It was March 8th 2020 a date that Crailsheim Merlins fans won´t forget so quickly. The 2019-2020 easyCredit BBL Cinderella team Crailsheim Merlins were playing possibly their best basketball of the season as they came back home into the always boisterous arena Hohenlohe meeting 8 time BBL champion Alba Berlin who had beaten them 5 weeks earlier with ease. In the big winning streak, the Crailsheim Merlins had pulled off two squeakers on the road in Frankfurt winning 83-81 and nipping the Hamburg Towers in exciting fashion 92-91. A big strength to the success of the Crailsheim Merlins this season has been their team play and being able to get the job done night in and night out, but you have to put in the work. ““I don’t think there’s really a secret. Our team just works hard. We’re just trying to be at our best every day”, warned Dewayne Russell But another reason for their success stands only at 180cm´s tall. His name is DeWayne Russell who has had to prove himself since entering Peoria High School in 2008 and the chip he has had for years is still there, but all his hard work has payed off. He has had to pay his dues since being a standout at the little known Grand Canyon State University (NCAA) where he averaged 21.2ppg, 3.8rpg, 5.4apg, 1.5spg, FGP: 40.2%, 3PT: 39.7%, FT: 75.8% as a senior. I truthfully thought it was a school at the Grand Canyon, but actually it´s in Phoenix, Arizona. He had to grind in the competitive second division in France with Nancy as a rookie and arrived in Germany last season with the Crailsheim Merlins and had a very solid season averaging 11.3ppg, 2.1rpg, 4.2apg, FGP: 50.0%, 3PT: 37.0%, FT: 75.0%. But this season he made another step continuing to improve his game and stats averaging 14.5ppg, 2.8rpg, Assists-3(6.4apg), 1.2spg, FGP: 50.0%, 3PT: 36.5%, FT: 78.9%. Last season he got crushed by Alba Berlin losing by 39 points in the first contest scoring 7 points and in the second game lost by 36 points, but still contributing well scoring 16 points. So here he was back on the main stage and staring at an 0-3 lifetime record against Alba Berlin. He also was facing top players like Luke Sikma, ex NBA player Tyler Cavanaugh and 2 time NCAA champion with Uconn Niels Giffey. Not to mention at the point guard position none other than Peyton Siva who won a NCAA title at Louisville and balled in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons. After 40 minutes the Crailsheim Merlins had accomplished seemingly the unbelievable beating Alba Berlin 92-81 and one of the best players on the floor that day was Dewayne Russell. He finished with a masterful 22 points, 12 dimes and 3 boards and was playing his best basketball of his career. In the 5 game winning streak he was averaging 23 points and 7 assists and was finally getting some respect from his peers. But then the COVID-19 crisis hit Germany shutting down basketball, but at least he had a nice memory of beating Alba Berlin the last months. He must of wondered how the season of the Merlin´s and his would of finished had COVID-19 not struck, as now as the BBL gets ready to close out the season, nothing will be the same like 2 months ago. “Honestly, the entire game has been a blur to me with everything going on. With the quarantine, it will be tough to come back playing at that level right away. It will take some time. I definitely felt like I was playing the best basketball of my career. At the same time, I do see a lot of room for improvement and I’m excited to take the next steps to get better”, warned DeWayne Russell.
When COVID-19 hit, the Crailsheim Merlins were playing excellent basketball having a 15-6 record and were resting in third place. What has been amazing with the success of the Crailsheim Merlins this season is how they have managed to be so successful. On paper, they surely weren´t a playoff team, but that didn´t bother any of the players as some exceeded expectations something the club couldn´t do last season. The team had more talent last season and had so much more experience with 6 players above the 30 year old mark. “This years team has a lot of talent. Last years team had more experience with the older guys but this years team is much younger and just as talented”, added Dewayne Russell. But last years team just wasn´t able to gel and play together and consistently, but this year´s team is totally different. They usually had a 9 man rotation, but six players averaged double figures. That demonstrates a team that is unselfish and enjoys sharing the ball. The idea that the club needs to rely too much on the starting five to be consistent isn´t something that the club listens to or is afraid of. “We don’t look at it as a starting 5, we look at it as a collective whole. We all play together at some point during the game”, stated Dewayne Russell. Not to forget a lot of the players have no BBL experience and came from lower leagues, but that didn´t haunt head coach Tuomas Iisalo who took what he had on the court and quickly formed it into a winning culture. The coach is a candidate for coach of the year at the present moment. “He has been great for the entire club. He is more than just a good basketball coach, he is a great leader, mentor and developer”, stressed Dewayne Russell.
Instead of having been able to take the momentum of the Alba Berlin victory and sail into the BBL playoffs with confidence, the team now will get together two months later seemingly an eternity since the magic moment of beating Alba Berlin and have to find some kind of a rhythm and also integrate 2 new players with Germans David Brembly and Marvin Ogunsipe. Dewayne Russell never returned back to the States, but remained in Germany during the whole Coronavirús crisis. Just like so many other people in the world, he also didn´t expect COVID-19 to shut down the whole world. It hasn´t been an easy time for the American being away from home, but he just has been trying to keep a positive attitude and be aware and conscious of his surroundings. “I just stayed home and followed the rules. Crailsheim is a pretty quiet city, so I didn’t really feel like there was a big difference in daily life aside from not being able to go play basketball for a few weeks. I’ve been talking to my family every day so I keep up through them. I think my daily life is affected because I can’t go to the gym or have practice and routine. I’ve never really shut my body down like this before so the rest has been good but I’m ready for what comes my way. I started going on walks and runs so it was good to get moving”, stressed Dewayne Russell. One thing that has been preoccupying his vast amount of free time in the last months of non basketball has been the great season that the Merlins was having. He was at an all-time high beating Alba Berlin and 4 days later at an all-time low learning that the season had been postponed. “I was devastated because we were on a run and all the guys were so ready for the next stretch. We also wanted to compete and finish what we started”, expressed Dewayne Russell. The American who stayed in contact most with Bamberg guard Paris Lee during the lock down watched a lot of news about COVID-19 and read a lot on line and had a lot of time to wonder about the future, but knows that he can´t get to wrapped up about something he can´t control. “I’m remaining positive about the situation in hopes that teams can recover or be unaffected by CO-VID. I’m just going to handle what is in front of me now and continue to be positive”, explained Dewayne Russell. He also knows that having had the COVID-.19 crisis and the season being delayed will also play into his preparations for next season. “It will be tough but I know I can do it. Mentally I’m strong, I just have to get my body there physically. The disadvantages are being away from our families, high injury risk and just the overall well being of each person included during this pandemic”, stressed Dewayne Russell. Even if the whole COVID-19 experience has been tough for Russell, he did take in something very valuable. “. I’ve learned how much I value family and friendship”, said Dewayne Russell.
Russell along with guys like Josh Young of Rasta Vechta and Lamont Jones of the Fraport Skyliners are some of the few Americans that stayed in Germany during the COVID-19 crisis while most other Americans went home. Most leagues cancelled their seasons in Europe, but the easyCredit BBL was very adamant from the get go that they wanted to continue their season in some way despite the possible health hazards and risk of injury. “I understand the business and financial side of things and that makes the situation tough. But in a time of a pandemic, it’s hard for players to be away from their families”, added Dewayne Russell. The American wasn´t to happy at first about how the BBL handled the situation about continuing the season as the players seemed to have no say in the matter, but he let some time pass and saw that the league was doing it´s best for all. “My initial reaction was out of anger and frustration because I felt like we didn’t have a voice but the BBL has done a great job in handling this tough situation with so much uncertainty”, said Dewayne Russell. But as COVID-19 dragged on and on, one could feel that more and more players like TJ DiLeo of the Telekom Baskets Bonn or Niels Giffey of Alba Berlin were uncomfortable with the notion of playing with so much uncertainty coupled with the risk of injury, infection and being away from home” I think the majority of us all feel the same about being away from our families and risking our health. I’m not a big numbers guy but I’m pretty sure everyone I’ve talked to has had fear about the uncertainty of this situation. But we understand the business”, warned Dewayne Russell. Most clubs will have guys not returning like a Killian Hayes of ratiopharm Ulm and the Crailsheim Merlins won´t have back big man Aaron Jones who was having a magnificent season and will be missed. “I have the ultimate respect for AJ. He has two little girls and a wife to look after. I completely support his decision”, stressed Dewayne Russell. It is no secret that many basketball clubs won´t come out of COVID-.19 unscathed, so finishing the season and keeping the sponsors on the leash is a common goal for the clubs. But at the same time there is the argument from the players standpoint that the business side seems more important than common health and well being of the players. “I think that has a lot to do with it, I don’t think we should hide that fact. It’s easy for players to only see our side and the club to only see their side but we have to come to agreement”, warned Dewayne Russell.
The BBL and 17 teams had a video conference on April 27th and came to agreement that 10 teams would finish the season in a type of tournament format. There will be two groups of 5 teams. They will play each other twice which will be followed by a best of 3 playoffs quarterfinals, semi-finals and final. The games will all be played in a neutral site Munich in a span of 3 weeks in June. The players also will feel like they are playing scrimmages, because there will be no fans in attendance. ” I understand the precautions have to take for the safety of everyone. But the crowd has a huge impact of the energy of the game and makes it much more exciting to play”, stated Dewayne Russell. He also knows that the Crailsheim Merlins will be a different teams as some guys won´t even be there as well as having to integrate two new players. The club will have to generate new magic, but that won´t be easy. “It will be hard knowing what we had but unfortunately this is the situation we are in. All players are risking injury and it will be hard to get in a rhythm. We will just have to take it on as it comes”, commented Dewayne Russell. The good news for every team is that it will be like a new season with each team having had the same amount of team preparation time and they are all in a situation that is totally new. Russell is more than optimistic that the Crailsheim Merlins will be able to shine now like they did before COVID-19. “Every time I step out on the floor my objective is to win. So I expect us to do whatever it takes to win the tournament. I understand it will be hard but it’s just something we have to do. I think for Munich it’s a big advantage. We are playing where they always play”, stressed Dewayne Russell. Another big challenge will be the living conditions for the 3 week tournament in Munich. All teams will sleep under the same roof with extreme quarantine restrictions. “It will be a tough situation. I do think that we will find a way to keep ourselves busy. I think that at a time like this players will use the time to get to know each other . Once we step on the court of course the competitive spirt will be back but off the court I think we will get to know each other better”, warned Dewayne Russell. It also will be a great opportunity for Russell and Paris Lee to get away from the usual season texting on WhatApp and meet in the hotel bar for a coke and peanuts.