Een inkijkje in het coronaseizoen van basketballer Eric Kibi

Eric Kibi

De Eredivisie maakt zich op voor de play-offs die zaterdag beginnen. Het seizoen is wel voorbij voor de nummers 9 tot en met 12: Almere Sailors, Aris Leeuwarden, Apollo Amsterdam en The Hague Royals.

De Canadese Congolees Eric Kibi is de oudste speler in Den Haag. Onlangs riep ik hem uit tot Haai van de week.  We kregen contact en hij schreef zijn ervaringen over dit coronaseizoen op zijn blog. Een mooi inkijkje in zijn leven in Nederland.

The 2020-2021 season was an unusual one in the Global sports scene, but earning a living playing the sport you love abroad in a Red Zone country during a global pandemic became a daily self-battle.

Montreal, Canada, September 2020:

On the way to the airport in September I asked myself 4 or 5 times is this really worth it? Am I doing the right thing? Am I really going to play Basketball abroad during a global pandemic?

I think many International Professional basketball players can relate to this situation or these thoughts before they went abroad to start this 2020-2021 season.

My parents who have supported me since I was 6 years old on this basketball journey for the first time told me, this is the right time to retire and move to something else, this pandemic is dangerous and we witnessed it first hand in March 2020.

Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 2020:

When all the seasons started getting cancelled in March 2020 I was in the middle of a season in the National Basketball League of Argentina. Like most of us we took the virus seriously but comparable to SARS and other diseases in the past, we thought doctors would find a quick cure. Therefore I waited in my apartment hopefully for the season to resume even though gyms and many commercial establishments started to close. Unfortunately this never happened, instead the city I was in, Morteros, was put in full lockdown, no one in,no one out. With the nearest International airport 9 hours away in Buenos Aires, Argentina and with no trains, buses and all local airports closed,  I was officially stuck. When this happened, this is when panic set in because according to government officials this lockdown would last at least into the summer.

With the help of my parents and the Canadian embassy in Argentina we began a long process of obtaining a special permission to allow me to travel to Buenos Aires in an attempt to fly home. 2 Weeks later it was approved, with the correct papers in hand I began an 11 hour taxi journey from Morteros to the Buenos Aires airport. Finally at the airport, my family and I were relieved, but little did I know the nightmare was just beginning. As I waited to board a 9pm flight to Montreal, Canada, the Argentinian president shut down all Argentinian borders at 8pm, therefore my flight was cancelled and there were no flights out to Canada for the next two weeks. Panic set in again, foreigners were not allowed to leave the airport, therefore with many other international travellers we slept in the airport for two days until our embassies were able to secure us permission to go stay at hotels. With no flights coming in or out I was stuck in a Buenos Aires hotel for another two weeks as I waited for an Air Canada repatriation flight which finally came April 15th and finally I was home.

Den Haag, Netherlands, Season 2020-2021:

After a long and difficult summer, I finally found an interesting project that I thought would give me the opportunity to continue to grow as a basketball player.

Entering my ninth professional season I made a return to Europe after spending the last year and a half playing in the middle East and South America. I signed with the Hague Royals, an ambitious expansion team in the Dutch Basketball League. This was really a ambitious and risky bet that I made not only on myself but with this new organization, trying to enter a league that had four EuroCup teams. Many observers predicted this team to finish last in this 12 team league. However, from the first time I spoke to Head Coach Bert Samson on the phone in August, who in turn was a veteran coach in this league with championship experience, I was convinced that this was the right challenge for me.

I arrived in Den Haag September 9th, the Netherlands at the time was in a positive situation as far as the Pandemic was concerned. The next day I was at Scheveningen beach with my new teammates, enjoying the sun and the beach, mask-free. Little did we know that everything was about to change for the worse.

As we started the season in early October,we started the season with two bad losses with an average of 25 points in defeat but with late arrivals to training camp and not much practice time this was to be expected, but what we did not expect was the league to be shut down for the next three months after two games.

Our team was one of the first teams to experience a Covid outbreak in the league, although I was not personally affected with the virus, to see my teammates and staff suffer was difficult while all at the same having to quarantine like the rest of my teammates. Experiencing a quarantine in a foreign country while your family and loved ones worry about you at home has to be one of the most difficult things I have ever put my parents through.

With rising Covid Cases all throughout Europe, the Netherlands became one or the top three most affected countries in Europe and became classified as a red zone. Gyms, restaurants and malls were closed all over again, curfews were instilled and life became difficult again. It was back to finding the discipline to maintain your daily home workouts without even knowing if we would play again. Like most foreign professional athletes earning a living abroad, uncertainty began to creep in as borders began to close worldwide and the virus became more and more dangerous.

Many Americans started to cancel their contracts and go home, many asked themselves should I go home for Christmas? Many spent the holidays abroad and away from their families. I also began to doubt if I should stay in the Netherlands and take this risk. I decided to go home for ten days to reassure my loved ones. As we all know airports and airplanes are some of the most dangerous places to be in when trying to avoid the virus. Initially at the Amsterdam airport I was denied boarding by KLM airlines on my first flight to Canada because of a fever that was caused by toothache. The next day I was informed that there were several positive cases on the flight I was initially suppose to board, what a nightmare but I still flew home that day.

Initially professional basketball teams were not allowed to practice as a team by the government until this ruling was finally overturned, and even at that, there were rumors that the Dutch Basketball League would be cancelled altogether until next season.

The three months leading up to the league re-start became difficult and a constant daily battle. While dealing with my own personal issues back home in Canada, the pandemic had to be handled as well. Even within our group, there were many doubts but what made this team so special was the strength of each player. No matter what was going on in the outside world guys came to practice and worked in practice for two hours everyday. There were practices with 3 players, there were practices that went past curfew, but guys were tough and mentally strong. Of course throughout a pandemic everyone fought their own battles, but in those three months so many ups and downs were thrown together in our group that I feel we all fought these battles together.  From salary cuts to seeing a teammate welcome a beautiful baby boy to the world to a team member losing a loved one in the middle of practice it was a complete roller coaster until it was time to play again on January 16th.

Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 20th, 2021:

I still remember this day, we had just lost our 9th game in a row, 2nd game in three days, both by less than three points. We all sat in the locker room quiet and shocked. Being the captain and oldest on the team I know my younger teammates look at me as an example, but I had no words this day, I didn’t know what else I could give. We were working so hard in training and were not being rewarded in games. In turn, what this pandemic re-enforced for me which I knew for many years, is that the marathon always continues. You may not always see the results but you have to stick to your routine and keep working.

Personally my season began January 30th, after another loss to Feyenoord, I had 6 points in 37 minutes and was awful. The next day I was not selected to represent my National team of Congo in the World Cup qualifiers. Which I thought I deserved but they thought I was not playing well enough. I became a monster that day, I doubled my home workouts, after already being a Vegan I switched to a more intense and plant-based diet while also intensifying my intermittent fasting.

I have never been the most skilled player, but one thing I know is no one will ever outwork me, pandemic or not. They said I was 30 years old, so I became 3rd in the league in minutes played at 32 minutes per game, they said I could not rebound so I became first in the league in rebounds at 10.3 and finally they said I wasn’t a winner, so by God’s grace I was able to finish the regular season with a game-winning buzzer beater to give us 5 wins in our last 7 games to finish 9th and just outside of a playoff spot after starting 1-13, a huge accomplishment for this organization.

This Pandemic gave me life, it helped me re-value what was important in life. For most athletes it was the normal to go to a restaurant or a nightclub after a win, but the new normal told us we had to be home before 9pm on a friday night and evaluate what was really important in life. I am thankful for the difficulties experienced this season and have much respect for teammates and all the other overseas athletes that made it through this difficult season.

Not only did I fall in love with the city of Den Haag without really getting to experience it but I also found my life partner. We played a whole season without fans but the energy from the city was priceless. I met teammates, coaches, board members and team managers who are like me, hard workers. People like me who many times were told no but took a risk and believed in themselves and the result ended up being a successful pandemic season.