For elite WNBA athletes, spending the offseason playing 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 done this also describe the loneliness of being away from family and friends, struggling with an unfamiliar language and culture, and living in a place with only a few hours of sunshine in winter and temperatures well below from zero.
Brittney Griner is one of those players who have gone to Russia in recent years to earn some extra cash. For the two-time Olympian, however, it turned into a protracted nightmare.
Since arriving at Moscow airport in mid-February, she has been arrested by police after she reported finding vape cartridges allegedly containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Still in prison, she awaits trial next month on charges of up to 10 years in prison.
His arrest came at a time of heightened political tensions around 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 gambling in Russia. Although none found themselves in the same situation as Griner, they described struggles such as isolation and boredom, outside of basketball.
“Playing there was not easy because the lifestyle and the way of life is very different from what you experience elsewhere in Europe and America,” said DeLisha Milton-Jones, one of the first players. renowned Americans to play in Russia in the early 2000s.
“The extreme weather – it’s pitch dark at 5 p.m. I had to wear my big jacket to warm up sometimes 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 simply a “business decision.”
In the early 2000s, top players in the WNBA could earn around $125,000 a year under a marketing deal with the league. Today, the salary of elite players is around $500,000. By playing in Russia, these players can earn between 1 and 1.5 million additional dollars.
Players say Russian teams try to make them as comfortable as possible, including sometimes providing drivers and translators. Clubs also give players extra days off during breaks, knowing they have more time to return to the United States if they return home.
Team-provided apartments are comparable to what players are used to in the WNBA, including Western-style kitchens and laundries, 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 at the time. And none have topped UMKC Ekaterinburg, which continues to be an attractive destination for players.
Milton-Jones helped the club win their first EuroLeague title. Team owner Shabtai Kalmanovich changed the level of pay and life for WNBA players in Russia before he was shot in Moscow in 2009.
“We chartered. Everything has been five stars,” Milton-Jones said during USA Basketball training camp earlier this month. “He would only spoil us. He would send us to France for a weekend and give us thousands of dollars to go shopping on a private plane. No matter the 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 spent many years playing in Russia for Kalmanovich and spoke of the luxurious living conditions and lavish travel it would provide.
“Everything was literally first class,” Bird once said. “We stay in the best hotels. We go to Paris. We are in, like, the hotel de la bombe in Paris.”
This treatment in Yekaterinburg continues.
“My experience in Russia has been amazing, to be honest,” said Breanna Stewart, who has played for Yekaterinburg since 2020. “They make sure to take care of the players by chartering everywhere.”
But Milton-Jones also recalls how different life was 20 years ago, when cellphones and the internet were relatively new.
“Back then you had to go to the cigarette store and buy the scratch cards and you typed that number into the phone and it said you had 25 minutes to talk,” she said. “We didn’t have the popular apps these days on your phone. It was a struggle”
Connecticut sun guard Natisha Hiedeman, who spent last season in Russia before returning home in March, said her daily routine is to hit the gym and go home. The only other place she went was the grocery store.
“It’s just hard to go out when you can’t communicate. Everything is 10 times harder,” she said. “I stayed in the house. I was lucky to have my dog there, (to) do stuff with him.”
Hiedeman said being in Russia was more isolating than playing in Israel.
“In Israel, everyone was 20 minutes apart and there were a whole bunch 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.”
Hiedeman has stayed in touch with her family through technology despite jet lag.
“I don’t know how old cats did that without FaceTime,” she laughed.
Brianna Turner, a Griner teammate with the Phoenix Mercury, also played in Russia in 2020-21. She competed for Nika Syktyvkar, a team based in the European north far from Russia.
Turner said Syktyvkar didn’t have a mall or many places to go, but there was a McDonald’s – although she didn’t go there often.
She often stayed home and streamed movies and shows on her computer. When her team went on the road, they tried to hang out in the mall of these places.
“There wasn’t much to do outside of basketball,” she said.
“My city was very cold. When I got there, the sun went down at 3 a.m.,” said Turner, who is from South Bend, Indiana. “The weather was a big adjustment. It was even colder. It was cold every day.