Before the NBA suspended play last week because of health concerns over the COVID-19 virus outbreak in the United States, former Stony Brook University basketball star Jameel Warney endured a similar shutdown in South Korea, where he plays for the Seoul SK Knights.
Warney not only survived the scare in good health but is preparing for a likely return to Seoul on Sunday as the Korean Basketball League gears up to resume its season.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned,” Warney told Newsday. “But Korea has done a great job of testing everybody. I felt safe while I was there.”
The KBL shut down on Feb. 29 after Warney’s team played two games in an arena with no fans at the height of the outbreak. He returned in early March to the new home he recently purchased in Branchburg, New Jersey, but safety concerns in South Korea have subsided, and Warney is in discussions with his coaches and agent about returning to the KBL, where he currently is fourth in scoring (20.4) and rebounding (10.4) in the 10-team league.
“If everything is good, I’m going back,” he said. “I’m still under contract with them. It’s my job.”
As far as Warney knows, no player in the KBL has tested positive for COVID-19, which he credits to widespread testing in South Korea. “I was surprised people in the NBA are receiving it,” Warney said, referring to the number of NBA players and team personnel that climbed to 14 announced cases as of Thursday. “Even [Saints head coach] Sean Payton from the NFL got it. So I was surprised.”
South Korea has emerged as a leading example for other countries to follow because of an aggressive testing program that has helped curb the spread of the virus. According to Science Magazine, it had administered more than 270,000 tests through mid-March in a country of 50 million people.
That impressed Warney, who said signs of the pandemic emerged in early January before peaking in late February. “Korea was ahead of the curve,” Warney said. “They had an awareness of getting everyone tested. Their testing process was really easy because they have free health care. So it didn’t matter if you didn’t have the proper health care. They would figure out a date for you [to get tested]. It was just so convenient for everyone.
“You get tested while going to restaurants, going to games, going inside malls . . . Our team lives in a dorm. Every time you enter the dorm, they check your temperature. Every time you walk into a hotel, they have cameras to kind of check your body out. They have a lot of ways to check it out without actually getting tested. They also have drive-through testing. You can see a doctor. You see the numbers are going down amazingly in the last few weeks.”
The KBL took a two-week break while the FIBA tournament for Asia was played in early February. When play resumed, Warney’s team played two home games with no fans before an outbreak in a hotel housing a visiting team led to the suspension of the season.
“You’re playing in a big arena you always play in, but without fans,” Warney said. “It was kind of weird, but after the first few minutes, you kind of get used to it. It’s basketball. The staff that worked there would check you every time you entered the arena.”
Last season, Warney left his pro team in China after two months because he was unhappy with the conditions, but he is delighted with his KBL experience and plans to return next season, assuming contract negotiations go well.
“I love the people, love the culture, I love the country, I love where I’m playing at,” Warney said. “It depends on what’s going on next year in the world, but I think Europe is going to take a big hit with this virus. So I think Korea is going to be the hot spot.”
Because the KBL season has only six weeks to run, including playoffs, Warney said, “My big worry is getting back, but I think America is going to do a great job with the virus. People will be fine if they stay quarantined, stay in the house. Once people realize this is really serious, they’ll be fine.”