Sun's Gwathmey was in Italy when COVID-19 struck

2020-04-11 | The Day

April 10-- Apr. 10--Jazmon Gwathmey stuck it out through three weeks of canceled practices and games before finally deciding she needed to get out of Italy or else.

Gwathmey, who signed a training camp contract with the Connecticut Sun this offseason, played for Fila San Martino di Lupari this winter. It was late in her stay when she and the team flew almost 600 miles across the country for a March 6 game in Sicily.

The game was canceled three hours before the scheduled tip-off.

"That's when they started locking down the cities," Gwathmey said. "I made an executive decision for myself -- I'm just going to leave. At this point, I'm sitting here not doing anything, and if I'm going to be locked down in a place, I'd rather be locked down with my family or just in a country that I'm familiar with."

Gwathmey missed the 2019 WNBA season because she needed surgery. She had been playing since the end of 2016 with the plantaris muscle that runs down the back of the calf wrapped around her Achilles. It caused "excruciating pain" whenever she was running or jumping.

Gwathmey played for Puerto Rico's national team at the FIBA Women's Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament in mid-November. She took some time off afterwards and left the states in January for San Martino di Lupari, a small northern town.

"(The games) were packed," Gwathmey said. "My first two games, the fans actually made a sign for me. They were really nice. ... My first two games that I did get to play in we won. We had a really good team."

Gwathmey had to take a short leave to play at an Olympic qualifying tournament in February. She helped Puerto Rico clinch its first Olympic berth, then returned to Italy and injured her hamstring at her first practice back. She never got to play again.

"Then, after that, the whole coronavirus hit," Gwathmey said. "Going into the third week of February, that was our first game that was canceled. It was canceled a half hour before we left. ... The following day, I think the cases were at 20, 25 in northern Italy, and then it jumped to 200, 300 cases in 24 hours. That's when it started getting crazy."

Fila San Martino di Lupari's last game was on Feb. 16.

"It was confusing," Gwathmey said. "It kind of ticked you off a little bit because I don't think the federation was really thinking about it (the situation) overall. Yes, we can practice, but then you're canceling games. Then you're telling us we can play, but that you're not letting in fans. It's like, where's the medium here because we're still in contact with other players if we're playing a game. We're still in contact with our teammates, (the Italians) who are living with their parents or grandparents.

"I was just worrying about getting home at that point because I knew if it was going to get bad where I was that they were just going to lock it down so that there was no (getting) in-or-out. Some cities were locked down like Rome. ... People were trying to leave, and they weren't allowed."

It was on March 12 when Gwathmey was awakened by the same kind of frantic phone call from America that so many others playing overseas received.

"It was about 3 in the morning and my dad called me," Gwathmey said. "He was like, 'you need to come home today. You need to come home.'

"I was like, 'Why? what's happening?'

"He said (President) Trump was putting a travel ban on all European flights and you need to come home today."

Many initially believed that the ban prohibited anyone from flying from Europe to the states after March 13. It was later elaborated that American citizens were exempt from the ban.

"It was pretty scary," Gwathmey said. "I've never seen my dad freak out in my 27 years of life. I was shook. I was like, I need to get out of here."

Thankfully for Gwathmey, her team had booked her a March 13 flight home. She did her 14 days of self-quarantine in Pennsylvania at her dad's place, then drove to Virginia to be with her mom. She's been reunited with her English bulldog, Nikko, and working out on her own. She even went online and bought a portable basketball hoop so she that could work on her shot.

"It took five hours (to build)," Gwathmey laughed. "It was a struggle. ... It was so bad. I didn't have any power tools. I literally worked out that day. That was my workout. I struggled tightening those bolts and lifting that thing up.

"The instructions said it was a three-hour assembly. I was like, dang that's a long time in of itself."

Gwathmey, a 6-foot-2 wing, was the 2016 Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year. She helped James Madison win the conference tournament that year and earning the tourney's Most Outstanding Player honor for the third consecutive season.

Gwathmey was drafted in the second round (14th overall) by the Minnesota Lynx in the 2016 draft. She's averaged 15.7 minutes in 60 games over three seasons, mostly as a reserve, with the San Antonio Stars and Indiana Fever. She was excited when Ticha Penicheiro, her agent and a 2019 Women's Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, texted this winter that Connecticut was interested in her.

"I love playing in that arena (Mohegan Sun Arena)," Gwathmey said. "They have a freaking fantastic fan base.

"It's starting to feel good, like when it was when I first got drafted. That feeling where you're in the league and playing with the best. I'm glad they're giving me an opportunity to try to get back into the league and prove that I belong there because I know I belong there. It's just a matter of me finding that right team, that right fit. I'm pretty sure Connecticut is that fit."

n.griffen@theday.com