Lucious "Lucky" Jones when he played for Robert Morris University. Photo Credit: RMU Athletics

Newark native and overseas basketball star Lucky Jones stuck at Ukraine border en route back home

Amidst racism during civil unrest and war, the Black 28-year-old, pro-basketball player details a weary ordeal at the Ukraine-Romania border.

After Russia initially raided Ukraine on February 24, 2022, BC Ternopil team coaches and Ukrainian Basketball SuperLeague officials instructed top-tier basketball player, Lucious “Lucky” Jones—along with other American players—to leave the country following tensions concerning the Ukraine-Russian border crisis. 

That morning, Jones and several other players hurriedly crammed their bags then jumped in a car. The drive became a five hour ride–sans directions–toward a border Ukraine shares with Romania. 

“My heart dropped,” the Robert Morris University, All American said to CNN. “They called and said, ‘Hey, pack your stuff, it’s time to go, they’re bombing.’”

Subsequently, the Newark native detailed a harrowing experience from the eastern European country back to his wife Marissa and their four children in Maryland. By the time he was at the border, the Russian military had already occupied Ternopil, a town about two hours east of Lviv.

For just two months, Jones was a member of the country’s premier basketball league. Before that, he was signed to Liège Basket in Belgium’s Pro Basketball League (PBL) and Hyères-Toulon in France’s Betclic Élite league. He also racked up time in European sports stadiums for several teams in the Greek League. 

As a college star athlete, Jones dominated university courts from 2011 to 2015. Although he entered the 2015 NBA draft, he was ultimately not picked. Like many who had been skipped over in the USA draft, he hopped on a plane overseas to earn a living. 

. . . .

The St. Anthony High School ball star was not the only foreign teammate to flee. Three others including two Americans, Toure Murry and Joe Fustinger, and one Lithuanian, Dominykas Domarkas, were the only ones alerted to leave as all the other teammates were Ukrainian. They joined hundreds of other refugees at the Ukraine-Romania border. 

“It was traumatizing — I’ll tell you that much,’’ Jones said in the phone interview to NJ.com. “We were on a long line — I’m talking about trucks on top of cars on top of trucks, people arguing, people fighting, police not trying to let us in — it was a mess,’’ he said.

Since Russia’s invasion, over 1.3 million people have fled from Ukraine to places like Poland and Hungary as per the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Guardian estimates a total of four million may do so to escape the surging violence. Following the start of conflict in eastern portion of the country and the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Ukraine reports 1.5 million internally displaced persons according to the UNHCR.

The UNHCR also says the Russia-Ukraine conflict is set to result in Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century. 

While his wife was attempting to quicken his arrival, Jones recounts how 500 to 600 people at the border were standing in line waiting to cross. Yet, there was a gradual pace in admittance. Jones mentions that five to ten people were seen every 30 minutes; notwithstanding those ahead of them in the queue. 

Ten hours later, Jones and his teammates finally made it out.

Refugee racism

There has been an international outpouring of sympathy and support of people trying to flee the country. However, some have been more welcomed than others. 

“[Ukrainian refugees] are prosperous, middle-class people. These are obviously not refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to,” expressed Al Jazeera news anchor, Peter Dobbie.

However, Black and Brown populations in comparison have been treated poorly. From students to migrants, Black people from all over the diaspora were separated and denied evacuation after being stuck at border checks. Despite his mixed company, things were no different for Jones. As his feet and hands numbed from freezing temperatures, Jones said he eventually “begged’’ authorities to let him in.

“I remember they punched a certain Black guy — a policeman in Ukraine, punches a certain Black guy for nothing,” relayed Ghanian student refugee, Ethel Ansaeh Otto. “As long as you are Black, no one likes you.”

“Mostly, they would consider white people first. White people first, Indian people, Arabic people, before Black people,’ she asserted. 

Attention has reached international levels, including social media. For instance, the Twitter hashtag “AfricansInUkraine” is being used to raise awareness about the maltreatment. To date, continental African countries such as Zimbabwe and Nigeria are doing all they can to extradite nationals who are largely students. 

Home Terf

After entry, the teammates took a train to the capital, Bucharest. After a three-hour flight, Jones flew to Amsterdam early-morning February 25. After a mentally and physically exhausting trek half-way across the world, Jones was headed back on a 9 am flight to New York. Eventually, he landed home around late Saturday night. 

“It was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had in my life,’’ he said. That said, the traumatic journey scarred Jones; making him swear off basketball abroad all together. 

“Everybody keeps asking, ‘Are you sure you’re giving up after this?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m done,’” asserted Jones. “I’m going home, where I don’t have to worry about a bomb, I don’t have worry about people running around with guns, and no more tanks.’’

Indeed, the U.S. has not had a war stateside since the American Civil War. Estimatedly, the battle cost the Union about $3.2 billion and the Confederacy $1 billion in 2008, according to the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command website. Adjusted for inflation, that is the equivalent of about $4.2 billion and $1.3 billion in 2022. Yet the destruction nearly decimated the South because most of the fighting occurred on southern soil. 

“The deadliest conflict in U.S. history,” cost 620,000 lives who died during service. Namely, the battles of Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, and Gettysburg decimated nearly two percent of the population at the time. 

. . . .

In discussing the events in the eastern bloc, Newark resident Arlina Tucker explained the similarities between Ukraine and her hometown of Newark, a majority Black city. However, the difference is the unbelievable carnage on home turf. 

“That’s what [Ukrainian streets] looked like to me–South Orange Ave,” conveyed Tucker of the Ukrainian television images to the Ark. “It made me think like ‘Oh my God,’ I can’t imagine them bombing up my streets the way they doing in Ukraine…when they did the [Twin T]owers in NY, I never thought I would see that in my lifetime.”

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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