For nearly two months, former Belmont basketball star Kerron Johnson has been stuck in Romania, unable to arrange a trip home. His wife is nearly eight months pregnant, waiting for him to return to Huntsville, Alabama, from a professional basketball season that’s spiraled into a quagmire of red tape and frustration.
As the days slip by with hours spent on hold with airlines and the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Johnson is petrified he’s going to miss the birth of their first child because of travel restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To me, that’s my worst fear,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports by phone from Romania on Thursday. “To not be there for his first breath and for my wife. That’s my worry out of all this. I’ll miss that moment. You don’t get those moments back.”
Johnson, brother of Lions tailback Kerryon Johnson, starred at Belmont under legendary coach Rick Byrd from 2009 to 2013. He helped the Bruins to three NCAA tournaments in that time. He’s played professionally overseas for six seasons, hopscotching through places like Italy, Israel and Germany.
The pandemic hit about three-quarters of the way through the season in Romania’s Liga Nationala, of which Johnson played for the Cluj-Napoca club. His wife, Gina, had already flown home. They haven’t seen each other since Valentine’s Day weekend.
Johnson scheduled a flight to leave in mid-March, when the league suspended play. The night before Johnson’s scheduled flight home, he got a call from his wife at 3 a.m. that the airlines were no longer allowing pets on board because of COVID-19. Without any local arrangements for Kota, the Australian Shepherd they’d fostered a year earlier, Johnson canceled his flight with the idea of booking another. “We didn’t want to abandon him,” Johnson said of Kota.
Travel restrictions soon tightened up, which has led to more than six weeks of delays, dead-ends and mounting frustrations after an inability to book a flight back. The latest news has been that he can fly back June 15, but that date has already been pushed back multiple times.
“It’s come to the point where I’m probably accepting the fact he may not be here for the birth,” Gina Johnson said by phone Thursday night. “I’m preparing for that.”
After he canceled his initial flight in March, he scrambled to find a dog sitter. At the time, their dog sitter couldn’t get to them. (She was staying in a city four hours away and couldn’t travel there due to the lockdown.)
By the time the Johnsons found arrangements for his dog, international travel had been shut down. Gina Johnson is a flight attendant for American Airlines who is fluent in the nuance of travel arrangements. Her days are spent calling airlines and trying to cut through layers of bureaucracy to unlock a solution.
The issue that Kerron Johnson is having is similar to other professional basketball players that he knows scattered across Europe. There are no direct flights from Romania back to the United States. And the restricted international travel rules mean he can’t get on a flight to a city like London, Istanbul or Frankfurt because those are reserved for citizens of those countries.
Gina Johnson woke up at 1 a.m. one morning this week to call the United States Embassy in Romania. She found little empathy, as all the answers were short and the person there didn’t even ask for her contact information in case a solution arose. She’s worried June 15 will become June 30 in a few weeks. “It feels like he’s been abandoned,” she said.
Kerron Johnson is trying to make the best of the situation. He credits Gina for being a “warrior” with the energy she’s brought to finding a solution. But he’s worried about her stress level.
“This is our first child,” he said. “Most of my day is spent trying to keep her nerves down. She just wants me to be home. I’m just trying to keep it together.”
There have been charter flights that have left to other countries that have direct flights to the United States. But Johnson hasn’t figured out a way onto one of them, as he’s not a citizen of those countries. The U.S. Embassy has repeatedly told the Johnsons that they’re not chartering flights back to the United States. “Without a charter or a way to get on a charter, the regular international flights are not going out,” Kerron Johnson said.
Until a solution arises, the Johnsons worry and wait.
“He’s alone in his apartment,” Gina said. “He has no family and no friends in a country where he knows no one. Me, having to be here, I’m enjoying time with my family and friends. And it feels so unfair.”
After Kerron Johnson has missed so many holidays, family events and the births of nieces and nephews because of playing overseas, his wife is worried about the upcoming weeks.
“It’s very sad that he may miss the birth of his own first son because of this pandemic,” she said. “We planned on this baby to be born in the summer on purpose because we knew he would be home during that time while the season was off.”
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