There have been close calls and false starts. Times when his bags were packed and Kerron Johnson was ready to go to the airport and board a plane to take him wherever it was going, as long as the end of his journey would get him back to the United States.
It has gone on for months now: the researching of flights, calling of embassies and trying to figure out how, exactly, he is going to get home after playing professional basketball in Romania. It has been a source of stress and frustration for him and his family, including his younger brother, Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson, and his now eight-months-pregnant wife, Gina, back in Huntsville, Alabama.
“At least five or six times, I thought I was going to be able to get on a flight or book a flight, and it’s just not been there anymore,” Kerron said Saturday from Cluj-Napoca, Romania. “Maybe even more than that, but five or six times where I thought, ‘I’m really getting out this time.’
“But how many times have you looked at a flight one day, went to book it the next day, and it’s just gone? A lot. A lot.”
All the while, the couple’s due date the week of July 21 is starting to creep up. Kerron is comforted by the fact that both of their families are close by and helpful -- the two met when they were in high school -- should he not be able to get back in time for the birth of their child.
Of course, none of this was the initial plan. Kerron and Gina thought he’d be home by now. Before the coronavirus pandemic, they thought Gina would return to Romania at the end of March, and they’d be together when Kerron’s season resumed.
This all started soon after Kerron played what ended up being his final game of the season for Cluj-Napoca club in a FIBA Europe Cup game on March 11. He scored 17 points in a 100-87 loss to Medi Bayreuth in Germany in a game with no fans in attendance.
The team returned to Romania as the coronavirus began to spread. On March 13, the team’s Romanian season was suspended, and Kerron and his teammates began to search for ways home. Gina, a flight attendant, booked Kerron and their dog, Kota, on a flight.
Then, at 3 a.m., Kerron received a call. They wouldn’t let Kota fly, so Gina and Kerron made the decision to have Kerron stay and take a different flight so they didn't have to abandon their dog.
“Just couldn’t leave him behind,” Kerron said. “A lot of people told me to, but he’s part of our family.”
Kerron and Kota waited for an option. They went on long walks as Romania shut down, figuring it’d be a week or two, and then either the pandemic would slow or they’d be able to find a way back to the United States.
The situation worsened. Borders around the world shuttered. Romania declared a state of emergency on March 16. Kerron kept searching for flights, only to find them nonexistent or canceled. Romania extended its state of emergency for 30 days in April. There was another extension after that and, now, a state of alert.
Kerron and Gina thought they found a Turkish Airlines flight to get him and Kota home. Canceled. Kerron considered driving to a country with direct flights to the United States, but he’d have to go through multiple borders -- if he could get through -- with no guarantees of a flight taking off. Then he’d be stranded in an even tougher position.
“It’s just been so frustrating on so many turns and so many disappointments, but yeah, we talk about it,” Kerron’s father, Kerry, said. “What options, I think we’ve explored almost every option that we can.”
Meanwhile, Gina was getting closer to her due date. They had communicated via FaceTime before, during some of Kerron’s other pro stops, but this was different. They are married. She is pregnant. Kerron had to find a way home.
Kerron found a sitter who could take Kota long-term so he could jump on a flight on short notice. There’s a possibility that when flights open, it might take longer for pets to travel, and at this point, Kerron needs to get home.
Kerron said that if he has to leave separately, they’ll send for Kota once pet transportation is available. Worst case, they’ll send for him once they figure out where Kerron will be playing next season.
“I could just see the stress that it was taking on [Gina],” Kerron said. “The pandemic is stressful enough, and pregnancy is stressful enough. Once we found a good option, once we found somebody that we knew would care for [Kota] until we could get him home, it was, ‘OK, I need to be there for my wife and kid. How can I make that happen?’
“It wasn’t an easy choice. Obviously, it never is. But we made it together.”
With Kota situated, Kerron and Gina continued to look for flights. Kerron said they contacted the United States embassy in Romania and received little assistance, other than being told that there were no charter flights to the United States.
On Saturday, a Department of State official said they are “closely monitoring the conditions in Romania and around the world.” The official, who declined to speak about Kerron’s situation due to privacy concerns, said they are working to find “transportation options for U.S. citizens seeking to return to the United States” but urged citizens abroad to seek commercial transportation if available.
On Memorial Day, there was a flight from Romania to Montgomery, Alabama, for a Romanian medical team and a radiological, biological and chemical decontamination team to assist with COVID-19 efforts. A state department official said Monday that there were not believed to be any civilians allowed on that flight.
Kerry said he thought his son might make it home May 29, but they were told two days earlier that the flight wouldn’t happen, either.
“He’s a little reluctant to give us updates now because he doesn’t want to get our hopes up,” Kerry said. “He’s trying to look out for us, and we’re trying to look out for him.”
Kerron has texted with other international basketball friends in similar situations, searching for flights with the same response: “Nope.” He has otherwise stayed in touch with his family and his wife. Conversations with his brother, Kerryon, have largely been normal and often come through playing XBox together from a continent away.
“It’s actually refreshing,” Kerryon said. “It’s a normal conversation. It’s not about everything that’s going on.”
Kerron went public about his plight in a story Friday on Yahoo Sports. Both Kerry and his son said that if this story helps someone stranded get home -- whether it's Kerron or another American -- they’ll be happy. Since Friday, they’ve heard from other Americans stuck in Romania and trying to figure out the same thing: how to get home.
Kerron still isn’t sure when that will be for him. He thinks he found a charter flight home on June 6. So he's preparing all of his belongings to head home. If not, he’s hoping something happens once commercial flights are scheduled to reopen in Romania in mid-June. But it has all been pushed back before.
When Kerry sees his son again, he said it’ll be “relief and joy” because of the months they’ve spent apart. On Kerron’s long journey home, it has all been an unknown.
“I don’t know what to call it,” Kerron said. “I think it’s just a part of life now. I think life has changed, is permanently changed. You can call it a journey if you like, but for me, I’m just trying to get home. I just want to get home.”