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‘You need to get out of there': American basketball players struggle to flee Ukraine

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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.”

Jerome Randle was advised by friends to leave Ukraine. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)
Chicago native Jerome Randle, shown here in this Jan. 31, 2020, photo, has played in Ukraine this past season. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

More than 30 Americans spent at least a portion of this season playing in the Ukrainian league, according to team rosters found on EuroBasket. The list includes NBA first-round draft picks like Archie Goodwin, NCAA tournament heroes like D.J. Cooper and McDonald’s All-Americans like Isaac Hamilton.

It’s difficult to estimate how many American basketball players remain in Ukraine, but it’s evident that at least a few failed to get out before explosions rocked Kyiv and other major cities early Thursday morning. Now airports are shuttered, roads are gridlocked and underground train stations are serving as bomb shelters, leaving no easy way out of Ukraine for civilians in search of a safe haven.

Among those still trying to get home as of Friday are former Long Beach State guard Mike Caffey and former Indiana guard Mo Creek.

Caffey, a teammate of Randle’s in Kyiv, tweeted Friday that he’s still stuck in the Ukrainian capital city but hoping to leave “soon.” He spoke with a German outlet the previous day and described living in a war zone as “scary” and “draining.”

Creek is holed up in Mykolaiv, splitting time between the apartment where he had been staying and an underground bomb shelter. When an Indiana basketball podcaster encouraged listeners to make a donation to an organization that helps rescue Americans overseas, an emotional Creek tweeted back, "THANK YOU SO MUCH THIS MEANS ALOT TO ME YOU HAVE NO IDEA."

Two other Americans — a player and a trainer — were in an even more harrowing predicament. When Randle spoke to them on Thursday night, they were driving in the dark, inching their way toward Poland. They had been on the road for four hours, Randle said, yet had made it only halfway to their destination.

One of agent Charles Misuraca’s two American players who played in Ukraine was also briefly stranded. The player chose to stay with his Odessa-based team against Misuraca's advice because he wanted to keep earning money and because club officials assured him he’d be safe. On Friday, with his team unable to arrange a flight out of the country, the player managed to escape to Romania by bus.

“These guys were caught between the dilemma of basketball and life,” Misuraca told Yahoo Sports. “If they don’t get their letter of clearance, they can’t play anymore. But if they stay and play basketball, they can end up in the middle of a war.”

Where are Russian forces surrounding Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

While some American players made it to safety weeks ago, others fled Ukraine only days before the Russian attack began.

Troy Barnies, a 6-foot-7 forward from Maine, for weeks defied recommendations that American citizens leave Ukraine. He stayed with last-place Mykolaiv because his Ukrainian teammates told him that Russia was “always doing stuff like this” and because club officials insisted they “had a plan and would take care of us.”

“Nobody thought anything like this was actually going to happen,” Barnies told Yahoo Sports.

It wasn’t until Sunday morning that Barnies received a call from his agent advising him that it was too dangerous to stay in Ukraine any longer. Recognizing that “life is way more important than basketball,” Barnies told his team he wanted out — even without his release papers and his final paycheck. By early Monday morning, he was on a plane bound for Norway, where he is now staying with his wife.

A woman carries a child as they exit a train arriving from Odessa at the Przemysl main train station in Poland after Russia invaded Ukraine. (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)
A woman carries a child as they exit a train arriving from Odessa at the Przemysl main train station in Poland after Russia invaded Ukraine. (Photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images)

“I got out of Ukraine before the actual panic and scary things started happening,” Barnies said. “I feel very fortunate to have gotten out of the country when I did. If I would have stayed just two days longer, I would most definitely still be stuck there.”

The handful of Americans who play for Ukraine’s best team also left the country before Russia launched its offensive. On Monday, Prometey players and staff relocated to a spa town outside Prague, where they will try to block out what’s happening in Ukraine and focus as best they can on upcoming Basketball Champions League games.

Luckiest of all perhaps was Randle, who stayed with his Kyiv-based team despite the warnings from his friends and family but happened to be out of the country when Russia’s assault began. Randle, a dual citizen, has played for Ukraine’s national team since 2015. The former Cal point guard joined the national team in Spain on Tuesday in advance of a World Cup qualifying game on Thursday night.

An exhausting, emotionally taxing Thursday for Randle began early in the morning with media reports of fleeing civilians and cities enshrouded by black smoke. Friends in Ukraine sent Randle pictures of them huddled underground alongside hundreds of other people because they didn’t feel safe in their homes.

Randle thought that Thursday night’s qualifying match against Spain would get canceled, but, remarkably, that didn’t happen. Ukraine displayed incredible strength during an 88-74 loss to the heavily favored Spaniards. When the sold-out crowd at the Palacio Vista Alegre arena gave them a standing ovation after the game, many Ukrainian players teared up at the heartfelt show of support.

“To see the faces of my Ukrainian teammates, it was pretty emotional,” Randle said. “These guys are super brave to go out and play that game. They were thinking about their families back home and hoping that everybody is OK.”

Randle will not be returning to Kyiv anytime soon. With the Ukrainian league on hiatus, he was able to obtain a letter of clearance. He intends to sign with a new team soon, possibly in Spain or Iran.

Wherever he goes, his thoughts will be with the Ukrainian people, other members of the national team and the stranded American players who must find their own way home.

“I feel like an idiot to have actually believed that everything was going to be OK when it wasn’t, and it’s not,” Randle said. “Ukraine is in a bad place right now. I’ve met some really good people here who are afraid for their life. I would be heartbroken if anything happened to them.”

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