Former NBA player and current CBA star Donatas Motiejunas was recently a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast. While quarantined in China, he discusses the CBA’s plan to resume their season on April 15, how he’s staying in shape, whether he’d be interested in returning to the NBA and much more. You can listen to the episode above or read the transcribed Q&A below.
When the CBA season was suspended in late January, you left China. How did you react to the news that they were suspending the season?
Donatas Motiejunas: I was shocked. But, at the same time, I was worried about everyone’s health here in China. The news was flashing around on all of the TV and all of the radio stations that the virus is very serious and pretty aggressive and they have no cure, so they tried to contain it. But, at the same time, it was Chinese New Year, so a lot of people were traveling so it was very hard to contain. But the Chinese government took action and finally we’re seeing the fruits of those actions, as China is one of the first countries to contain the virus.
It felt like we were kind of behind in the United States in terms of realizing how serious this was. When you left China in late January, you went home to Lithuania, right?
DM: Well, at that time, it was Chinese New Year so I was in Sanya, one of the islands, having a short break. They gave us, I think, seven or eight days off for Chinese New Year and then the outbreak happened. Then, I was waiting day-to-day to find out if the team was gonna let me go back home or what was going to happen. Day by day, hour by hour, the situation got more and more serious and the team said, “Yeah, go home until this situation calms down.” So, I go back to Shanghai, pack my stuff and try to go home right away. The airports and all the stations were pretty intense. It was scary, I’m not gonna lie. If people say, “Oh, I was not scared,” or anything like that… You could see people avoiding other people and not a lot of people were at the airport. Shanghai looked like a ghost town at that time. I’ve never seen a huge city like this look so dead, like it was. There were no people, no cars. It was really terrifying and scary, you know?
So, the whole trip home was intense. I’m worried and trying to make sure that I wash my hands and that I don’t touch nothing. I was kind of paranoid. When I came back home, a lot of people looked at it as a joke. Me and my coach kept telling all of the people, “Hey guys, let’s hope this thing isn’t gonna come to this country because the joke is going to be over as soon as it starts.” Sure enough, two months later, all the way from China it comes to Europe and now my government closes the borders, tried to take action. Like you said yourself, the States didn’t take it seriously and Europe also didn’t take it seriously. We started looking when it had already happened. Right now, the only thing we can do is try to contain it and try to keep it from spreading.
For those who don’t know, you’re in China right now and you’re quarantined. When did you return to China and were you worried about the health risks?
DM: On March 16, I landed in Shanghai. I mean, a lot of people told me like, “Hey, make sure you’re safe there,” and everything but from the news that my team gave me, the situation here is actually really good. And from what I saw, Shanghai is back to life. There were cars and people were walking. Of course, everyone is wearing masks to make sure if someone has something that they won’t spread it. But other than that, you can already see the fruits of fighting the coronavirus, as I said, because the people are back to work. Every day, more and more are going back to work, there’s more people on the streets and the life is coming back to the city. So I’m really happy for Shanghai and, I mean, overall for China because it seems like they are close to beating this thing.
There was a report by ESPN that some players are scared of returning to China because they’ve heard about all of the coronavirus cases and deaths. I actually talked to a CBA player this morning who is in the United States and isn’t sure if he’ll return to his team in China. Have you heard from other players who are worried about returning?
DM: I mean, of course there were a lot of players who were worried. But I think, at this point, there’s more danger in Europe and in the United States than anywhere else. Looking at the numbers, right now Europe is leading the whole globe. In the beginning, I felt like I was running away from China to Europe [to get away] from the disease; right now, I feel like I’m running from Europe back to China. Like I said, my team kept me updated almost all the time and from what I heard and what I’m seeing right now, they didn’t lie. The situation is better here than anywhere else in the world, so I’m happy that they called me back. Like I said, the day after I left, they closed the borders of Lithuania, so if they hadn’t called me, I’d be stuck in my country right now and be isolated for I don’t know how long with no practicing, no facilities, nothing. The situation here is really turning to the best and hopefully it’s going to stay like this.
Speaking of practicing, how are you staying in shape during your 14-day quarantine?
DM: I have my personal strength-and-conditioning coach that is setting up all the programs and everything; he’s putting all of the stuff together. The team provided me with some equipment like an exercise bike and some free weights, and my coach has all of the bands and all of the other stuff that he needs. So we’re working out inside of my apartment, trying to make the best of it. There’s no other way to do it. We’re just happy that we have enough space and enough equipment to work with. When the time comes, when the 14 days are over, I’m gonna join the team and I’m gonna be in decent shape. That’s the goal.
Have you been staying in touch with your teammates and coaches throughout all of this?
DM: Yeah, of course. All the time. Like I said, it was very important for me to see that the situation is stable here… I don’t know the exact date when my team gathered in the base, but they’re practicing in a base, which is separate from Shanghai, just to make sure they’re safe. They’re safe in the training facility where they are right now.
They aren’t in self-quarantine too? So, you’re in self-quarantine while they are working out and staying together?
DM: Well, the problem at this point is that a lot of cases that come to China are imported. A lot of people that were outside [of the country] are coming back with the sickness. From what I heard, inside China, there are no cases anymore. The thing that the Chinese government are afraid of right now is that an imported case is gonna make a second wave spread, so they’re very strict with the people who are coming back from different countries.
There was a rumor that the CBA told some players that if they didn’t return to China to finish the season, they could be banned from the CBA for several years. Were you told that or did you hear anything like that?
DM: Well, I know some players had two-month contracts, so the contract expired and they left their team because that was the contract they had. But I didn’t experience nothing like this. I was loyal to my team. Even though there was some interest in me, for all the teams that were interested, my agent told them, “He’s under a contract with the Shanghai Sharks.” We were waiting for a decision from the CBA. Whenever there was a decision, at that point we’re going to take action. If the season is going to be canceled, then we’re gonna be free agents and then we can choose which teams we’re going to go to. But if the season is gonna be extended, we’re gonna wait until we get news and then we’re gonna go back to China and join the Shanghai Sharks to finish the season. Through all of the summer and the period of negotiating the contract, the Sharks were super professional with me and my situation, and my response back to them has to be equal. I think I showed my support and appreciation to the team and to China during this difficult situation.
The CBA announced that they plan to resume the season on April 15 and have games without fans. What kind of details are you hearing about their plan to resume play?
[UPDATE: The CBA has since announced that they’re delaying the return of their season until at least May.]
DM: At this point, the plan is April 15. There are going to be two groups of 10 teams, at least that’s what the letter said that we received. One group is going to play in Dongguan and the other group will play in Qingdao. They’re gonna split the teams up equally. We’re gonna play against the other teams in our group in one city, without traveling, to make sure that the players are safe. We’ll finish the season; I heard we are going to have 16 games between those 10 teams that are going to be in our group. Then, I didn’t really hear anything else about how they’re gonna proceed from that point [for the playoffs]. But that’s the plan. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the plan works for me and I’m happy that the CBA is looking for solutions to extend the season and finish the season the right way.
How nice will it be to get back on the court and play basketball again?
DM: Me and my coach were just talking about it for a long time about how I’m missing basketball and I’m missing five-on-five. Luckily, I had the national team window, that FIBA window, that I was playing for my national team, so that helped a little bit, but still… For me, it’s the middle of a season and we’re not playing so it’s frustrating and, at the same time, it’s upsetting. I’m super excited and happy to have a chance to come back and play for my team.
I hope the CBA can successfully resume their season with no issues, so the NBA can follow that same blueprint. A number of NBA players have tested positive for COVID-19. Did any CBA players test positive before the season was suspended in January?
DM: Not that I know of. The thing is, the city where the main spread happened doesn’t have a basketball team. And during the time of the first big wave with all of the incidents, it happened during the Chinese New Year, so no one was with their teams. Usually, they are with their families for that. So I haven’t really heard any names or that anyone got sick. I hope no one got sick. But you never know ’til you know.
That’s very lucky. I keep thinking about what would’ve happened if Rudy Gobert hadn’t tested positive or if they hadn’t caught it, it could have really spread and gotten even more out of control. It’s so fortunate that in China, you guys weren’t playing and everyone was home.
DM: Yeah, if I had to pick a time for this thing to happen, there wouldn’t be a better time during the season because nobody was playing. If we would’ve been playing, it might be the same or even worse than what happened with the NBA. But the situation was still really bad. Like I said, when I was leaving, I was under stress and you could feel the tension in the air with this disease.
For sure. You played in the NBA for quite some time, so you played with a lot of different players. What was your reaction when this spread around the NBA and you saw different guys testing positive?
DM: Oh, it’s crazy. I know a lot of people were against stopping the NBA season, but I think it was a great action by Adam Silver. The situation was really, really intense and he understood, correctly, that there was no other way. I’m happy he understood that. With this disease, it’s so easy to spread. Rudy Gobert had no symptoms, nothing, but he was the carrier so he could spread the disease through all of the players that he played against. And they said that in the next seven days, Utah was playing like three or four teams and then in the next seven days, those teams were playing. So, I mean, in a matter of like one or two weeks, the whole NBA could be infected and that’s a big issue right there. So, I think the NBA did really good to suspend it right away and try to test all of the players. The ones that are sick, they put them in isolation, and the ones that are not, they tried to separate them from the ones that are sick. That’s all you can do – try to make the people that are healthy safe and try to make the sick people get healthy.
I also think the NBA’s decision to suspend the season made people realize just how serious this is and it also caused a ton of other businesses to shut down as well. It was the first domino and then every other sports league followed suit. With no other sports to watch, you guys are going to get record viewership when the CBA season returns.
DM: Yeah, that’s what everyone has been saying. (laughs)
Let’s talk basketball for a second. Prior to the season being suspended, you were putting up monster numbers in China, averaging 22.8 points, 15.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists. Aside from all of this craziness, have you enjoyed playing in China?
DM: This is the third season for me in China. When I came here, the most important thing for me was to prove to everyone that I’m healthy after a really, really heavy injury and I think I’ve succeeded at that. And afterwards, I have a really good name around the league for the things that I was doing. I was really appreciated. A lot of teams and coaches really wanted me, so I’m really excited and happy to come back every year to China. I have a lot of fans here. I’m really enjoying playing in the CBA.
For those who don’t know, what are the biggest differences between the NBA and the CBA in terms of the play?
DM: There are a lot of differences – the speed and strategic points and athleticism are some differences. That’s just how it is. The CBA has their way of basketball. Euroleague has their way. The NBA has their way. Every continent has things that are similar and things that are different. Like I said, when I came to China, the one thing I really needed was the freedom to get back in shape, to get my confidence back, and that’s what I got. And I really enjoyed it. Every year since, I’m getting it and I know what my job is every year, coming to China and trying to prove to everyone that, over the years, I’m getting better and better and that my injury is in the past.
I know you had a brief stint with the San Antonio Spurs last April, but then you returned to the CBA. Under the right circumstances, would you want to return to the NBA at some point?
DM: Oh, of course. No question. The NBA is the strongest league in the world and I think every player’s goal should be to go over there. If it’s the right opportunity, I’ll definitely consider it and I would love to be a part of it.