American basketball player
Last month, when the U.S. State Department began urging American citizens to leave Ukraine, Jerome Randle’s phone started buzzing incessantly.
Friends and family in America would send Randle media reports detailing Russia’s extraordinary military buildup along its border with Ukraine. They then begged the Chicago native to pack up his belongings and return home before it was too late.
“At least 50 people must have hit me up,” Randle, 34, told Yahoo Sports. “They were all saying, ‘You need to get out of there.’”
For Randle and other Americans playing basketball in Ukraine this season, fleeing was rarely a simple decision. It often meant defying the wishes of their clubs, breaking their contracts and jeopardizing their ability to earn a living, all for a potential invasion that no one could say for sure was actually imminent.
While the U.S. and other countries warned for months that Russia was positioned to launch an attack from multiple fronts, the mood in Ukraine was far less dire. Restaurants remained open. So did schools. Ukraine’s president even called for calm, proclaiming in late January, “There is a feeling abroad that there is war here. That’s not the case.”
It wasn’t until this week that the Ukrainian SuperLeague finally paused its season. The league’s dozen clubs previously downplayed the likelihood of a Russian invasion while pledging to help their foreign players travel home safely in case war did break out.
American players who recognized the dangers of remaining in Ukraine earlier typically had to choose between staying in a potential war zone or sacrificing their primary source of income. Despite the mounting threat of war, Ukrainian clubs were unwilling to release foreign players from their contracts and grant them permission to finish the season elsewhere
“These teams basically held us hostage,” Randle said. “It was like you either stay over here or you’re not going to be able to play anywhere. That’s pretty messed up. That’s pretty backwards to me. I don’t think that was fair for them to be able to do that.”