Professional basketball seems prepared to return to the countries in Asia where the coronavirus first appeared, though games likely will be played without spectators.
Games in South Korea, a country that drew worldwide praise for its success in containing the virus, seem closest to returning. South Korea's league, the KBL, has games scheduled at the end of March, though in empty arenas. Many teams will see their American players landing in airports around the country over the next week, several agents told ESPN.
The South Korean league has been suspended since late February, and many foreign players elected to return home for their scheduled four-week hiatus. Not all foreign players will return, but it appears enough will to attempt to play games in two weeks.
In Japan, where leagues were suspended in mid-February, games were played behind closed doors this weekend, though a couple of events rattled players and raised questions over the viability of the remainder of the season.
A game between the Chiba Jets and Utsunomiya Brex was postponed after mandatory temperature checks for all participants revealed a referee with a fever, according to a notice posted on the teams' websites.
The Shiga Lakestars played without any foreign players after their three American players asked to opt out of their contracts, according to local reports. Levanga Hokkaido did not suit up this weekend after three American players were diagnosed with fevers, the Japanese media reported. Several foreign players from the lower divisions in Japan also have elected to return home.
Representatives of several players under contract in Japan said they expect the league to be canceled for the remainder of the season, because of unease over the virus. An official announcement is expected in the coming days.
Japan is continuing preparations to host the Summer Olympics in late July.
The Chinese Basketball Association has been on hiatus since late January, but has taken steps to call Americans back to the country to prepare for games in early April, something that has been met with resistance from some players and agents who feel the situation is still too unstable to resume basketball competition, even behind closed doors. In spite of that, sources said at least a dozen Americans elected to board planes for China this weekend, including some of the league's biggest stars, and more players are expected to report to their local clubs this week to begin the mandatory two-week quarantine period, which will be conducted at hotels or the teams' apartments.
A meeting for Chinese Basketball Association officials was held Monday to discuss the format for resumption of the league, including the option of continuing with only local Chinese players on rosters, several sources told ESPN. According to several people briefed at the conclusion of the meeting, it was decided that the CBA will not go to a local-player-only format, and foreign players will be allowed to participate.
Teams will only be allowed to bring back players who were previously under contract. Several agents ESPN spoke with say they have been guaranteed in writing that any American who returns will be compensated for time spent in China, as well as any back pay owed.
CBA teams decided Monday that international players who refuse to return to China will be banned for three years, sources told ESPN, although this is not an official league policy. There will not be a ban on agents for players who refuse to return, as previously discussed.
Teams will play four games a week, behind closed doors, for one month before the playoffs start in mid-May, sources said. Games are expected to be played starting April 15 in two cities, Dongguan and Qingdao, where the 20 teams will play out the regular season behind closed doors before moving on to the playoffs. The situation remains fluid "and could change at any moment," one local agent told ESPN.
There were 15 regular-season games left to be played when the CBA went into the Lunar New Year break in late January.
Trepidation about poor conditioning levels following quarantine periods and overall safety concerns still exist among players ESPN has been in contact with, but a growing sense among some is that "China could very well be a safer place to be in right now than the U.S., plus at least I'll continue to get paid and not face a lifetime ban," in the words of one American. "With the way things are headed in Europe, and the damage being done to their economy, the gap in pay between the pro leagues there and China will likely only increase next season, which is something we have to consider in planning for our future financially."
One of the biggest unresolved questions is what will happen to Americans when they opt to return home -- will they be barred entry or forced to quarantine?
Former NC State guard Allerik Freeman arrived in China in early January, after his contract with a team in Turkey was bought out. That was just as the coronavirus was starting to spread. He elected to stay in China for the past 10 weeks despite -- as the only American basketball player remaining in the country -- practicing twice a day with his teammates.
"At first it was because my visa was taking so long; it's normally a two-week process," Freeman told ESPN. "Because of the virus and the Chinese new year it ended up taking much longer, until around mid-February. By that time, I thought it would be counterproductive to leave and go play in another league and risk the same exact thing happening once the virus spread. My only regret is that I decided to send my fiancée and 5-year-old daughter son back to the U.S. Sometimes I wish I kept them here with me because it seems it's getting worse in America than it is here.
"It seems there's a panic in America. Not here. People stayed home and just didn't interact with each other. Now life is back to normal, from what it seems. People are walking around. The streets are flooded. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. Most restaurants and businesses are open. If that's any indication, it seems it's getting as close to back to normal as possible. People are still wearing marks and getting their temperature checked. I get my temperature checked every day, sometimes twice a day, at my hotel, restaurants, grocery stores, at the security check entering the gym. I don't know what happens to people who have a fever. I guess not let them in? I wonder about that sometimes."
In other international basketball action: