How international NBA players have stayed connected to home

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THE NATIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION knew it needed to step in and help.

As the NBA has become more international in recent decades, its ranks have grown in kind. About a quarter of players on opening night rosters — 108 of 450 — hail from 38 countries and territories other than the United States. Many of those countries, such as Spain and France, were ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic well before it slammed the United States, where the death toll surpassed 100,000 on May 27.

Many of these players first experienced COVID-19 as it affected friends and family in their home countries before it spread in the U.S. For the NBPA’s chief international relations and marketing officer, Matteo Zuretti, long phone calls, text messages and emails presented a specific picture of angst, fear and stress. “When your loved ones are in danger or they’re going through a tough moment,” Zuretti said, “every mile that separates you from them is multiplied.”

In mid-May, after the NBA suspended its season, officials at the NBPA organized a Zoom call with players. They sought to focus on mental health — to listen to concerns and provide resources — and wanted to interact with a specific group that they found was experiencing the pandemic in a different way.

The session was led by Dr. William D. Parham, the NBPA’s director of mental health and wellness, and former NBA guard and NBPA Player Wellness Counselor, Keyon Dooling,

“[Letting them know] that they have support of the brotherhood is very important,” Dooling said.

About 30 international players dialed in from cities around the U.S., sharing concerns about loved ones thousands of miles away and about when and how they might be able to see them again. They asked about their ability to leave the country and come back, about their family members’ ability to leave and come back, and whether family members would be able to join a “bubble” environment if the NBA season resumes.

The call, originally scheduled for an hour, went for more than 90 minutes. For as many different languages and backgrounds as the players shared and for as much as they’ve been in isolation in recent months, they found common ground. “They discovered that everybody is in the same storm,” Zuretti said.

These conversations struck a chord for Zuretti, particularly his personal communications with San Antonio Spurs guard Marco Belinelli, New Orleans Pelicans rookie Nicolo Melli and Oklahoma City Thunder wing Danilo Gallinari. They are the NBA’s three active Italian players, and Zuretti too hails from Italy, specifically Rome, where his family members still live.

“I’m walking in their shoes,” he said, “so I know how it feels.”

AT FIRST, BELINELLI didn’t think COVID-19 would be that bad. Maybe just a fever — that’s it. But then he talked to his father, Daniele, who worked as a doctor for 42 years.

From Italy, his father offered a simple warning: “Be careful.”

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