WNBA players in Turkey consider leaving amid recent violence

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

NEW YORK -- Sugar Rodgers left not long after she arrived.

Rodgers, a New York Liberty guard, traveled to Turkey this past fall after the WNBA season ended to play basketball there. She had spent a few years bouncing around other foreign leagues, then signed with Osmaniye, a team about two hours from the Syrian border.

She lasted a month in the country town where she was living before returning to Virginia in November.

"I heard about a bombing that killed 17 people about two hours away, and right there I was like, 'I don't want to stay,'" Rodgers said. "The government shut off all lines of communication, so I couldn't get on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp. It was pretty scary not to be able to communicate with anyone."

Rodgers was one of about two dozen WNBA players playing this winter in Turkey. For years, the 14-team Turkish league has provided the opportunity for players to supplement their WNBA incomes in the offseason, offering salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- sometimes more than three times what they make in the U.S.-based league.

The European leagues have a different mindset than the WNBA, with owners being willing to lose money to fund teams for the prestige of winning the domestic league and international competitions such as the Euro League and Euro Cup that bring together the best teams from around the continent. Some of the women's teams are part of multi-sport clubs that make money in soccer or men's basketball. Also unlike the WNBA, there is no salary cap, and it's not uncommon for local governments or sponsors to chip in financially to acquire marquee talent.

But amid violence in nearby Syria, and after a deadly nightclub attack in a neighborhood where some players celebrated on New Year's Eve in Istanbul, some players are reconsidering their contracts. A handful of WNBA players told The Associated Press they want to come back to the U.S. as soon as possible. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of contract negotiations and out of fear they could become targets if they said publicly they wanted to leave.

Getting out of their Turkish contracts could depend on how they are written. Some players have assurances that if the U.S. government recommends that a country is not safe for Americans, they can opt out. In October, the State Department put out warnings to U.S. citizens of increased threats from terrorist groups throughout Turkey. U.S. citizens were encouraged to avoid travel to southeast Turkey and carefully consider the risks of travel to and throughout the country.

A spokesman for the Turkish Basketball Federation did not respond to an AP request for comment.

Not all WNBA players want to leave. San Antonio Stars guard Danielle Robinson just signed a contract before the New Year to play with Mersin -- a team in south Turkey.

"I put a lot of thought into my decision to play in Turkey, and it was the right choice for me. The benefits outweighed the risk," Robinson wrote in an email. "I was ready to play and wanted to play at a high level, and those were things I could control by coming here. Of course there are fears. I think there are fears any time you leave the comfort of home, but there is fear at home, too. I just leave home having faith that if I make good choices, the percentages are in my favor that everything will be OK."

Shavonte Zellous has spent her past eight winters in Istanbul playing. She said she has loved the culture she has experienced in Turkey, and it has been a second home to her. But she is weighing if it is worth risking her safety.

"It's been an honor to play there, but this year now it's getting fearful and scary with stuff that's been happening," Zellous said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "Coming into the season you heard things were going on, and some players were like, 'I don't know if I want to continue playing over there.'"

She said she initially thought it wasn't that bad.

"But now being over there, it's like, 'Oh my God.' It's never been like it's been now."

Zellous, 30, said that her Turkish teammates are scared. No one wants to go out anymore for fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Literally, our life now is go to the gym, go to the store, go home," Zellous said. "That's not how I want to live."

Zellous, who also plays for the Liberty, was home for the holidays in Indiana. She knows she most likely would have been at a club with many other WNBA players on New Years' Eve down the street from the deadly nightclub shooting. She's glad that none of her teammates were hurt in the attack.

The attack killed 39 people in an upscale district known to be popular with celebrities. IS claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in reprisal for Turkish military operations against IS in northern Syria. Of those killed, 27 were foreigners -- many from the Middle East.

"I was never worried before about bombings, shootings or anything in the nature of violence," Zellous said. "Now it's going on, it's like, 'Do I really want to stay in this place? What if I was in the wrong place at the wrong time with friends when someone opens fire?' Every WNBA player is scared."

Zellous said that the WNBA players in Turkey have a group text chat in which staying in the country is routinely discussed. Zellous hopes her upcoming trip back to Turkey will be her last to the country for a while. She's hoping to get out of her contract with Besiktas.

Zellous grew up near gunfire in her neighborhood and later lived near the site of the Orlando nightclub shooting and knew people killed there. That made the Istanbul attacks hit home -- and made her more aware of her own safety.

"I'm not saying America is a great country where we don't have things that go on," Zellous said. "I want to be home rather than a whole different country. Being from Orlando, it hit hard for me."