Coming (Back) to America: COVID-19 Sends Overseas Basketball Players Home Mid-Season

Connor McClenaghan hasn’t been home for this long since high school.

As his league in Portugal was entering its final stretch of regular season games, COVID-19 had begun its worldwide spread, shutting down entire countries in Europe. It reached Portugal, and sent McClenaghan along with the rest of the league home with no return flight.

The former Marist forward and class of 2017 graduate took his talents to Ireland the summer following graduation to play for Sligo All-Stars through a Sport Changes Life program that allows post-collegiate athletes to work towards their master’s degree while playing their sport of choice overseas. McClenaghan has spent the past season playing for Galitos-Barriero in Liga Portuguesa de Basquetebol, the top league in Portugal.

“I was having a handful of pretty decent games,” said McClenaghan about the season on a personal level. “But I also had some games where I couldn’t hit a layup to save my life. Up and down but overall, a little bit above average. A rookie in a decent league, so I was putting up alright numbers.”

Liga Portuguesa de Basquetebol has the top six teams in the standings make a bracketed playoff that holds best three-out-of-five matchups. Galitos-Barreiro sat at 11-11 when the league took a full halt, good for sixth place in the standings.

In a league where every team starts at least two Americans and some. including Galitos-Barreiro start four, a fair portion of the league consists of players that are far from home. While most leagues have a restriction of how many Americans you can have rostered or on the court at once, Liga Portuguesa de Basquetebol is more lenient.

Former NCAA standouts such as former Florida Gulf Coast forward, Marc-Eddy Norelia, and former North Carolina State forward Abdul-Malik Abu help bring stardom from the States to Portugal’s top league. Its ability to recruit so heavily from overseas contributed to the league’s shut down and urgency to send all its players home. President Trump’s order for all Americans to return from Europe put the league in a spot where they were forced to send most of its top talent home.

“I found out the day they decided,” said McClenaghan. “They put it out on Instagram, but our president called us all and said, ‘Hey, here’s the deal. Spain is doing this, France is doing this, obviously Italy is doing this now. We’re a smaller country so we’re going to follow their lead and send you guys home in the middle of March.’”

McClenaghan’s initial intent was to stay in Portugal and ride out the situation until it ended. The league offered its players enough money to sustain livelihood, but had to end its funding due to its overwhelming costs with a lack of revenue. The team was then ordered to go home in mid-March.

“We’re flying into JFK of all places,” said McClenaghan. “We’re going to have to fly through heavily populated areas where everyone’s going to be sick and it’s just a big health risk. Then we have our families to worry about like my dad who’s a cancer survivor and asthma guy. I was like, if I get to choose, I’m staying here because I don’t want to put them at risk and go through all of that travel. It is what it is.”

“Initial reactions were like, ‘I wanted to finish this contract’,” said the Texas native. “We’re not making too much money, so we wanted to get all that we can. I’m going to be missing out on some money now, let alone that I don’t get to play anymore. Some guys took three flights to get home.”

As for most who have been laid off or dismissed from their job, McClenaghan has lost his primary source of income and has no return date scheduled. Although he is searching for a way to make ends meet, both McClenaghan and high school friend Tyler Williams, want to keep basketball as their primary focus during their extended offseason.

“I’m trying to look for some part-time job that, when everything goes back to normal, I can keep and work out at the same time,” said the former Red Fox. “Right now, I’m just working out with Tyler every day and we’re not doing much. We’re going for an hour just doing some running and calisthenics. He’s got some weights and we’ll go do some workouts as well.”

McClenaghan caught up with Williams, the former University of San Diego guard, when he returned to Texas last month. Williams currently plays for Dinamo Tbilisi in the Georgian Superliga, the top-flight of basketball in Georgia. His league underwent a similar overhaul due to the threat of coronavirus.

“I got out of there around March 13th,” said Williams. “We had about six games left until the playoffs.”

Williams was fifth in the league in scoring at 17.9 points per game while also averaging 6.9 rebounds along with 3.1 assists per game. His standout season for his team, that was also in sixth place, became victim to the shutdown that hundreds of sports organizations across the globe have had to endure.

“I was making a run for MVP of the league,” said Williams. “Our team was in a good position for the playoffs and had some momentum going our way. And obviously, missing out on money is never fun.”

McClenaghan and Williams are now stuck in limbo. Both ending one-year contracts, they are free agents and the future is as uncertain as it has ever been. Without the heavy pull and loads of excess revenue that top leagues like the NBA get to sit on, it’s likely that their seasons are over. For now, staying in shape and ready for whenever the next opportunity comes is the only thing they know.

Edited by Lily Caffrey-Levine

Header Image by Marist Athletics

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