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Mad scramble to escape invasion: How ex-NBA player fled Ukraine amid Russian incursion

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Fighting had erupted in Ukraine. Former NBA player Toure’ Murry was still in the western city of Ternipol, Ukraine, where he played for professional basketball team BC Ternipol.

He needed to get out of the country, and that wasn’t easy. Though fighting had not consumed Ternipol, he said missiles landed in a city two hours away.

“It was difficult and confusing because my city was pretty far away from all the action that was going on in the beginning, but everything escalated pretty fast,” Murry told USA TODAY Sports. “I got a call from my team telling me it was pretty serious, and they had a car waiting.”

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Murry got in the car on Friday but didn’t know where he was going.

Former Knicks and Wichita State guard Toure' Murry played professional basketball for BC Ternipol in western Ukraine.
Former Knicks and Wichita State guard Toure' Murry played professional basketball for BC Ternipol in western Ukraine.

“There was risk of going to the Poland border and getting sent back. There was no guarantees,” Murry said. “So we took a leap of faith going through Romania. It worked out in terms of getting across the border. But going through the situation, we had no idea if we would get out.”

After a 4-½-hour car ride to the Romanian border, Murry took a train to Bucharest and then flew to Amsterdam and home to Houston.

That wasn’t the end of his worry. His brother, Yanick Murry, is an assistant coach with BC Budivelnyk in Kyiv, the site of an intense battle between Russians and Ukrainians. He just left the country on Sunday, fleeing to Warsaw, Poland. “His experience has been really, really tough,” Murry said. “He barely made it out.”

Mo Creek, who played college basketball at Indiana and George Washington, was still in Ukraine on Sunday and tweeted, “Never felt so hopeless in my life.” By Monday it appeared (through social media posts), he was in a car with a driver and trying to cross a border. “Glory to God,” Creek tweeted.

Michael Stockton, the son of Hall of Famer John Stockton, played for BC Budivelnyk, the same team where Yanick Murry coached. Through January and early February as Russia’s threats to invade Ukraine remained just threats, Stockton reassured family and friends.

“I said, ‘Hey guys, It's OK. We know there's a situation and our heads are on a swivel, so to speak, but it's not currently as serious as everyone thinks,” ’ Stockton relayed to loved ones. “Ukrainian teammates weren't worried. Everything was business as usual in Kyiv.”

Business as usual.

Until it wasn’t.

“I was pretty nervous about the whole situation,” Murry admitted. To make matters worse, Murry’s team threatened him with fines if he left and it declined to give him a letter of clearances so he could sign with a team in another country, he said.

“I was torn. I wanted to leave. At the same time, this is my job. I have to fulfill an obligation,” Murry said.

On Feb. 12, the U.S. ordered non-emergency employees to leave the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, and that prompted Stockton to plan his departure.

“When the U.S. embassy left Kyiv, that generally means that something is imminent, or made me feel that something is imminent,” Stockton said. “As an American, that's my final security blanket. If stuff goes bad and the embassy's not here, then it's every man for himself, and you’ve got to try to find your own way out.

“So when the embassy packed up and left, that was when the decision was made that we're not going to stay any longer and it's time for us to go home.”

On Feb. 13, Stockton had 10 points, three assists and three rebounds in a victory. The next day, he and his fiancée were on a flight to Germany and then home to Spokane, Washington.

Murry and Stockton have spent considerable time playing pro basketball overseas – Turkey, Portugal, Kuwait, Germany, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy and Ukraine for Murry, and France, Germany, Russia and Greece for Stockton.

It takes a deep love of the game and sense of adventure to play in some of these places where club finances are precarious, paychecks don’t always arrive on time, travel is not on par with the NBA – or even some college teams – and unstable geopolitical situations aren’t unusual.

Even when Murry played in the NBA, his goal one day was also to play overseas. “It was a dream of mine to experience different cultures,” Murry said. “It was more than basketball for me. I’m the type of person that’s very in the moment and used basketball as a tool to visit different countries.”

He described Ternipol as a small, slow city but with a lot of culture, friendly people, good food and an engaged fan base.

By contrast, Kyiv is larger, more cosmopolitan.

Michael Stockton, son of former Utah Jazz star John Stockton, has had extensive experience playing professional basketball overseas.
Michael Stockton, son of former Utah Jazz star John Stockton, has had extensive experience playing professional basketball overseas.

“Kyiv's a massive city,” Stockton said. “We didn't live right in the downtown, not in the big, main square, but we were in the city a little bit out of the downtown are but not too far away from the downtown. Kyiv was one of the coolest cities I've ever lived in. It felt like you were in – take any big modern American city, New York, Chicago.

“I'm a big history person, and Ukraine's history is something that was new to me. You don't know much. You don't learn much about Ukraine as a kid in the States. It was good to be there and to feel it and to see it and to hear it on your own, and so it was special to be there.”

Stockton felt sheepish just talking about his experience because he was able to leave.

“The most important part for me is I'm heartbroken for my Ukrainian teammates because I can just pack up and leave,” he said. “My family's in another country and I can get clear of this. Guys have wives, kids, moms, dads, grandparents, and they can't go anywhere, and they're forced to wait it out. So really, I'm hurt. I don't feel right talking about it because I'm scared for them and nervous.

“And again, the Ukrainian people are tough people. They’re resilient. Everybody knows that, but it's tough to know that they are on the ground having to deal with this face to face. It's difficult to think of, and I just pray that they're all doing all right.”

Said Murry: “I want to send my condolences to the families who have lost anyone in the war. Let’s stop the war. We need peace.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How ex-NBA player escaped Ukraine just after Russia invasion began