Photo courtesy Peter Simmons/Leicester Riders
Just 45 minutes before game time, the Leicester Riders were huddled together in the same house, contemplating an important decision. In a normal world, the team would have arrived at its home arena about 90 minutes before tip-off to prepare for its game against the Manchester Giants, but this was not a normal game day. In a world shaken by the threats of COVID-19, the players scrapped their normal pre-game routine, and were instead taking a vote: play or don’t play.
Former Compton High School point guard Kyron Cartwright is in his first season with the Riders, competing in the British Basketball League (BBL). He was among the majority of players who voted not to play, opting to take extra precaution and not risk exposure to the virus in a crowded arena. The conversation was difficult, and complicated. Even as the team voted against playing, the players were under pressure to continue the status quo and keep their season going.
“We had a discussion as a team and we didn’t think it was safe to play from our perspective,” said Cartwright. “Our team didn’t really feel like we should be playing, but there’s a very hefty penalty for not playing. We would have to forfeit the game, the league would fine the club, and if we didn’t play the game we would be out of the running of the championship, even if the season was postponed. So we were put into a tricky situation to where we kind of had to play.”
As the discussion played out, two Riders players voted in favor of playing the game as normal, and a handful of others said they would be willing to play even though they were against it. Ultimately, the decision was made to move forward with the game.
“We decided to play and help out the club,” Cartwright explained. “It was kind of a decision in the best interest of the club more than the players.”
Though Cartwright was willing to suit up for the club and for his teammates, the 23-year-old made clear that this would be his final game until the outbreak was under control.
“I’m the person who said, ‘I’m leaving regardless of what happens. I’ll play, but this will be my last game,’” Cartwright explained. “The other guys said, ‘We don’t know the next time we’ll play basketball again, so we’ll just show up and play even though we didn’t want to.’ We decided to be there for each other because we didn’t know when the next time would be.”
Manchester entered the game 0-12 on the season and in last place, while Leicester was 7-4 and sitting among the top four teams in the BBL. The Giants players had even agreed to give the Riders a victory in the contest if neither team wanted to participate, but Leicester would still have been subject to punishment from the league. Ultimately, the Riders and Giants did square off at Morningside Arena that night, but according to Cartwright, things didn’t feel the same.
“After everything that had happened, it was hard for anyone to focus,” he recalled. “The energy in the building was just different. You could tell that nobody really wanted to be there. We started the game off really well, we went on a run, and it seemed like the other team didn’t really care…It seemed like they were just going through the motions.”
After racing out to a 30-8 first-quarter lead, Leicester went on to defeat Manchester, 105-82. Cartwright contributed close to his season averages of nine points and eight assists in just over 17 minutes of action. Following the game, the second-year pro out of Providence College kept to his promise, and bought a plane ticket back to America to wait out the growing pandemic.
“With the crisis, you don’t know how long it’s going to last,” said Cartwright. “We were technically good to stay, but if they did decide to ban flights and my season happens to end, I’m stuck, and I have nowhere to go. I thought it was a safer decision on my part to come home.”
With the team’s blessing, Cartwright and fellow Los Angeles-area native Namon Wright both left Leicester to return home. Cartwright is in his first year with the Riders after playing the 2019-20 season professionally in Hungary. Wright, meanwhile, is a rookie looking to earn his keep, and just 12 games into his professional career.
“It’s his first real job, he’s out in the real world for the first time, it’s a hard decision to make,” said Cartwright of his teammate. “He didn’t really want to leave, he’s just looking out for himself.”
On the day Cartwright arrived back in the US, the BBL announced it would postpone the remainder of the season until further notice. Should the season resume, Cartwright would have the opportunity to rejoin the team, and it’s an opportunity he said he would be open to.
“I was having fun and liked the league very much,” he said. “A lot of leagues in Europe can be slow and methodical, but that league was up-tempo reminded me of playing in high school.”
Now back home in America, all Kyron Cartwright can do is wait, and do his best to stay in basketball shape. Like the rest of his teammates, he doesn’t know when the next time will be.