CHARLOTTESVILLE — The silence was the scariest part.
Locked in the bomb-proof room in his apartment in the Israeli city of Rishon LeZion, former Virginia basketball star Akil Mitchell knew what was happening outside. Missiles launched from Palestine at Tel Aviv and other nearby cities were exploding in the air, intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, debris raining down on buildings and cars.
But as he tried to sleep at night, Mitchell could hear none of it, the steel doors and windows rendering the room virtually sound proof, the sirens and the booms kept at bay.
“You’re just in a dark room, hoping you make it through the night,” said Mitchell, who played for Virginia from 2010-14.
Like a number of former UVA basketball players, Mitchell has made a career playing professionally overseas. There are currently 10 ex-Cavaliers on international rosters. Mitchell has spent time in Australia, France, Italy, New Zealand, Panama and now Israel.
At 28 years old, he’s already on his second passport.
“I wanted to play overseas, but I never could have imagined it would literally take me everywhere,” said Mitchell. “It’s been amazing. Not too many people get the opportunity to say they spent most of their 20s traveling the world.”
Even fewer have experienced the historic events Mitchell has seen. He was in Italy in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The country soon became a hot spot for the virus.
A neighbor he knew died and a riot broke out at a nearby prison over fear of infection. Mitchell drove himself to neighboring Slovenia and got on the first flight home he could find.
Another former Cavalier, Darion Atkins, was playing in Hamburg, Germany, when the pandemic hit.
“It was pretty crazy. No one knew what was going on and how serious it was. There was so much fear and panic,” said Atkins, a UVA player from 2011-15. “‘We want to get home.’ That was everyone’s main focus that I knew from all the Americans.”
Players and teams quickly negotiated settlements for the remaining money on contracts and the cost of returning to the U.S. Some players Atkins knew left without either, leaving behind their paychecks and paying their own ways home, eager to beat a potential closed-border situation.
Atkins got home to the Washington D.C. area in March 2020, and spent nearly six months in the states, before returning overseas, first to Greece and then Turkey.
With a wife and two young children to support, Atkins was eager to get back to work.
“It’s been a great journey,” said Atkins. “An eye-opener to see the world, experience different cultures, different people. People think we just come over, play games and go back home, but we spend so much of our time of each year in these different countries. We become residents of that country.”
Playing in Israel was Atkins’s favorite career stop to this point. He was there during a time of relative peace in the region.
Mitchell’s experience has been decidedly different, yet he too has fallen in love with the country.
The outbreak in violence in the country has been “terrifying” for Mitchell, a self-proclaimed “history nerd” and geopolitical enthusiast. He knew of the region’s war-torn history, but even as teammates showed him how to secure himself in a bomb shelter during his first week in Israel, the threat didn’t seem real.
That changed in early May.
“We were on the court the day before the game. Our GM runs out on the court and was like, ‘Everybody. There’s sirens. Get to the bomb shelter,’” said Mitchell. “And in my mind, it just didn’t register. But all the Israelis starting hauling a— off the court. I was just walking. I was at half-court. By the time I got to the baseline, you could hear the booms start. At first it sounded like thunder. And then you realize, these are bombs. Rockets being fired at us.”
He spent nearly a full week sleeping in the dark and silence of his apartment’s bomb shelter, leaving only for practice and games, “speeding through red lights to get to the gym.”
But even after experiencing some of the worst fighting in the Middle East region in years, the country has a tremendous appeal — its beaches, its food, its weather and its basketball.
In fact, Mitchell said he’s considering an option to return to Maccabi Rishon Le-Zion next season. He played well for the team, approaching career highs in points and rebounds, and gained popularity by staying on the roster when the fighting broke out and many other American players left the country.
That prompted the team to tweet, praising Mitchell “for standing tall and believing in us during this difficult times that our country had to endure. Your dedication to your teammates, the club, the fans and the city of Rishon speaks volumes to the remarkable person you are. Thank you for putting your trust in us, showing us courage, loyalty and endless fight. Your contribution and actions will not be forgotten.”
Mitchell said his “heart breaks” for people who’ve lost their lives on both sides of the conflict, particularly civilians killed during everyday life by “terrorist, and that’s what Hamas is” or by Israel “defending itself.”
“I felt relatively safe and that’s part of the reason I stayed when some of my other teammates decided to go,” said Mitchell. “I would go back.”