Outside Shots: Foot Injury, China’s Coronavirus Outbreak Won’t Stop Antonio Blakeney

Antonio Blakeney has picked up right where he left off in the Chinese Basketball Association. The former Chicago Bulls guard averaged 32.5 points in his first six games back with the Jiangsu Dragons, after pouring in 36.3 points per outing prior to the CBA’s shutdown.

For Antonio, though, the hot restart has been a longer time coming than most of his peers across the Pacific. Before professional basketball resumed in China, CloseUp360 spoke with Antonio about his extended wait and his perspective on the pandemic from both overseas and at home in Florida. This is his story, in his own words, for our "Outside Shots" series.

I never thought that this would be happening. My plan was to come to China, play basketball, hopefully come back and try to get back in the NBA after getting a buyout from the Chicago Bulls. And then, everything that happened, happened.

I had heard the history of guys who went to China and had great careers there—a guy like MarShon Brooks, who played the NBA. He's a good friend of mine. Obviously, we know Stephon Marbury, the best ever to do it—to play in the NBA and play in China. It's a real good market for guys in China. Guys make a lot of money overseas in China as well. And it's good basketball.

MarShon Brooks played for the Jiangsu Dragons from 2015 to 2018. He pretty much sold me on the coach here. He had a real good relationship with the coach.

I think that me being in the position that I'm in right now, I think me having that option to be able to come over here and play was big for me. So I tried to come over here and play well to build a market for myself, to be able to play basketball somewhere else other than the NBA. Obviously, the main goal is to play in the NBA and that's where I want to ultimately be. But it can be 10 years from now and I can still have this door open for me to come back here and play.

Off the court, it was hard at first because I didn't know where to eat at and how to order. Certain places you go, you gotta have a translator. It was tough. But then I got used to it. I downloaded the translator app on my phone. Stuff just became more natural to me. Obviously, it's not something I'll be doing in the States. I'd never be speaking into a translator in the States, but I just got used to it in my daily life—ordering a different way, eating different food and stuff like that. It was stuff I had to get used to.

On the court, it was a little different. Obviously, all my teammates don't know English. The CBA is a different style of play. It's a real aggressive league. They don't call many fouls here, where the NBA is more like a tic tac; you get fouled, they call it mostly every time. So I had to get used to that.

I definitely adjusted quickly. At first, though, it was hard. A lot of people didn't see all the preseason scrimmaging games. I wasn't playing as well. My first couple scrimmages, I was still getting used to it. I was still getting guys grabbing me. They expect a lot out of you. Obviously, they want you to score the ball. They want you to make plays all game and I had to get used to doing that.

I think my last preseason game, I had like 40 points, 10 rebounds. I told myself before that game just to be aggressive, be aggressive all game—whether it's shooting the ball, driving the ball, passing the ball. Make a play every time I get it. When I started doing that, it became a little easier.

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During my fourth game with Jiangsu, I went up to catch a lob close to the end of the game. I wasn't high enough to dunk, so I tried to lay it up, but I landed all on my left foot. All my weight came down on my left foot, and I felt like crazy, crazy pain. I tried to keep playing, but I could hardly move it. I couldn't walk.

I ended up getting subbed out of the game. I went to the hospital that night and they told me I had a Jones fracture. It was a decision I had to make: either I get surgery or to not get surgery. But I knew if I was to get surgery, I was going to go back to the U.S. for the surgery. I ended up deciding to get surgery. That's why I went home to Florida.

Just talking to our doctors, all the previous athletes in the U.S. who had this injury, they all got surgery. Kevin Durant had it, a lot of guys had it, football players mostly get it, and the vast majority of them get surgery. So I was, like, “I'm not gonna be the one to try to do something different.”

That was the longest injury I ever had. Longest rehab process. Never had anything that serious. Never.

It was hard, one, knowing that I wasn't gonna be able to play basketball for a while. And then, two, at the time, my contract was not guaranteed in China. They had this two-month thing that you had to be here to get your contract guaranteed. At the time, my contract wasn't guaranteed. So I was also worrying about getting cut and not getting paid anymore. I was worrying about that as well. But my team did me a favor and they didn't cut me. They kept paying me. They paid me while I was home and they guaranteed my money and paid me my full salary, even though I got hurt. So that relieved it and made it a little bit easier as well.

At first, we were doing stuff with a machine that they hook you up to and squeeze your muscles really tight. You kind of just do motions with your leg. But then as soon as I got out of the boot, I started doing calf raises, walking, running. We did a lot of AlterG, which is a treadmill that takes weight off your body, so you can run and walk and jump and stuff like that at lighter weight. I did a lot of that and then a lot of defensive slides and running and jumping. It took me about three months and a half until I started feeling regular again.

When the virus was in China, and I wasn't there, I didn't really focus on it because I was in the U.S. at the time, so I wasn't really focusing on it because I wasn't there.

It was January 29. That was the exact date.

I remember because the team was just getting back from Chinese New Year. I was supposed to be going back to China after Chinese New Year.

They booked me a flight to go back to China to finish the season. And right before I was supposed to get on the flight, it was, like, “Nah, stay home because they just postponed the season.”

When I first heard that the Chinese Basketball Association was shutting down, that was surprising. I was, like, “Whoa.” And then, months and months go by and they said it's gonna start back up because they've been shut down for a few months. And then it keeps getting postponed and then they're saying another wave may come in October and all this stuff. So right now, my mind is everywhere with this whole virus thing.

I was still in the U.S. when the NBA shut down. I was with my family in Orlando, but I had to come back to China. I was surprised. I was just, like, “Man, that's crazy.” And then, obviously, Rudy Gobert had caught the virus and that made people take it a little bit more serious. But it was definitely surprising that it came all the way from China to the U.S. I never would've thought in a million years that the NBA will be getting shut down and they might not be able to finish a season. Just never would think that would ever happen. That doesn't even go up on your mind.

Some people were worried about me coming back to China, like, “Man, that's where it started at, you need not go back there.” But I prayed on it and just had to come back out here for business and good faith for my team, because this is my job. At the end of the day, I signed here.

I was talking to people every day in China, getting updates, because at this time there weren’t many cases in the U.S. So I wasn't really worrying about the virus in the U.S. I was more worried about, Okay, I gotta go back to China, where the virus is at, because at the time the virus wasn't really broken out in the U.S. when I was doing all that.

We all agreed on me going back just because it was the right thing to do business-wise and that's how you handle the situation that you're in. I signed a contract for the full season, so I have to finish it. Just like they finished paying me, even though I was hurt. They kept paying me even though the virus came, so I felt like it was the right thing to do to come back and finish the season.

It was right before I left when the virus kind of really broke out in the U.S. and they started shutting everything down. During that time, I was more just worried about going back to China, more worried about going back into it, but then it ended up becoming, like, China was a little bit safer than the U.S. now.

My family wasn't really worried. They were more just trying to convince me that I'll be fine. I was gonna quarantine for 14 days. I was gonna be away from everybody for 14 days. I had to do that when I first got here. And then, during those 14 days, we realized how bad the U.S. was, just waking up every day, getting on your phone and seeing how many cases were in the U.S.

That quarantine probably was the hardest thing I ever did. I’ve never been to jail before, but I can guess that might be what it feels like a little bit. It'd be like locked down in a room all day. You cannot leave the room at all. It was crazy.

I’d wake up. They had breakfast. I would eat. And then I would just play video games all day and talk to friends on FaceTime. And every day, I would do push-ups and sit-ups and stuff like that as well. That was it.

I was playing Madden and 2K. In Madden, I was playing with the Baltimore Ravens to be Lamar Jackson. And in 2K, I would play with the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis is hard to stop and he got shooters around him. I throw Kyle Korver in there, and it's on.

I wasn't really on video games like that. I never really played video games until I came to China. I bought an Xbox and PlayStation, so I could have both and I could play with my friends online.

My friend, Eric, who always beats me, he was quarantining next door. You got to open your door just to grab the food that's in front of your door. Sometimes, we'd be getting the food at the same time, so we could say what's up. But other than that, we couldn't do nothing.

When we got out of quarantine, I played him in 2K and I beat him three times in a row. And he usually always beats me. But I done lost my skills now because I ain't been playing at all.

First thing I did when I got out of quarantine, I couldn't go practice with the team. We practice in this center, and they didn't accept me in the center at first, because I had just come out of quarantine. So I was just going to the recreational gym, just getting up shots every day for like two weeks. And then they ended up accepting me on the 15th of April. Ever since then, I was allowed to practice with the team.

It's pretty regular here. I mean, obviously, everybody wears a mask when they go out and stuff like that. Other than masks, everything else is the same. All the malls are open. You could go sit down and eat. The clubs are open here. Pretty much everything is open.

The thing that's not the same about the U.S. is people don't follow the rules. It's, like, if I was in the U.S., I'd be one of those guys who did follow the rules. I wear my mask and I'll stay inside for the most part. I only go out to go to the grocery store. I wouldn't be partying. So I wouldn't have too much worries because I'd be a guy who is following the rules. Obviously, being here, since it's a little bit more controlled, I guess I am a little safer. But I wouldn't be worried if I was in the U.S. because I know I'd be following the rules.

My thing is, I would just tell people, however serious you do take it, take it more serious than that just because it's always better safe than sorry. Like, at the end of the day, we don't really know what's going on like to the full extent. It's just the world that we live in. But one thing you do know people are dying from it.

It's some young people who might not take it serious because they feel like, Okay, I'm young and I'm healthy. But I would say to that, every young person has young kids around them or they have old people around them. You have old family members, so you don't want to catch the virus and you can't see your kids or you don't want to catch the virus and you can't go see your grandmother. Because you have the virus, you don't want to give it to them.

So it doesn't really matter that you're young and healthy, because you still have family. I would say, just take it serious. It's better to be safe than sorry. Like, who cares if you take it serious and who cares if you quarantine and nothing end up happening? So what? Better safe than sorry in a situation like this. If it was me, that's how I would look at it.

All I do is go to practice and come back to the hotel and chill, or I'll go to the mall and eat. That's pretty much it, though. I don't really go anywhere, other than the hotel, practice and going to grab food.

It's been good. We've been going. We've been going pretty hard, actually. My coach wants us to be ready. I'll be ready. We've been going two-a-days, lifting, all that stuff.

I actually wanted the season to start. I only played four games this year, so I was looking forward to getting back out there and playing.

I always had a positive outlook. I never had any doubt in my mind that I would be back 100 percent, jumping high, playing the same as I always play. I never had a doubt.

I don't know what I'll be doing next season, whether it's CBA, NBA or whatever the case may be, but I definitely want to be able to go show my talent, so I can have options.

Right now, I'm just focusing on getting better and getting my rhythm back, so I can go out there and show the CBA what I can do, show the people in the NBA what I can do, just show everybody what I can do. That I'm the same Antonio Blakeney as before I got hurt.