Sykes puts COVID nightmare behind him and readies for NBL debut

Keifer Sykes has heard the endless sirens and experienced the fear of living around lethal COVID-19 outbreaks. So when the new South East Melbourne Phoenix import describes his arrival in Australia as "refreshing", he means it.

Sykes started 2020 playing in Milan when two months into his deal cases spread around Italy and the death toll began to capture attention around the world.

"This time last year I signed with Milan and two months later they were the epicentre of the virus. I had to quarantine for about eight days before I could get out [of the country] and that was scary because at that time the virus was new to the world," Sykes said.

"I could feel and see the deaths mounting day after day, then it slowly transferred to the United States."

Phoenix import Keifer Sykes has found comparative sanctuary in Australia after competing across COVID-19 hotspots abroad.

He took up one-month deals in September and October to help Turk Telecom finish their Champions League campaign, then joined Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos, but, with cases spiking, Sykes looked towards safer ground in the NBL.

"I know a lot of people who have had it [COVID-19], I know a lot of people who have died from it, so that's why I say it is refreshing to be over here because you all don't have many cases and I can see how active you all are [about prevention]," Sykes said.

"It's something I've been scared about, it's something I've been navigating through. I navigated through it in Turkey and Greece and I’m navigating through it now in Tasmania."

The 27-year-old Chicago-raised point guard has been here for a month and is currently with his side in Hobart as they await news of whether any of their three opening-round games could be changed due to the active cases in Melbourne and Sydney.

I don't think COVID-19 is the main reason he is here. Despite the riches in China and Europe, the standard of basketball here … will give him a stage to leapfrog to his ultimate goal of the NBA.

The NBL could announce changes to their round one schedule as early as Monday, as closed borders could force some games to be switched around as other codes have done.

Sykes praised how his new club has handled this disruption but he is also aware how dangerous the virus can be when it gets into a team sport setting.

"On the last couple of days of my contract [in Greece], one of my teammates, from my same locker room, had it," Sykes said.

Keifer Sykes, right, with teammate Kyle Adnam.

"Every time you come into the locker room you are worried about what your teammates did last night. Did they go out to eat? All you have to do is go to the grocery store and you could get infected.

"That's what made me say I would look at somewhere safer, especially as I didn't have a long-term contract. So that led me to this little venture here in Australia."

Sykes arrives in the NBL with big wraps as both a harassing ball-defender and a playmaker who leads and creates for his team while possessing explosive scoring ability.

Former NBL MVP Jerome Randle, another Chicago native, and recent Sydney Kings import turned Houston Rockets signing Jae'Sean Tate both pushed Sykes towards the NBL.

Phoenix coach Simon Mitchell had Sykes on his list for several years, since watching him shine during a recruiting trip. In other years it may have been tough to entice Sykes out here but not in 2021.

"He was very aware of COVID-19 and it's something important to him to be in a place that's safe," Mitchell said.

"But I don't think COVID-19 is the main reason he is here. Despite the riches in China and Europe, I feel like the standard of basketball here and the fact he will be in a situation to display all his skill-sets, it will give him a stage to leapfrog to his ultimate goal of the NBA.

"He sets the table really well for his teammate, it's not just the highlights you see. He is a real point guard, he wants his teammates to be successful and then he can go and do what he needs to do on his own as well."

Sykes isn't letting the Phoenix be distracted by the prospect of games being moved or postponed as experience has taught him that the mentally strongest sides are the ones that do best.

"I just try to tell these guys to stay positive, stay together, this is something that is really happening in the world," Skyes said.

"It's affecting us now but stay positive as the teams that handle it the best will be the ones you see at the end of the season."

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