Game on — Maine basketball player remains in Ukraine despite warnings of Russian attack
It's been a week since the U.S. State Department issued a warning for Americans to leave Ukraine. And for those who opt to stay, there will be no rescue.
But despite the dire message, the decision to leave isn't easy for some Americans, including Troy Barnies, a 33-year old professional basketball player from Auburn who has been playing for a Ukrainian league since September.
Barnies almost left last weekend. He was one click away from buying an airline ticket online.
"I actually still have all my stuff packed," he says. "I have two big bags and a backpack, and all my stuff is packed."
His concerns about staying in Ukraine had been simmering for weeks as Russian troops gathered near the border. But whenever he talked about it with Ukrainian teammates and coaches, they shrugged it off.
"They would just explain like, 'We're used to Russia kind of bullying us and doing this. This is normal,'" he says.
So Barnies shrugged it off too — until U.S. officials warned last week that Americans should get out. He says the State Department called him three times last Friday to ask him his plans, and he didn't have an answer.
"I can't just get on a plane and leave," he says. "I have obligations here, I have a job, I have a contract to oblige by. I need help to get to the airport — I need help. I can't just get up and leave."
Barnies says he and other foreign teammates started to panic. They met with their team managers, who urged the players to wait until after the weekend. That's when the basketball federation was expected to make an announcement. Barnies says he spent the weekend on the phone talking to friends and family, agonizing over what to do.
"I was like Troy, you really, really, need to leave," says his mom, Lorie Barnies of Auburn. "What scares me is how fast that situation could change quickly. I mean, it could be a huge undertaking if it happens. And he may get stuck."
While most other foreign players in the league decided to leave, Barnies was among those who waited for the announcement from the basketball federation, which came late Monday. The season, they said, would continue. Meanwhile, reports were emerging that Russia might invade by Wednesday. Barnies says it was too late to leave in time.
"Wednesday came, nothing happened. Thursday, we had a game we just played. And now it's Friday, and the situation has calmed down," he says.
For now, he's decided to stay. And Barnies says he feels safe. He's in Mykolaiv, which isn't close to where Russian troops are gathering. Team managers have assured him they have a bus ready to evacuate him if Russia does attack.
Barnies also takes comfort that nothing has happened so far despite the dire warnings. He says after working so hard over the past five months, he doesn't want to walk away from his job or his team over what he describes as a "what if."
"I guess I'm adding to my reputation that I'm not just going to pack my bags and leave my team," he says. "Like, you've gotta remember, yeah, my Ukrainians are from here and they have families all over the place in this country. Like, they're in the same situation if something happens. It's not just me."
The basketball season runs through at least April. Barnies says he'll take it day by day.
His mom, Lorie, says she still wants him out.
"It's frustrating and upsetting and scary all in one," he says.
But the decision is her son's, she says. And she hopes he's right.