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'They're like family': After season in Ukraine, Dallas-sprung WNBA players Joyner Holmes, Ariel Atkins worry for safety of Ukrainian former teammates

"You see these cities in Ukraine that you've been to, and they're all just destroyed. You didn't see them like that when you left. It's really heartbreaking."

DALLAS — Joyner Holmes and Ariel Atkins have shared many experiences over the years.

Former high school superstars at Cedar Hill and Duncanville respectively, they united in college at the University of Texas. And they were both drafted to the WNBA -- Atkins went seventh overall in the 2018 draft to the Washington mystics, and Holmes went 19th overall in the 2020 draft to the Seattle Storm.

Even off the court, when these professional basketball players find themselves back in North Texas, they still often cross paths.

"We go to the same church here at home," Holmes says.

Trips back to Dallas are a rarity for the pair, however. 

Now at 25 years old, Atkins is an all-star and WNBA champion with an Olympic gold medal. 

Holmes, meanwhile, has carved out a nice career in the league through stints with the Storm, the New York Liberty and the Las Vegas Aces. This coming WNBA season, the 24-year-old will enter training camp with the Connecticut Sun.

Like most WNBA players -- including star Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who is currently detained in Russia -- Atkins and Holmes play also overseas during the league's offseason.

"It's crazy," Holmes said. "Never in my life, I was telling my mom the other day, would I have thought Ariel and I would play in Ukraine."  

In August, though, these North Texas natives did just that, reuniting to play a season for BC Prometey, a basketball club in Ukraine. Things were going pretty well for the pair, too -- until Jan. 28, when Atkins and Holmes flew home for winter break. 

While back in North Texas, the U.S. Embassy notified them of a travel restriction on their plans to return to Ukraine.

So, instead, they decided to rejoin their team in Bulgaria for the EuroCup tournament with plans to play in their next game game on Feb. 24 -- the same day Russia invaded Ukraine.

"It's kind of hard to watch stuff on the news," Holmes said. "You see these cities in Ukraine that you've been to, and they're all just destroyed. You didn't see them like that when you left. It's really heartbreaking.

"Just seeing these videos, and these people in the streets running, and these kids running with their moms... it's just heartbreaking. It's so hard to watch. And to think that I was literally just there. I know what these cities look like. I know what they're supposed to look like. And now Kyiv is literally into shreds. It's crazy."

As a show of unity and support, Holmes, Atkins and their entire team wore Ukrainian flags during player introductions for that February 24 game. It was an emotional scene as many of their teammates were in tears, with no way to contact their friends and family back in Ukraine.

"It really hurt my heart," Holmes said. "Just trying to be there for them as much as possible... Even though you can't really experience what they're feeling, you kind of know. Because you know these people.

"I have two teammates who have husbands there, and they don't know if they're going to have to enter the war or not. [They're] just scared. These people are scared. They show me real-life pictures of people sleeping in the subway because that was the safest place to sleep a couple weeks ago."

This past weekend, Atkins and Holmes flew back to Dallas. Their Ukrainian teammates, meanwhile, have taken refuge in Poland.

"I'm just glad they've been able to get in contact with their families and figure out what's going on with them," Holmes said. "A lot of their families are in really safe places, so that's really good."

Even with thousands of miles currently separating Holmes and Atkins from their teammates, these North Texan athletes' thoughts are still focused on the well-beings of their fellow players and their families. 

"Y'know, you grow to love, learn to love these people," Holmes said. "They're like family to us."

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