While there reports floating around about the NBA potentially using resorts such as Disney World as a way to safely resume the season, women in pro basketball are still wondering when, where and how they might get to play again.
For some, such as former James Madison standout Jazmon Gwathmey, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic meant leaving behind lucrative deals playing overseas and taking a day job while waiting to see when the WNBA returns to action.
“I was in Italy when this whole pandemic broke out,” Gwathmey said. “I got sent home early. Well, I sent myself home early.”
Gwathmey was the 2016 Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year for the Dukes and the No. 14 pick in the WNBA Draft that same year. Since then she’s spent time in both the WNBA and various leagues in Europe and Australia.
She was playing in Italy in February and March when the coronavirus hit that nation and said league officials were slow to come up with a response. Her team continued to travel but often would arrive to find out games had been canceled or would be played without fans.
After one such game, Gwathmey made the decision to return to the United States just as the Italian government issued strict lockdown orders. The Fauquier County native caught one of the last flights out of Italy before the shutdown and then managed to get on a plane from Germany to Philadelphia before the U.S. engaged trans-Atlantic travel restrictions.
It was supposed to be a huge summer for Gwathmey, who is now home in Virginia. She had re-signed with the WNBA, agreeing to a deal with the Connecticut Sun. She had also helped the Puerto Rican national team qualify for the Olympics, only to see the Games pushed back a year.
Gwathmey expects to play in both the WNBA and the Olympics when they begin again, but for now she’s trying to balance staying in playing shape with working at Costco in Woodbridge.
“I’ve just been pretty much working out and I had to get a job to maintain my day-to-day bills,” she said. “I guess I’m not as bothered because I’m staying busy. I’m able to work out. I work almost 40 hours a week with good money coming in. For the WNBA I’m doing Zoom calls. Wednesdays we do yoga. Thursday mornings we do ball-handling Zoom calls, so I’m also interacting with my new team.”
Before COVID-19, the popularity of the WNBA was on the rise. TV ratings were up 64 percent in 2019, but like many sports, women’s basketball appears to be looking at new ways of doing business.
And those new ways meant trouble for another JMU product.
Kamiah Smalls, who was the 2020 CAA Player of the Year at JMU, was drafted by the WNBA’s Indiana Fever last month and initially received high praise from team officials.
But with training camps still postponed indefinitely, Smalls was one of two Fever players cut by the team earlier this week.
In a normal year, Smalls likely would have stuck around at least through camp with an opportunity to play her way onto the regular-season roster. This year, some WNBA teams have already cut their rosters down to 11 players, well below the limit for training camps and even one less than allowed on an opening-day roster.
But when play resumes the new sports economy may provide other opportunities for players such as Smalls, or her JMU teammates Jackie Benitez — also pursuing a pro career overseas. Some see players such as Smalls and Benitez as value picks for international clubs who may not have the cash to sign America’s biggest stars next season.
But there still remains plenty of uncertainty.
“We’ve got Jackie signed up with an agent,” JMU coach Sean O’Regan said. “That’s the only real step you can take now. She’s got an agent set up. That’s a good thing, but there is so much unknown. But maybe teams are similar to colleges, and won’t be able to pay as much as other times. Maybe teams can’t go get Sue Bird or Diana Taurasi because they are cutting back. Maybe that benefits the rookies like Jackie or Kamiah. That’s what I’d like to believe right now, but there’s no telling.”
HOOP NOTE: In regional basketball news, Georgetown Coach Pat Ewing announced Friday night he had tested positive for COVID-19. “This virus is serious and should not be taken lightly,” he wrote on social media. Ewing and Georgetown waged an epic game against Harrisonburg native Ralph Sampson and Virginia in 1982 in Landover, Maryland. The game was set up by promoter Russ Potts, a long-time resident of Winchester.