It was late January, and Adam Tatalovich was in Istanbul.
The Chinese Basketball Association was midway through its season, and the Lunar New Year celebration had given the assistant coach of the Guangzhou Loong Lions the time to take a long weekend trip. The CBA traditionally takes a few days off for the holiday. So, off to Turkey he went, and while he was a guest at Fenerbahce’s practice, his phone buzzed.
“Don’t come home,” his CBA team’s group chat said.
Tatalovich, who is from Chicago and previously worked for several NBA teams, was shocked.
“I was like, ‘Am I homeless right now?'” Tatalovich said.
The CBA was the first major sports league to feel the impact of the COVID-19 virus. And because quarantines escalated through the Lunar New Year in late January, many players and coaches out of town for the holiday have not been able to return. There are now more than 118,000 cases and 4,000 deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization. It was officially declared a pandemic on Wednesday.
For the NBA, which is making preparations in the event of a wider spread of the virus in the U.S., what has happened in China is an unsettling look at the fallout from the temporary stoppage of a well-planned and relatively deep-pocketed league.
“I haven’t been home this time of year since I was in high school,” said Andrew Nicholson, a Loong Lions forward who was drafted 19th in 2012 by the Orlando Magic and played in the NBA for five years. “It’s been frustrating, but no one could have expected this, no one can control it.”
Nicholson was in Bali when he learned the CBA had shut down and was able to go back for only six hours to gather some personal belongings before flying home to Toronto. His immediate challenge was finding high-level competition to stay in shape. As a result, he was one of a handful of CBA exiles who played in FIBA qualifying games for his Canadian national team in February.
“This is all new to me,” Nicholson said.
As with the NBA, there was no plan for this situation and there was no timeline to follow as the virus spread in China. It has led to uncertainty during the two-month shutdown and, at times, a feeling of chaos.
The CBA hasn’t made an official statement but issued a memo to teams to prepare to bring players and coaches back to restart the season in early April. But there is uncertainty as to whether those who return from overseas would have to be quarantined.
For players who planned to sign on with an NBA team after the normal end of the CBA season in March, the stoppage has derailed plans. Standard CBA contracts call for suspensions of one to three seasons if a player leaves without official permission. As a high-paying league, there are numerous former NBA players who play there to earn lucrative paydays.
Lance Stephenson plays for the Liaoning Flying Leopards and is one of the players looking to be released from his deal to return to the NBA. A player needs a “letter of clearance” from FIBA, the international governing body, to do so. No players have been granted one as of yet.
“FIBA is sympathetic to the situation, but there’s no clarity,” said one prominent agent with clients in China. “It’s complex, and everyone who is working on it is going hour to hour.”
There is also uncertainty about money. With no games being played, paychecks have slowed or stopped altogether. This has increased tension about being allowed to play in the NBA or in Europe.
“My contract is guaranteed. [The money] is a little late, but I’ll get paid,” Nicholson said. “It’s one of the first questions I asked. The team assured us.”
Tatalovich has faced a different challenge. He has been traveling around Turkey, Greece, Serbia and Bosnia watching games, unsure when he can return to China. He’s having lunches and coffees with coaches of every level as he passes this unexpected time. An assistant coach on the Serbian national team, Tatalovich has stayed at the homes of friends, Airbnbs and even several monasteries.
He’s trying to get something out of the sabbatical he, like so many involved, never expected to have.
“This is a really unfortunate situation for a lot of people with tragic consequences,” he said. “For me, this has been about basketball and blessings. I was calling myself a nomad, but it’s turning into a pilgrimage.”