About a week ago, a US basketball player from Maryland was in Ukraine playing in the international leagues. Little did he know that within days he would urgently start a journey to get back to his home, nearly 5,000 miles away.
Lucious “Lucky” Jones had been playing professional basketball in Ternopil, a town about two hours east of Lviv, for a little over a month.
But early last Thursday, coaches and league officials instructed him to leave the country as Russia began its invasion on Ukraine.
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“My heart dropped,” Lucky told CNN on Monday, “They called and said, ‘Hey, pack your stuff, it’s time to go, they’re bombing.’”
He and three of his teammates – two Americans, one Lithuanian – were the only ones alerted to leave because the other teammates were Ukrainian.
“It was very frustrating because I didn’t know what was going to happen or what I was going to do,” Lucky said.
About 5,000 miles away, in Maryland, was his wife Marissa with their four children – ages 8 and 5, and 2-year-old twins.
She received a phone call from Lucky around 2 a.m. her time. “He said, ‘I gotta get out of here, I’m leaving but I don’t know what’s happening,’” Marissa told CNN on Tuesday.
Over the following days, the couple kept in contact sparingly as Lucky’s cell phone signal was spotty. Marissa said he FaceTimed her when he could.
“He was definitely panicked and scared,” Marissa said. “He said things like, ‘Tell my kids I love them,’ ‘Send me pictures of my kids, I want to see my kids,’ and ‘Make sure they know I love them.’”
Since the war began, groups of Ukrainians have left the country in masses. Some 500,000 have fled to other countries in Eastern Europe, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
At the time, Lucky said, he didn’t hear any explosions or chaos.
But a town that he described as normally relatively quiet was full of people and panic. “That day was different,” Lucky said. “So many people were outside, I knew something was going on.”
“People were going to the grocery store and getting all the food, going to the borders, going to the medical facility to get medicine, going to the bank and taking out their money,” Lucky said.
That morning, the teammates quickly packed their bags, and a few hours later they were picked up by a car to start what would be an exhausting journey home.
They were given no directions, Lucky said, and he wasn’t sure which country they would be traveling to.
‘It was very, very tough on my body and mind’
Their first move was to head to the neighboring country to the west, Poland, as that was the safest option at the time. But when officials told them the borders were closed, the car turned around and headed back into Ukraine.
The next best option was to head south to Romania. As they neared the border, they had to get out of their car and walk a few miles.
The men got hardly any sleep and went to the bathroom outside when they needed to. Lucky said one gas station they came across at 1:30 in the morning was like a lifesaver, as they were able to get a quick bite to eat.
Not only were things exhausting mentally, but physically. Temperatures were freezing and the entire time, they were carrying their bags.
“It was very, very tough on my body and mind,” Lucky said, “I was ready to just break down and go to sleep, but I couldn’t. I had so many things on my mind and so many things to do to get out of there safe and sound.”
And things only became more difficult when they ran into trouble at the border.
Lucky said the border patrol officers were refusing to let them in, as crowds of people were rushing to get across as well. “It was terrifying because we just didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.
Back home, Marissa was trying to do what she could to help Lucky out. She said she called the Romanian Embassy to see what information they could give her about her husband.
“I provided them with information to let them know he and his teammates were at the border and for them to keep a lookout for them,” she said.
Eventually the players were allowed through and they took a train to the capital, Bucharest.
Throughout the journey, the urgency of the evacuation weighed heavily on the basketball players. “Everyone was panicking,” Lucky said, “There was very high emotion.”
After about a six-hour train ride to the capital, the group was able to get a flight out of Romania to Amsterdam, Netherlands, on Friday morning.
There, Marissa said, they were able to get a hotel, which allowed them finally to rest, shower and change their clothes.
Yet another flight took them through Dublin, Ireland, and eventually to the United States.
Nervous family awaits back home
As Lucky traveled through country after country, Marissa was at home trying to stay calm for him and the children.
Their oldest child had an idea of what was happening with the invasion, Marissa said, but she kept everything hidden until she knew Lucky was safe.
“I had to be the calm through the storm,” she said. “I couldn’t panic the kids or him.”
When Lucky crossed the Romanian border, she revealed to her children that their dad was safe, and they were able to talk to him on FaceTime.
Saturday, when Lucky finally landed at Dulles International Airport, he, Marissa, and his entire family were overcome with relief that he was finally on US soil again.
“It was knowing that I was on my way and that my wife will be happy, my kids, my mother and father,” Lucky said.
He met his family outside the airport. “On his way out he ran out to the car and was jumping with excitement,” Marissa said.
Hugs and “I love you’s” were exchanged all around.
Lucky has been on the basketball court since the age of 4 and attended Robert Morris University until 2015. Professionally he’s played for multiple teams, including in Finland, Greece and Belgium.
But right now, Lucky said, he is going to focus on training and coaching kids in the sport rather than his own skills. This leaves his basketball career up in the air for now, as the situation continues to weigh heavy on him.
“I’m not really focused on basketball right now as far as myself, because this was a real traumatic experience,” he said.
While he’s home safe with his family, Lucky said, he thinks of his friends and teammates in Ukraine.
“It’s a sad situation,” he said. “I just hope that all my friends and teammates that are over there and their families – that it is a lot better (than) when we first left.”