Sun star Jones loved her time in Russia, but was happy for her safe return home
Mohegan — Jonquel Jones was aware of the tensions between Russia and Ukraine while playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Yekaterinburg, Russia, her winter home in recent years during the WNBA offseason.
Then Jones got a text in February from teammate Brittney Griner after she was detained by the Russian Federal Customs Service on Feb. 17 for allegedly having possession of vape cartridges containing a liquid with hashish oil after flying into the country. Griner was later arrested.
“I knew before my teammates,” Jones said at Monday’s Connecticut Sun practice. “She texted me before they took her phone and everything. She texted me and was like, ‘Oh, crap, something is really happening right now.’ That’s when I found out. It was probably maybe two weeks or a month before the media found out.
“There was nothing that we could do, just pray. I was in contact with her wife and in any way that I could help.”
It was shortly thereafter that foreigners on Russian teams were told that they should leave the country for their own safety.
Jones flew back home to the Bahamas. The 2021 WNBA MVP arrived in Connecticut on Sunday and rejoined the Sun for their second practice of the preseason on Monday.
Griner is still detained in Russia.
“It was heavy,” Jones said. “It was definitely emotionally draining, that’s for sure.”
Most WNBA players go overseas during the offseason to supplement their income. The league’s maximum salary is $228,094, a very good sum, but few players are paid that and it’s nothing compared to what their male counterparts make in other American professional sports.
Some international teams pay far more than the WNBA, especially the Russian teams, which have allowed them to dominate the FIBA EuroLeague Women, one of the most prestigious women’s basketball leagues in the world.
Spartak Moscow Region was a EuroLeague powerhouse and won four straight titles (2007-10). Then-owner Shabtai Kalmanovich, a former KGB spy who later become a lucrative businessman, spent freely and treated the likes of Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi like his daughters. They could make between $400,000 to a million based on bonuses, lived in mini-mansions and were allowed to use his credit card.
“He was allowing us to have a career and make money doing it,” Bird said during an ESPN 30 For 30 podcast in 2019.
“We had to go to a communist country to get paid like capitalists, which is so backward to everything that was in the history books in sixth grade,” Taurasi said during a 2019 interview with espnW.com.
Kalmanovich was murdered in his Mercedes during the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2009. His car was stopped at a traffic light when a vehicle pulled up alongside his and gunfire erupted. Investigators said it looked like a professional hit.
UMMC Ekaterinburg has since become the EuroLeague power, winning titles in 2013, 2016 and 2018-19. Jones signed with the team in August, 2018, and her teammates were the equivalent of a WNBA All-Star team, featuring the likes of Emma Meesseman, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot of the Chicago Sky and Griner (Phoenix Mercury).
“Anywhere we'd fly, we'd fly private (the WNBA doesn't allow teams to charter flights),” Jones said. “They treated us well. We had full service on the plane and we would have anything that we would honestly need. Our apartments were really nice. ... We’d have drivers there to take us to practice or anywhere we need to go.
“Honestly, it was a great experience for me and it has been a great experience for me.”
Everything changed when Griner was arrested.
“I can’t remember which government office said that it was time for U.S. citizens to leave Russia and get out of there,” Jones said. “It started to become stressful. The team obviously is looking at our experience in Russia and, you know, nothing had changed. The way they treated us hadn’t changed. The way that people treated us hadn’t changed. Nothing had really changed. So they were like, ‘Why are you leaving? We’re still paying you. We’ve treated you so well. Like, what’s going on?’ But, you know, it becomes a decision that’s bigger than just yourself because you have loved ones that worried about you every day.
“It also became stressful when countries started to close that border off to us, too, because then we started to lose ways that we could get out of the country and we started to see how quickly things can change and we could actually get stuck in Russia.”
Jones left days after a Feb. 23 game. Russian leagues continue to play, but its teams have been barred from FIBA competition.
Jones doesn’t know whether she’ll return to UMMC.
“I don’t know what the situation is going to be like with our team,” she said. “If they have the money to have me back and they wanted me back, I would go back because everybody there has always treated me well. They’ve treated me with respect. I think they're individuals that really care about me and the well-being of everybody, so I would go back.
“I’m more upset about the war than about my finances or my profession. ... It’s sad to see what the Ukrainians are going through and I hope everything gets situated and sorted out, you know, that we can get back to peaceful times.”
• Individual tickets for Sun home games go on sale Tuesday at 10 a.m. via Ticketmaster and in-person Wednesday at the Mohegan Sun Arena box office or by calling 1-877-SUN-TIXX. Connecticut's season opener is Saturday, May 14 against the Los Angeles Sparks.