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Coronavirus sidelines pro basketball overseas for former Gonzaga players

UPDATED: Thu., March 19, 2020

Former Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews was prepared to ride out a coronavirus-prompted lockdown in Italy, spending five straight days inside his apartment reading and playing video games.

Ex-Zag Eric McClellan was planning to do the same in Austria until he and his girlfriend watched a television clip of President Donald Trump discussing possible travel restrictions on Europe.

It was the equivalent of staring at a dwindling shot clock if he wanted to return to the United States.

“It’s scary when something like this happens,” said McClellan, who returned to his hometown of Austin, Texas, last Friday. “Your family is just blowing up your phone with texts, calls. We were pretty shaken up about it. My girlfriend didn’t sleep the whole night (before their flight), shaking the whole time.”

Mathews’ situation changed when his pro team in Cremona closed the gym and weight room and players were told they’d probably be stuck in their apartments for 30 days.

“Five of the six (players from the U.S.) decided it was time to go,” Mathews said by cellphone from the family home in Los Angeles. “Our flight was one of the last flights to leave last Thursday morning.”

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered sports domestically and overseas, impacting numerous former Zags. Turkey, where Kyle Wiltjer plays for Turk Telekom in Ankara, closed restaurants and theaters several days ago before finally suspending play in the Turkish league Thursday morning.

Ira Brown recently participated in one of the last pro games to take place. The former GU forward and his Osaka Evessa teammates in Japan returned and played two games last weekend after a three-week layoff.

Osaka Evessa’s next game was scheduled for Saturday, but it’s been postponed. Brown wrote in an email that a few players and an official got sick traveling to league games. The league hopes to resume April 1.

Osaka Evessa is practicing and training, “just no games,” wrote Brown, who noted the last four weeks have been filled with uncertainty.

“Many foreign players feared that they would not be allowed back into the country due to President Trump possibly closing the borders to Asia countries as well,” Brown wrote. “Other than that, Japan has been very calm in handling the manner. We do not have mandatory lockdowns for anything except large events.”

Brown has been able to go out socially with friends. Parks and shopping centers are open.

“People are no longer living in fear, but rather an awareness in doing their part to not spread the virus by wearing masks and washing hands frequently,” he wrote.

“I stayed here,” added Brown, who has dual U.S. and Japanese citizenship. “I have been out with friends and enjoyed a normal life. For about a week, there was no toilet paper, but now things have normalized here.”

McClellan, who plays with former Zags teammate Jeremy Jones on the Kapfenberg Bulls, said the circumstances in Austria changed quickly. The league decided March 9 that games would continue without fans. The next day, games were scrapped until April 5.

Last Friday, the remainder of the season was canceled. When the announcement came, McClellan and his girlfriend were already en route home.

“It was either Wednesday or Thursday (last week) and really late for us,” McClellan said. “But we stayed up and watched the video of Trump. As soon as that clip was done, we went right on Expedia. We’d looked before and tickets were $500-550. They were $1,600.”

They purchased two tickets.

“My girlfriend and I packed up everything,” McClellan said. “It was crazy. The airport in Vienna was a ghost town. Layover in Sweden, hardly anyone there. On the long flight home, so many empty seats.”

McClellan said Jones returned to Texas a day or two earlier because he has an older relative who had been ill.

McClellan is thankful to be back, but he was shaking his head after a recent trip to Walmart.

“The chips were gone, most of the produce, meat, water,” he said. “I don’t get the toilet paper thing, but to each their own.”

J.P. Batista, 38, received word a week ago that France was suspending games until April. His team, Le Mans Sarthe Basket, soon stopped practicing, and players were asked to stay at their homes.

“Some teams allowed the foreign players to go home,” Batista said. “A few days ago, the French president decided for mandatory quarantine for 15 days.”

Businesses, schools, bars and restaurants are closed. Police patrol the street to make sure citizens comply with the quarantine.

“We are still allowed to leave our houses but only in special situations, like work, to buy food, pharmacy, or to exercise around our houses,” Batista said. “There isn’t many (coronavirus) cases in Le Mans, but everyone is doing the right thing and staying inside.”

Mathews resided in the Lombardy region, the most heavily impacted region in Italy with nearly 20,000 of the country’s 41,035 cases. Italy’s death total from the virus has surpassed China’s.

“The first (Italian) case was in our region,” Mathews said. “We didn’t think anything of it. It progressed quickly.”

After a win in Milan, the rest of Cremona’s schedule was put on hold, beginning with a March 1 contest vs. Venezia. Mathews realized the severity of the situation when schools were ordered to close and a nationwide lockdown was instituted March 9.

“Our city and region went on lockdown twice,” he said. “It was yellow then went to red. The whole country went to red like four hours before we went to the airport. Red is full-scale stay at home.”

Mathews and teammates Ethan Happ, a former Wisconsin standout, and Travis Diener, who played at Marquette, flew at 6 a.m. from Italy to Frankfurt, Germany. Happ and Diener caught flights to Chicago, while Mathews flew to Los Angeles.

“My best friend plays baseball in Bologna and he said we got lucky,” Mathews said. “Nearly all of the flights were canceled except ours that morning. Our biggest concern was that we were going to get stopped in Germany or at least LAX.”

That didn’t happen, but Mathews has self-quarantined as a precaution.

The league could resume in late April or early May. Mathews said he’ll return if conditions are safe to do so.

“We want to finish the season,” he said. “I’d definitely go back. I love playing there; it’s a highly competitive league.”

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