How former Raptor Sonny Weems is handling COVID-19 playing in China

Sonny Weems while playing for the Toronto Raptors in 2009 (Darren Calabrese/CP)

TORONTO – Business as usual, Sonny Weems’ Guangdong Southern Tigers were looking to close out their final game before the Lunar New Year with a win. The defending champions were playing even better than they did after finishing the 2018-19 season 42-4, culminated by a perfect 11-0 post-season, fully expecting to collect a win against the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, their 28th in 30 games this season.

Playing alongside Chinese star and former NBAer Yi Jianlian, Weems has grown accustomed to traveling like a rock star needing extra security everywhere they go together and having thousands of fans screaming in adoration. After about a five-hour flight into Xinjiang on Jan. 20, though, Weems could tell that something was different.

“When they get ready for Chinese New Year, everyone knows it’s the biggest human migration on the planet, but now they’re telling everyone to wear a mask going to the airport,” Weems said over the phone from his hotel room in Guangzhou. “We were thinking that was kinda strange if it’s a regular flu going around. The whole airport staff already had on masks!”

Chunyun, also known as the Spring Festival travel season, is a period beginning about two weeks before Chinese New Year and lasts for over a month thereafter, during which Chinese citizens were initially expected to rack up approximately three billion trips this year as they looked to reunite with their families. This was supposed to be a time of joy and overindulgence.

On Dec. 31, health authorities in Wuhan confirmed that there were dozens of pneumonia cases that had emerged with an unknown cause. A few days later, the novel coronavirus had been identified. On Jan. 11, China reported its first death. Concern was just beginning to grow but hadn’t reached its tipping point.

And so, the distraction that is sports continued. Weems scored 17 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists in a 112-101 win over the Flying Tigers on Jan. 21. The assists may come as a surprise to those who followed his time with the Raptors, something the forward wasn’t necessarily known for. Acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks along with Amir Johnson in the summer of 2009 for Carlos Delfino and Roko Ukic, Weems was more about making the highlight reel during his 128 game-stint in Toronto.

“Sonny Weems back then was younger, was kinda just running up and down the court dunking, not really thinking the game,” Weems said of himself. “Now, I’ve been in Europe for many years, my game’s a lot more polished. A lot of people didn’t really know I had a jump shot back in the day or that I can read pick-and-rolls but I’m a pretty polished player, all-around player now. Over the years, I just think the game different, I see and play both sides of the ball.”

I miss dunking on dudes!! #WeemsWorld

425 Likes, 14 Comments – Sonny Weems (@sonny1324) on Instagram: “I miss dunking on dudes!! #WeemsWorld”

The 33-year-old had stints in Lithuania, Russia, Israel and Turkey after leaving the NBA and took valuable lessons from the way the game is played in Europe. Every possession is like the last one and so coaches treat it that way, giving very little leeway to players and having every expectation that they will follow through with the assigned plans. The regimented approach pushed Weems to be more of a playmaker, and he has never averaged fewer than 3.5 assists across Europe and Asia since the 2013-14 season, currently averaging a career-high 6.5 helpers.

What led Weems to China was fewer games, as well as the expanded freedom to explore his game and try new things in the latter stages of his career. The break every Chinese New Year helped, too.

Similar to the NBA all-star break, China’s top professional basketball league, the CBA, breaks for about 10 days and so Weems had been looking forward to getting away to Indonesia well in advance. The plan was to spend four to five days there for some rest and relaxation before getting set for another title run.

Like everyone else with vacation plans during this COVID-19 pandemic, this one also quickly changed.

Wuhan was cut off by Chinese authorities on Jan. 23 and the CBA suspended operations a day later. As Weems went off to Indonesia from his home in Guangzhou, he knew he now had to pay much closer attention to what was actually going on.

“I was trying to process the whole thing because no one really knew,” Weems said. “I’ve been playing abroad for seven, eight years now so I’m kinda one of those guys who’s keeping up on the news and what’s going on in different countries. So I was telling people, ‘Man, I don’t think we need to go back right now because this is really kind of unheard of.’

“Any time a city locks down a place with 11 million people, that’s kind of a big deal.”

The CBA went back and forth, providing dates for players to return before further pushing dates back. With the outbreak only getting worse, Weems could only think of his family. He channeled his inner Marty McFly and called up his family in West Memphis, Ark.

“Be careful, because if this thing spreads to the States, it could be devastating for us,” Weems recalled warning his mother.

And while expressing obvious concern for both his parents because they’re older, he was even more worried about his father who mentors people at a correctional facility while also serving as a pastor. His exposure could have placed him in grave danger.

“A lot of people, where I’m from, don’t really go to the doctor. They’re kind of scared to find out what’s wrong with them and that’s what I was really scared of. It took me a while to convince my parents to go to the doctor.”

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After two-and-a-half weeks in Indonesia, Weems was told he didn’t need to return to China. On Jan. 31, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration suspended entry into the country by any foreign nationals who had traveled to China in the past 14 days, excluding the immediate family members of American citizens or permanent residents. This didn’t apply to Weems and so he made his way to Memphis to be with his parents.

With no plans to leave, Weems was juggling putting in work to stay in shape and getting quality family time in. He warned them and friends in the area some more but most were still under the impression that this is a China problem, not a USA problem. That changed quickly, of course.

On Feb. 29, USA recorded its first coronavirus death, a patient near Seattle. Weems felt the need to stay home even more, but the CBA complicated matters by requiring that all players return for a possible resumption of the season. It didn’t sit well with the Southern Tigers star.

“It took people a while to convince me to come back,” Weems said. “They were talking about the rumours that guys would get banned if they didn’t get back, (the teams) scared a lot of guys with that so I got back.”

Weems packed his bags and said goodbye. He boarded a Japanese airliner, and things went to yet another extreme when taking the flight from Tokyo to Guangzhou. After nearly 10 hours in the aircraft, Weems was uncertain about the future but hopeful to play basketball again. He could see the passenger boarding bridge connect to his flight, but a moment that’s usually filled with relief for passengers instantly became a nightmare. A man and a woman showed up to the front of the plane, dressed in biohazard suits. Two passengers seated just a couple rows behind Weems had tested positive for COVID-19.

“That really spooked me right there,” Weems said. “I was already spooked about coming back here in the first place and then when I found out about those guys I was shook.”

Weems was required to test for the coronavirus and the results were negative. Still, he wasn’t mentally prepared for a 14-day quarantine but he had no choice at this point. Bunkered down in his hotel room, he made the best of it. Having been forced back to the city without having seen his six-year old daughter Sienna, who lives in Mississauga, Ont., with her mother, he made plenty of time for FaceTime calls to parent her as best he could.

“She’s getting real restless right now,” Weems said. “It’s kind of hard to tell a six-year-old to go to sleep, what is she waking up for? School’s not in so it’s kinda hard. She’s not sleeping, she calls me because she knows I’ve got all kinds of time … that’s what parenting is like now. I love it, get a little time to talk to her. I think it’s our job to keep her mind off things, get her a couple board games.”

From Slavery, to Civil Wars, Mass Incarceration, and the killing of our own…there’s been an epidemic of black men being casted out from this world leaving our families to deal with the consequences, in 2020 it is our responsibility to change that narrative going forward!! #blackfathers

729 Likes, 13 Comments – Sonny Weems (@sonny1324) on Instagram: “From Slavery, to Civil Wars, Mass Incarceration, and the killing of our own…there’s been an…”

To keep himself busy, Weems shared his quarantine story through his media company Sonny Dayz Media and Productions. He worked on his dance moves, watched game film and worked out to stay ready as best he can, and read some books, too. After making it through quarantine, Weems was ready to resume some level of normalcy in his life. Though social distancing is still very much a focus, shopping malls, bars and gyms are open.

Weems was practicing with his teammates again in anticipation of a resumption of the league, but the winding road he’s been on seems to have no end in sight. Per a source, the CBA has now suspended the league until at least the summer, and while there’s no tentative date in place, the hope is for a July resumption.

That would mark at least five months before a resumption, something that will concern the NBA as they hang on to any hopes of resuming their activities.

Despite all the back and forth he’s already gone through, and the fact USA now has the highest death total due to COVID-19, Weems wants to fly all the way back home and cater to his elderly parents’ needs.

Sports leagues around the world are holding on to hope of a resumption for obvious reasons. They have stakeholders to cater to, financial obligations to meet, and any resumption would provide a beacon of hope to fans following around the world. Every day they hold on, though, every sense of false hope they provide only further leaves players – the ones who carry the leagues – in no man’s land.

Weems would like to cast anchor knowing exactly what to expect, but the problem is everyone seems to be on the same page when it comes to exactly that, not knowing.

It’s a long, long way from business as usual.

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