WNBA players competing in Russian league 'are scrambling to escape to US': Shabazz Napier returns

American professional basketball players competing in Russia during the WNBA offseason are scrambling to return to the United States following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

As several player agents told ESPN, many WNBA players in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League are making plans to leave the country for the US due to safety concerns. The problem, as one agent explained, is finding plane tickets as other countries freeze Russian flights out of their air spaces.

‘For me, it’s way past ‘considering” leaving,’ longtime agent Mike Cound told ESPN. ‘I’ve been on the phone with two players in the past few minutes working out flights. It’s really urgent now in terms of there being a dwindling number of flights leaving Russia, and they are going to be hard to get real soon.

‘They are probably fine if they stay put, but if things get worse, that may not be the case. My idea is, ”Get them out now if we can.” And if we can’t, we get them to hunker down and stay safe.’

Cound and other agents have asked that their clients not be identified for the players’ protection. However, several high-profile WNBA stars are known to play for Russian teams, including former Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner and current Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, both of whom are teammates in Yekaterinburg.

Other WNBA players who were competing in Ukraine have already been evacuated, according to the league.

‘The few WNBA players who were competing this off-season in Ukraine are no longer in the country,’ read the league’s statement to Sports Illustrated. ‘The league has also been in contact with WNBA players who are in Russia, either directly or through their agents.’

The WNBA players’ union is also monitoring the situation.

‘We have been in constant communication with our members and their representatives for several weeks, and we’ll continue to stay abreast of current events,’ the union said in a statement last week. ‘We are the union for the 144 all year round, and their safety is the highest concern.

‘We shared information and advisories from credible news sources and urged them to make a plan that included connecting with embassies/consulates and the US State Department’s SMART traveler program.’

Much of the WNBA plays in Europe during the winter and springtime before the American women’s pro basketball season begins in early May.

Furthermore, former NBA player Shabazz Napier has reportedly left Saint Petersburg’s BC Zenit. Napier is a former NCAA champion at Connecticut who played for the NBA’s Miami Heat and Washington Wizards, among other teams.

However, other Americans, such as former Kentucky star Alex Poythress, have remained in Russia’s VTB United League during the conflict. 

Poythress’s agents did not immediately respond to DailyMail.com’s request for comment on his immediate future. The former NBA player with the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers recently took part in the VTB United League’s All-Star festivities, including the dunk contest.

Meanwhile Mindaugas Kuzminskas, a former NBA player from Lithuania, has also left BC Zenit, according to multiple reports. Kuzminskas, as well as several other Lithuanian players, have reportedly abandoned their Russian clubs due to their native country’s opposition to the invasion.

Those Americans who did manage to flee Ukraine, many of whom left a month earlier, have remained focused on the conflict facing their teammates.

Ariel Atkins, a Washington Mystics guard who plays for Ukraine’s BC Prometey, shared photos on Instagram of herself and Ukrainian teammates draped in the country’s flag.

‘Can’t even put into words how proud I am of my Ukrainian teammates for drying up their tears and giving their best tonight,’ wrote Atkins, who fled Ukraine in January. ‘A big part of me is angry of what’s happening in the world. Please be aware of what’s happening in the world and educate yourself on the effects of a potential war and in this case actual war. Because if you think this is only going to effect Ukraine, think again.’

Joyner Holmes, another American playing for BC Prometey, wrote on Instagram that it ‘has been so tough for all of us.’

‘They’re our friends, they’re our teammates, they’re our coaches,’ Holmes told Sports Illustrated. ‘And they have no homes to go to right now.’ 

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