A stray dog lurks around every corner in Turkey. A 2019 article by the New York Times estimated around 130,000 dogs roam free in Istanbul alone.
So when former Texas star opposite Ebony Nwanebu moved there in 2019 for her first professional season, playing for Büyükçekmece Istanbul, her love of dogs only grew with each day she watched strays roam around the city.
Nwanebu never had a dog growing up.
“My dad is Nigerian,” she says, “and African men, they don’t like dogs.”
Growing up in Dallas, Nwanebu was actually afraid of dogs until about age 5, when, like a switch being flipped, she became obsessed with them. An obsession which continued to burn all the way to adulthood and her first pro season in Turkey.
On one away trip, Nwanebu sat in her hotel room Googling pictures of “super cute dogs,” and she discovered goberians — an absolutely adorable mix of a golden retriever and Siberian husky. A second Google search led her to a family in Ohio with a litter of Goberian puppies for sale.
“I saw this one cute little puppy, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have to have him,’ ” Nwanebu said. “Later that day, I gave them my money, which probably was so stupid because it could have been a scam, but it turned out it was real and then two months later I went home and then he came, and now here we are.”
He is Kylo Ren. He cost Nwanebu $695, plus a shipping fee of around $400. “But he’s worth it,” said his devoted owner, whose Instagram story-highlights section titled “Kylo Ren” features somewhere in the range of 80-100 photos and videos. Kylo also has his own Instagram profile @kylothego.
Kylo and Nwanebu spent last summer bonding at home in Dallas and then she left for Italy for her second professional season, this time with Libertas Martignacco, a Serie A2 team based in Udine, an hour northeast of Venice. Kylo arrived 21 days later, and the pair has explored their new home together ever since.
While this sounds like a heartwarming story of a dog-deprived canine lover finally finding her perfect pup companion, coronavirus has put a sad plot twist in the tale of Ebony and Kylo.
Ever since the pandemic hit Italy, and hit it hard, Nwanebu has done her best to stick it out. The Italian league suspended play March 8, saying it would reevaluate April 3, so initially she planned to stay at least until then. Even while other Americans playing in the league booked their flights and got the hell out of Dodge, Nwanebu stayed.
And stayed with Kylo.
“I wanted to stay mainly because I just really wanted to play volleyball,” Nwanebu said, “and the league hadn’t officially closed yet. It’s still not closed. We won’t know until April 3, and so I was like, I’ll at least wait until April 3 to see what happens. If it’s closed, then I’ll go home and if it continues, even better.”
But last week, a friend sent her a tweet posted by California senator Dianne Feinstein that warned Americans to return from overseas as soon as possible. The State Department had issued the highest possible level of travel advisory and said U.S. citizens abroad should arrange to return immediately “unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”
The State Department has issued a warning that U.S. citizens should avoid all international travel due to the global impact of the coronavirus. U.S. citizens traveling overseas should either return to the U.S. immediately or shelter in place where they are. https://t.co/bAhPg5dRc3
— Senator Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) March 20, 2020
“Indefinite is a scary word because that can mean weeks or it could be months,” Nwanebu said.
She sent the Tweet to her agent, Edoardo Vannucci, and told him she wanted to go home as soon as possible. In order to do so, she was forced to break her contract with Libertas, so even if the league somehow returns to play, she won’t be able to return.
Nwanebu will get on a flight in Venice on Tuesday, arriving home Wednesday night. Her nightmare of an itinerary forces her to spend 18 hours in Rome before flying to JFK, one of 13 airports currently accepting passengers from Europe, where she’ll go through coronavirus screening and customs, before finally boarding a flight to Dallas.
Even worse, strict travel restrictions on animals in place at this time require that Kylo stay behind in Italy.
“I have been crying nonstop about this,” Nwanebu said.
She made arrangements with a pet relocation company to send Kylo to the States as soon as the travel ban on pets is lifted. In the meantime, he’ll stay at a pet boarding facility. “He’s like my baby. I’m so sad, but I can’t do anything. Breaks my heart.”
With Kylo, Nwanebu has been sheltered from much of the loneliness that plagues many American athletes living and competing overseas.
“I had like five other roommates last year, but I felt alone,” Nwanebu said of her first season in Turkey. “It’s just weird when you’re in a different country and you don’t speak the language. You can be surrounded by people but feel so disconnected. That was really hard for me.”
This year, with Kylo, it’s “so much better, like 10 times better.”
“(Kylo) can’t talk back to me, but like if I want to talk to him I can,” she said. “He’s always there to listen and if I need to clear my head, we can go on a walk, we can play, we can go to the park. If I didn’t have him, I wouldn’t be outside of my head as much as I am, so he’s good for me in that way.”
Kylo also helped Nwanebu survive the past few weeks of quarantine. Nwanebu took advantage of her extra down time to teach him new tricks, and because she has a dog, she’s allowed to go for walks outside, which are otherwise discouraged by the Italian government and liable to earn you a fine.
“(Kylo’s) like exactly like me as a dog,” Nwanebu said. “He’s just overexcited, so joyful about life. He prances like he’s a princess. He always wants to play, which can be annoying when I come home from training, but if I have a particularly bad day, it’s nice to have a distraction, and he provides that for me. He’s also very good with picking up on my emotions. So if I’m sad, he’ll come to me. If he can tell that I’m annoyed he’ll go do his own thing.”
Once the 6-foot-4 Nwanebu makes it back to the U.S., she’s headed for yet another quarantine — this one in a hotel in Dallas with no Kylo.
“(My mom) told me she’s putting me in a hotel for two weeks when I get home,” Nwanebu said. “She doesn’t want to risk it, I don’t want to risk it because I could have it and not know. So I guess it’s for the better. I’m just going to be bored, but it’s fine.”
In the meantime, she’ll probably finish all six seasons of the British reality TV show Love Island, keep doing yoga, and maybe write a few more blog posts (click here to read her post about life in quarantine). Through her two-week hotel quarantine and beyond, all the way up until their reunion, we can definitely expect lots of mournful Instagram posts featuring precious photos of Mr. Kylo Ren.