miles away and about when and how they might be able to see them again. They asked about their ability to leave the country and come back, about their family members’ ability to leave and come back, and whether family members would be able to join a “bubble” environment if the NBA season resumes.

The call, originally scheduled for an hour, went for more than 90 minutes. For as many different languages and backgrounds as the players shared and for as much as they’ve been in isolation in recent months, they found common ground. “They discovered that everybody is in the same storm,” Zuretti said.

These conversations struck a chord for Zuretti, particularly his personal communications with San Antonio Spurs guard Marco Belinelli, New Orleans Pelicans rookie Nicolo Melli and Oklahoma City Thunder wing Danilo Gallinari. They are the NBA’s three active Italian players, and Zuretti too hails from Italy, specifically Rome, where his family members still live.

“I’m walking in their shoes,” he said, “so I know how it feels.”

AT FIRST, BELINELLI didn’t think COVID-19 would be that bad. Maybe just a fever — that’s it. But then he talked to his father, Daniele, who worked as a doctor for 42 years.

From Italy, his father offered a simple warning: “Be careful.”

By mid-February, during the NBA All-Star break, Belinelli vacationed with Gallinari in Turks and Caicos, near the Bahamas, and the shadow of Italy’s intensifying battle with the virus loomed over them. On Feb. 22, Belinelli tweeted an article about the virus. His parents were going to visit him in San Antonio, but they decided against it for safety reasons.

Belinelli, along with his countrymates Gallinari and Melli, sought insight from back home to grasp a better understanding of what was happening. Melli sent a flurry of texts to a friend serving as an emergency responder in his Italian hometown. During breaks between long shifts, the friend texted back grisly details.

“It was so bad that their army had to come out and pick up the corpses, the bodies, from the hospital,” Melli said. “And they cannot have a funeral. Family cannot be there. They cannot give the last hug, the last kiss. They cannot see each other in the eyes.

“They die alone, suffering.”

Belinelli started self-isolating, making only vital trips outside. On trips to a San Antonio grocery store, he would see shoppers who weren’t wearing masks or gloves, standing right next to one another. He’d wonder, Why weren’t people taking this virus seriously? While social distancing in New Orleans, Melli and his wife would stop at a nearby park for fresh air before heading out for groceries, and they’d see it packed with locals. For all their frustration, both players knew that the situation was far more real to them because of where they are from.

Melli shared details with Pelicans staffers. He told them that the league was going to shut down and that the coronavirus was far more serious than any of them knew.

“Guys,” one Pelicans staffer recalled Melli saying, “you have no idea what’s coming.”

When the March 11 game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz was suddenly delayed and the players were rushed back to their locker rooms, Gallinari feared the worst. Sitting by his locker, he began texting with Zuretti, relaying concerns that someone had tested positive. “He just knew,” Zuretti said.

The three players leaned on one another in a text thread that added links throughout each difficult day. They shared experiences, news and concerns about what was happening half a world away and, soon, in the American cities outside their doors. They asked questions about whether to return to Italy or stay put and, if they did stay, whether to stay in their respective cities or move elsewhere. They discussed ways to help, and all three eventually made charitable donations.

“It’s a crazy situation,” Belinelli said, “but we will be stronger.”

Although they forged different paths to the league, the trio of Italians have known one another for years and have played on national teams together. They all hail from Northern Italy, home of the first reported cases in the country and the first region to lock down on March 8. In their respective American cities, Melli, Belinelli and Gallinari offered warnings after hearing eye-witness accounts from Italy.

They became harbingers, sharing in the awful knowledge of what swept through Italy and what could happen in America.

AS ZURETTI LISTENED to players and watched the coronavirus spread both in Italy and in his home city of New York, a consistent theme emerged, one that was understood even if not explicitly stated: the distance.

It magnified and underscored every issue at a time when players were isolated and, for the time, could do little else but wait.

“This lack of certainty — and their inability to go and do what they’ve been doing for the last 10, 15, 20 years, every day — it has created a big hole,” Zuretti said. “There’s an empty space there. And the fact that some of them cannot even fill that space with the people they love, with the support from the people [they’re] closer with, it has been having a big impact on their experience during this pandemic, 100 percent.”

That experience is one that all players — American and international — are grappling with. “Some people might be on the West Coast,” Dooling said. “Their family might be in the South that’s being hit hard. Everybody’s experience is unique to them.

“[But] it hit our international players more because you’ve got bodies of sea separating them from their people and families. It’s definitely been stressful for them. What we try to do is support them through these kinds of experiences so they know they’re not alone.”

As NBA practice facilities reopen across the U.S. for individual workouts, Zuretti said basketball has proven to be a welcome reprieve for players. “It’s a way to exercise their superpower,” he said.

There’s an increased likelihood of NBA games resuming in July, likely in Orlando, Florida, though issues and logistics must still be worked out. On May 22, the Department of Homeland Security announced an order that “exempts certain foreign professional athletes who compete in professional sporting events organized by certain leagues, including their essential staff and their dependents, from proclamations barring their entry into the U.S.” Several leagues were covered by this exemption, including the NBA.

In the meantime, technology allows those who remain a world away from their families to stay connected. They can hear their voices over the phone and see their faces on virtual sessions. And while basketball remains on hold and circumstances keep them separated from family half a world away, Melli, Belinelli and Gallinari keep their text chain active.

“In this struggle,” Melli said, “the virus brought us closer.”

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