CHICAGO — When Chicago Sky forward Elizabeth Williams returned in February to her offseason club, CBK Mersin, she was met with devastation.
Williams was in the process of moving from Washington to Chicago when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the border between Turkey and Syria, where millions of displaced Syrian refugees had fled from one calamity to another.
The disaster elicited an immediate flood of concerned calls and messages from friends and family worried for Williams’ safety. Updates from teammates in Turkey quickly followed with more stark news: The death toll included Turkish basketball player Nilay Aydoğan, who played for Çankaya Üniversitesi.
After years of playing in the Turkish Women’s Basketball Super League, Williams said the crisis struck her and her teammates regardless of their home countries.
“Everybody knew somebody,” Williams said. “That first week was the hardest, that first practice. It was really emotional.
“Mentally, having basketball has been really helpful because it’s kind of a step away, but it’s just been a lot. Grief has no timeline, so everybody’s just trying to readjust as best as possible.”
Most of Williams’ Mersin teammates were on vacation or playing with their national teams during a break in the schedule, which kept them away from the epicenter. But the sprawling toll affected every member of her team — Turkish or otherwise — as more than 56,000 people were killed and millions more displaced from their homes.
As she returned to Turkey for the resumption of the season, Williams said the destruction was impossible to fathom.
“A lot of us have played in Turkey for a really long time, so there are ties there that are kind of hard to explain,” Williams said. “It’s just so close to home and we spend so much time here.”
The earthquake and its fallout didn’t garner long-term attention in the U.S., but Williams said the devastation expands far beyond the epicenter as cities throughout southern Turkey continue to support refugees.
“For Turkish people, it’s all the same whether it was Istanbul or Ankara,” Williams said.
In the weeks following the earthquake, Mersin — the city where Williams plays — became a focal point for refugees.
CBK Mersin responded to the influx of need in its city, using games as an outlet for donations of shoes for children fleeing to the city.
“These people lost everything, so even just having shoes on their feet is a win,” Williams said.
The weight of the earthquake will be something Williams and her teammates carry with them throughout this season. The league dedicated its season to Aydoğan, whose name will be displayed on every team’s jerseys. And teams will continue to organize fundraisers and donation drives through organizations such as the Ahbap Association.
On and off the court, Williams hopes this focus on community will allow Mersin and teams throughout the league to offer relief as the Turkish people continue to recover.
“As basketball players, all we can really do is raise money and play our best to represent Mersin and give people something to look forward to every day,” Williams said. “That’s been the mentality that we’ve had and that’s what our coaches have brought to us as a reminder, that the best we can do is to be our best.”