One early February morning, Ashley Beverly-Kelley ventured into her hotel’s dining room trying to beat the morning rush. She sat at a table, then called her husband. “There are some people in the military that’s eating breakfast (in here),” she told him.
“Well, why are you alone?” he asked.
Beverly-Kelley, an American basketball player, was alone in so far as she was the only member of her professional team in the dining room of the hotel in southwest Russia. Around her were 50 people, half of whom she estimates were wearing Russian military uniforms. Beverly-Kelley’s club, Dynamo Novosibirsk, was there for a road game in a city located less than a 2 1/2-hour drive from the Ukrainian border. When she had arrived at the train station after a seven-hour ride, Beverly-Kelley saw other Russian military members who, she was told, were preparing for war.
Over her six months playing in Russia, Beverly-Kelley mostly avoided first-hand reminders of the country’s bloody conflict with its neighbor, Ukraine. On that February morning in the hotel, she couldn’t. She felt more uneasy than usual. “I don’t know if they don’t like Americans or not,” she said a week later from her apartment in Novosibirsk. “And I (didn’t) want to find out.”
Beverly-Kelley arrived in Russia last September at a particularly fraught time, less than a year into the country’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner had already spent seven months in a Russian prison, after her arrest at a Moscow airport last February as she traveled back from the U.S. to rejoin her overseas team, and her release as part of a prisoner exchange was still months away.
Russia has long been a destination for American women basketball players to compete in WNBA offseasons. For top players, it presents an opportunity to significantly supplement their income. Annual salaries at UMMC Ekaterinburg — Griner’s club for eight seasons — could sometimes be seven figures. At Ekaterinburg, players fly private and have their own translators and drivers. Even rival Russian teams with tighter budgets are regularly among the world’s top spenders.
This year, however, because of a EuroLeague ban of Russian clubs, no current WNBA player competed there, including All-Stars such as Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who had previously played in Russia but opted for clubs in other countries. Yet even with the U.S. State Department labeling Russia as a “do not travel” destination, more than three dozen American athletes played on Russian teams across a variety of sports, according to The Wall Street Journal. Beverly-Kelley is believed to be one of five American-born women’s basketball players to play in Russia this year, competing in Novosibirsk alongside American teammate Mya Hollingshed, a 2022 WNBA first-round draft pick.
Unlike women’s basketball’s biggest stars, their decision to compete in Russia during a time of war wasn’t first about money. “With everything going on I took a risk,” Beverly-Kelley said. “I took a chance.”
Hollingshed was selected eighth in the 2022 WNBA Draft, but she was waived by the Aces before last season started and spent part of the summer training with the Puerto Rican national team. Before this fall’s FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, she was offered a contract with a club in Italy and was eager to play there before the deal fell through. She needed a place to play. She heard about an opportunity in Russia.
At first, Hollingshed was hesitant to play in Novosibirsk because of the conflict. Her mother, Modeane Walker, was anxious too. “Initially, I had the same reaction I think anyone has: surprise,” Walker said. She didn’t want fear to hold back her daughter, but she wondered whether it was safe.
Hollingshed’s agent reassured them she wouldn’t be near the fighting. To further minimize her own anxieties, Walker made a map showing how far away Hollingshed was from those areas. Novosibirsk, a city in Siberia, is more than 2,000 miles east of Moscow and about 1,000 miles from Yekaterinburg, where Griner had played from 2014-2021. “(Hollingshed) didn’t have the open buffet (of teams) to pick from,” Walker said.
Hollingshed knew little about the club she was joining. She was aware that Novosibirsk had matched the money from her unfulfilled Italian contract, paying her just shy of $10,000 per month. And prior to arriving in early October, her research showed the Russian league was historically among the best in the world. Even without top WNBA players there this season, Hollingshed figured showcasing her talent in Russia could catch the eye of a WNBA team or another international team that might pay more. “We’re choosing to be out here for the betterment of our career,” she said.
Hollingshed also felt more comfortable because Beverly-Kelley was already with the club. The 5-foot-6 guard had arrived a few weeks earlier and could shed light on the situation in terms of safety and daily life. Hollingshed almost never went anywhere without Beverly-Kelley. Even if they separated, Hollingshed shared her location, virtually, with her mom.
Her daughter playing with someone who spoke the same language was “a sigh of relief” for Walker. The club’s head coach spoke in Russian to the team, with its second assistant acting as a translator as much as a coach. Only one or two teammates, Hollingshed said, spoke limited English. “Ashley has been the key for me keeping my sanity,” Hollingshed said at the end of January. “She’s literally been my sister overseas.”
Unlike Hollingshed, Beverly-Kelley had played abroad before. After her collegiate career at Troy, she suited up in Israel beginning in the fall of 2016. From 2017-22, she played in France. Like Hollingshed, she had concerns before playing in Russia, where she said she made about $3,500 monthly. “Definitely terrified, because of everything that we hear in the States,” she said about the war.
Yet she went anyway.
Beverly-Kelley said she “totally understands” why many American players elected against playing in Russia this past season as a show of support to Griner. She doesn’t resent anyone who might not ever return. “At the same time,” she said, “for people who don’t play in the W, to support their family and try to get recognition to try and play in the W, you have to take a chance basically.”
Beverly-Kelley was in Moscow at a dinner with teammates when she learned of Griner’s December release. Messages started pouring into her phone. She checked Instagram and Facebook and saw a video of Griner getting on a plane headed to the U.S. Teammates she was with asked Beverly-Kelley how she felt. “I was just so happy for her and her family,” she said. She reciprocated by asking them their thoughts on the release of Viktor Bout, the arms dealer who had been serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. for conspiring to kill Americans among other charges. “They were happy, too,” Beverly-Kelley said.
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Even after Griner’s release, it remained hard for Beverly-Kelly and Hollingshed to avoid small reminders of the invasion. Since June 2022, a Russian fast-food chain has occupied what were once hundreds of McDonald’s restaurants after McDonald’s left the nation. Beverly-Kelley said Novosibirsk relied more on sleeper trains as a mode of transportation because of air travel restrictions. It took until January for the American players to see their first paycheck hit their U.S accounts because of banking complications.
Still, Hollingshed said, she felt safe there. Despite the conflict and a significant language barrier, her American agent had a Russian business partner who served as a vital go-between in conversations with club officials, which increased her comfort. She always traveled in twos. She watched her surroundings closely, however. With her other Black teammates — Beverly-Kelley and La Mama Kapinga-Maweja, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo — she said she felt “eyes on us.” “Everywhere we go, people are always staring,” Beverly-Kelley said. “It’s almost like seeing a unicorn, or something like that.”
In early January, Hollingshed and Beverly-Kelley played at Ekaterinburg for the first time. Pyrotechnics were used during pregame intros. Music blared. Fans packed the 5,000-seat arena. The 6-foot-3 forward called it one of the best environments she’d been in. Nevertheless, she said she felt “a mental block” being there. It hit her when she reflected that Griner had once called this gym home.
Beverly-Kelley tried carving out daily time to speak with her husband and daughter. Going to Russia without her, Beverly-Kelley said, “was the toughest thing I’ve had to do ever in my life.”
Aarsley, 2, was barely verbal when Beverly-Kelley left for Russia, but as the season progressed, her daughter began saying the alphabet and reciting numbers. Conversations with them made the stark winter days of seemingly endless snowfall and minus-10 degree temperatures as her team struggled feel more tolerable.
Beverly-Kelley also felt her game improved. One of her goals in Russia was to generate future interest, and she sought to show teams she could facilitate as well as score. Novosibirsk won just 11 of its 32 games, but Beverly-Kelley led the Russian league in scoring and took home Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Hollingshed left Russia in mid-February. Novosibirsk’s season was winding down, and her role had fluctuated throughout the season. At times, she started and played power forward, a comfortable position for her. In other games, she was relegated to the bench or played exclusively on the wing. Frustrations emerged with the team’s coach. Her on-court experience sometimes exacerbated her homesickness.
Hollingshed timed her departure so she could take part in the second season of Athletes Unlimited. On Feb. 12, she arrived back in her native Houston at 7 p.m. She woke around 12 hours later and drove to Dallas, where AU’s five-week campaign was based. She didn’t unpack in between, let alone indulge in the soul food she had craved during her time away.
She has since returned to Houston. She’s relished “being still” and spending time with her mom and her pit bull. In Russia, Hollingshed said she felt as if she was on a train or flight every other day. As the team moved through one of the country’s 11 time zones, she never formed a regular sleep schedule.
Though Hollingshed said she wouldn’t entirely rule out a return to Russia, she has a strong preference to play elsewhere in future seasons — perhaps Italy, Spain, Israel, Turkey or Hungary.
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Beverly-Kelley flew back to the U.S. about a month after Hollingshed. Her daughter reached for her upon making eye contact. Much like Hollingshed, Beverly-Kelley went right to her next job: running her youth basketball coaching company.
Although she’s spending as much time with her family as she can, she is already planning a return to Russia. She signed a contract with Nadezhda Orenburg, where she’ll pair with Unique Thompson, one of the other Americans who also played in Russia this season. Because of her success this winter, Beverly-Kelley said her salary will jump to around $10,000 a month.
“If the WNBA players start to navigate over (to Russia), it’s gonna be a big opportunity for me to showcase my talent and prove that I can play against players that play in the league,” she said, “which would open up a big window for me to get invited to (a WNBA) training camp.”
She’s never been to one before. But as a return trip to Russia looms, Beverly-Kelley’s desire to play in the world’s best league is motivating nonetheless. “It holds me to a standard,” she said.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photo of Ashley Beverly-Kelley: Stephen Lew / Associated Press)