Antonio Blakeney’s shot at an NBA return hurt by possible lost season in China
The former Chicago Bulls guard hopes play resumes for the Jiangsu Dragons
Every day for two weeks, Antonio Blakeney has kept the same schedule. He wakes up around 7 a.m. local time in Jiangsu, China, a province just north of Shanghai, and immediately hops on his PlayStation 4, getting lost in the Madden and NBA 2K video game series for hours (mostly on solo “career mode” rather than against opponents on the internet because of the unreliable WiFi connection in his room). Somewhere in these hours he finds time to eat, “work out” and FaceTime his family, who are 12 hours behind him, choosing the six or so hours of the day when he and the rest of America are awake at the same time.
He can succinctly break down his days in less than 15 seconds.
“When the food [person] knocks on my door, I grab the food, put it on the table, eat it and then finish the game. And then at the end of the night I do some pushups, do a little bit of working out, hop in the shower, go to sleep and I wake up and do that same thing every day,” Blakeney said over the phone from his hotel room.
A former Chicago Bulls guard and now an American import for the Jiangsu Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), Blakeney kept that same schedule from March 19 to April 2 due to a mandated 14-day quarantine required for him after returning to China during the global coronavirus pandemic. He returned to what’s considered the epicenter of the contagion to resume his CBA season, which was set to restart in mid-April. But on March 25, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that the CBA, after a three-month work stoppage, delayed the restart of its season until at least May.
With his season in jeopardy, Blakeney, 23, must now play the waiting game some 8,000 miles away from home. He’s forced to weigh his desire to make it back to the NBA with an international crisis that has already claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people. He has to decide what matters most to him during a time of unprecedented uncertainty.
Blakeney’s China journey began back in September when he was released by the Bulls after spending two seasons with the team and its G League affiliate. He signed with the Dragons later that month, and through four games averaged 36.3 points (second in the league) and 6.5 rebounds a game while shooting 51% from the field (46% on 3s). But a Jones fracture in his foot sidelined him for three months, sending him back to America with an expected return in January 2020.
But by that time the coronavirus began to ravage Wuhan, China, the capital of the Hubei province, located 450 miles southwest of Jiangsu. Within a month of the first known case of the coronavirus, 600 people had tested positive with 17 deaths (as of Friday, there are more than 50,000 confirmed cases with more than 2,500 deaths). The entire city of 11 million was quarantined; no one in, no one out.
When Blakeney originally heard of the coronavirus, the first thing on his mind was, “I ain’t going back. … I thought it was horrible. Like, oh, s—, people are dying.” In his mind, it was too easy to transmit the disease in his profession. “Playing basketball is catching the ball, touching players all game, definitely could make you catch it.”
But he finally relented after reading up on the virus. He hadn’t taken it seriously at first, didn’t wear a mask outside, didn’t always wash his hands thoroughly or use hand sanitizer. “I was just living my regular life,” but now, “all the stuff I read up on, and seeing all the people who caught it, I know how serious it is. I know how serious things are going to be. It’s going to keep getting worse.”
He decided to return when the CBA announced it would pick up where the season left off rather than canceling the regular season and only bringing back playoff teams.
“It was scary to me because I had already had three months off because of my foot, and then right when I am ready to play, now stuff’s getting canceled. It was tough for me. I was excited to come back. … I was ready.”
Life has been different since he returned to China. He can’t leave his hotel room, not even for food. The only times he is allowed to open his door is to have his temperature taken and have his meals delivered, which mostly consist of pizza, chicken Alfredo and McDonald’s fast food. He can’t work out in a gym, so his fitness routine consists of pushups or running in place. For recreation, he puts his headphones on to simulate being in a nightclub. His next-door neighbor is longtime friend Eric Mayes, a former University of South Florida football player, though the two could not physically see each other for the past two weeks.
“I never had to stay in my room all day,” Blakeney said.
He hasn’t been told much about the state of the season by CBA officials or his team, but he believes the league is waiting to get approval from the Chinese government to resume play, as has been reported by ESPN. But the messaging isn’t consistent. Things Blakeney hear can be different from what other CBA players have been told. There still hasn’t been an official statement put out by the league, but Blakeney has been told one could come by the middle of April.
“Some people think the league’s going to get canceled, and … my team thinks that, 100%, the league’s going to play.”
It’s hard to really know what’s going on outside of what his teammates and translator tell him. Neither Google nor Facebook is allowed in the country, and he can’t read Mandarin. “It’s definitely tough because you find yourself just asking so many questions and sometimes your questions might not get answered the way you wanted it to be.”
(When asked on March 25 if he had heard the season was being postponed again, Blakeney texted back: “No not yet, as of yesterday they didn’t have nothing official. Did you hear anything?” Six days later his agent finally sent word that the season would be suspended again.)
Global pandemic aside, Blakeney enjoys playing in China. He can focus solely on basketball away from all distractions. The CBA is a competitive league with great fans and great pay, he said. “It would feel like I came out here for nothing if we don’t get the season back going, but at the end of the day that’s out of my control. All I can do is just try to be here and just be ready to do my job.”
But there is a breaking point. He doesn’t have an exact date, but he’s giving it a “couple of weeks” before he decides to leave back for America. That being said, he’s not in a “big rush” to return to a country that now reportedly has more positive cases than China.
Catching the virus doesn’t necessarily worry him as much — death rates are most high for those 55 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but it does concern him how the virus would affect those around him back home. His grandmother is getting up there in age. An aunt works at a nursing home, and his mother is a nurse at a hospital. “I look at it, like, if I would catch it, it’s not all about me recovering, it’s, like, I can’t be around my family now because I don’t want to give it to them. I got old people in my family that now I can’t be around — my grandma.”
In his absence, some in his family might not take the necessary precautions to prevent transmission; he’s already had to tell one of his younger brothers to stay in the house. “When you’re there, you can lead by example. … If I was there, I could be showing them, ‘Look, I am wearing my mask. I ain’t going out like that. I ain’t going shopping. I ain’t messing with no girls. I’m sitting my a– in the house.’ ”
But mostly, he’s afraid. Afraid of the financial and the physical toll this pandemic could have on those close to him.
“I saw the New York governor [Andrew Cuomo] was like 50% of New York’s going to get it. So that means a lot of people are going to get this virus. It’s basically like you’re going to get handpicked: ‘You finna get it, you finna get it’ — all these people about to just catch the virus. I just don’t want it to be the wrong person in my family catching it.”
He’s also afraid of a world where he’s not being paid to play basketball. He’s just three years into his professional career. The coronavirus has created a double-edged sword: He has to play to make it back to the NBA, but playing puts his health and safety at risk.
“I ain’t had a real opportunity just to show how much better I got and to be able to play, all because of this virus. I could’ve been playing a month and a half ago, two months ago. So all because of this virus I can’t get back on the court.”
The NBA, which has been monitoring how the CBA is handling the virus, has essentially shut down all its operations. How can Blakeney be scouted when scouts can’t enter China? He planned to play in the NBA summer leagues, but that seems less likely the longer the NBA is on hiatus.
No basketball changes a lot for him. He doesn’t have a plan B.
“I don’t even know. That’s all I do is hoop,” he said when asked about the possibility of the CBA season never restarting. “That would be real hard on me, so I am just praying that don’t happen.”