WNBA players say life in Russia has been lucrative but lonely


For the WNBA’s top athletes, spending the off-season in Russia can mean making more money than they can make at home — sometimes even two or three times as much.

But those who have also describe the loneliness of being separated from family and friends, struggling with a foreign language and culture, and living in a place with few hours of winter sunshine and temperatures well below freezing.

Brittney Griner is one of those players who has gone to Russia in recent years to earn extra money. However, it has become a protracted nightmare for the two-time Olympian.

Since arriving at a Moscow airport in mid-February She was arrested by the police after they reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in their luggage. She is still in prison awaiting trial next month on charges that could carry up to 10 years in prison.

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

Half a dozen American players contacted by The Associated Press shared their experiences of playing in Russia. Although none were in the same situation as Griner, they described difficulties such as isolation and boredom, aside from basketball.

“Playing there wasn’t easy because the lifestyle and way of life is very different from other places in Europe and America,” said DeLisha Milton-Jones, one of the first American marquee players to play in Russia in the early 2000s.

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

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

In the early 2000s, top WNBA players could make about $125,000 a year under a marketing deal with the league. Today, the salary for elite players is about $500,000. By playing in Russia, these players can earn another $1-1.5 million.

Players say that Russian teams try to make things as comfortable for them as possible, including sometimes providing drivers and translators. Clubs are also giving players extra days off during breaks, knowing they will have to travel longer back to the US if they go home.

The housing provided by teams is comparable to what players are used to in the WNBA, including Western-style kitchens and laundry facilities, and they also have access to streaming services and video calling.

Milton-Jones, 47, played in other European leagues but said Russia paid the most back then. And none surpassed UMKC Ekaterinburg, which continues to be an attractive target for players.

Milton-Jones helped the club win their first EuroLeague title. The team’s owner, Shabtai Kalmanovich, changed wage and living standards for WNBA players in Russia before he was shot dead in Moscow in 2009.

“We chartered. Made everything five stars,” said Milton-Jones at USA basketball training camp earlier this month. “He would only spoil us. He sent us to France for the weekend and gave us thousands of dollars to go shopping on a private plane. No matter what club, you didn’t know where the money came from and you didn’t care. You were there to do a job.”

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi also played for Kalmanovich in Russia for many years and spoke of luxurious living conditions and the lavish travels he would offer.

“Everything was literally top notch,” Bird once said. “We stay in the best hotels. We’re going to Paris. We are in a bomb hotel in Paris.”

This treatment in Yekaterinburg continues.

“My experience in Russia was 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 recalls how different life was 20 years ago, when cell phones and the internet were relatively new.

“You used to have to go to the cigarette store and buy the scratch cards and you put that number on the phone and they said you had 25 minutes to talk,” she said. “We didn’t have the popular apps on your phone these days. It was a fight”

Connecticut Sun Guard Natisha Hiedeman, who spent the previous season in Russia before returning home in March, said her daily routine consists of hitting the gym and returning home. The only other place she went was the grocery store.

“It’s just a challenge to go out when you can’t communicate. Everything is ten times harder,” she said. “I stayed at home. I was lucky that I had my dog ​​out there to do stuff with him.”

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

“In Israel, everyone was 20 minutes apart and there was a fair number of Americans, so it was easier,” she said. “Russia is a huge country and to be close to another team you had to get on a plane and travel.”

Despite the time difference, Hiedeman kept in touch with her family through technology.

“I don’t know how the old cats used to do that without FaceTime,” she says, 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 from remote European northern Russia.

Turner said Syktyvkar doesn’t have a mall or many places to go, but does have a McDonald’s – although she doesn’t go there often.

She often stayed at home and streamed movies and shows on her computer. When her team was out, she tried to spend some time in the mall at these locations.

“Apart from basketball, there wasn’t much to do,” she said.

“My city was very cold. When I got there, the sun was going down at 3 a.m.,” said Turner, who is from South Bend, Indiana. “The weather was a big change. It was even colder. Wake up and it would be minus 20 for several days in a row. It was cold every day.” WNBA players say life in Russia has been lucrative but lonely

John Verrall

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