At one point in his career, Evan Ravenel was so beloved in Japan that his image graced a bottle of top-shelf vodka.
Now, he’s just waiting to get back into the country and play some basketball.
Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the former Ohio State center and much-traveled international player has a signed contract to return to Japan, where he played during the 2016-17 season. The problem: That country has an international travel ban in effect, leaving Ravenel and plenty of others in limbo as they attempt to return to work.
""I’m on the team and everything," Ravenel said. "My team is practicing. They contact me, but I just can’t get to work because of the government shutdown to America."
It’s one of a number of pitfalls hampering what is already among the most challenging aspects of a professional basketball career overseas: finding a team.
In the best of times, it can be a chaotic process. Players are often given no more than a day or two to research a team they’ve never heard of, in a country they’ve never visited, and determine if they know anyone else who has played in the league, if it’s a place where they could feel comfortable living, and finally, if it’s an amount of money they’re happy with.
Add the coronavirus, and you have a recipe for arguably the most difficult overseas market ever to manage.
"I was nervous," former Ohio State guard Keyshawn Woods said last week from Poland. "I really didn’t want to leave (the United States), but then, I also wanted to leave. I was scared, but I wanted to go play so I can compete and keep playing ball."
Woods made his professional debut last year in the Dutch league — where he averaged 16.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game — after helping the Buckeyes make the NCAA Tournament in 2019 during his lone season with the program. Like most of the basketball world, his season was cut short due to the virus, denying him of a chance to participate in the Dutch postseason.
That proved to be a major missed opportunity, he said, because teams overseas are often most concerned with playoff performances when considering signing new players. After missing out on participating in The Basketball Tournament in Columbus while recovering from a battle with the coronavirus, Woods said he was seeking a league with a higher level of play than what he experienced as a rookie.
"It was hard," he said of the process. "You have to figure out what country was actually going to play this year or when countries were actually going to start back up opening things, and what rules do they have for Americans to come over. Is the embassy going to let you come over?"
Even finding a proper fit and signing with a team in a comfortable situation isn’t the same as it once was. Ravenel, who has played for six teams in five countries since leaving Ohio State in 2013, said top clubs are paying a fraction of what they once did.
"There’s a lot of really good players who don’t have jobs because teams don’t want to pay what guys are owed because they don’t know if they’ll have a full season or not," he said. "You’ve got some teams with 25% of what their budget was to spend. It’s bad."
The lower pay hasn’t stopped some other former Ohio State players from finding work. Jon Diebler is in Israel preparing to get his season underway. Dave Bell is in Greece, getting ready to make his professional debut. Others, such as Jared Sullinger, William Buford and C.J. Jackson, remain home, waiting for the right opportunity.
Bell said he told his agent his top concern was his personal safety in regard to COVID-19.
"They’re very strict on the COVID situation," he said from Greece. "As soon as I got off the plane, I had to get a COVID test. They make sure you wear your mask in places. I feel like they keep things sealed up pretty tight."
There could be hope on the horizon for Ravenel. Although the Japanese embassies in Atlanta and Detroit told him they’re not accepting work visas from Americans, he’s gotten word that the situation could change as soon as Sunday. If that happens, Ravenel could be headed to Japan within a week or two to get his season started.
"For me, a check is better than no check," he said. "Do I like getting paid less than what I was getting before? Hell no, but it’s better than sitting at home trying to prove a point."