I was inspired to write this piece because I still have yet found any articles that truly give people the rare glimpse into the life of an overseas professional basketball player that it justly deserves. With this now being my third season playing overseas, I have gained enough insight that goes into the business side as well as endured plenty of personal experiences. Not to mention exchanging of stories by other basketball players and their trails and tribulations. I can now fully depict what living abroad truthfully consists of and what set of skills you will need to survive and prosper. At first I thought I would be able to fit everything I wanted to say into one entry. However, once I started getting into my writing zone (its an amazing feeling by the way) and then recognizing how many more topics there were to discuss I had to break it down into two parts. I didn’t want it to be too long and bore some of my readers. I always want my blogs to be entertaining and informative but at the same time not feel like a homework assignment. Yes we are blessed to be in a unique situation that puts us in a category that a small number of people will ever be part of. But at moments this standard of living can get lonesome, frustrating, depressing and if your not careful especially dangerous. But if you do go about it the right way, using basketball to travel the world can be an awesome experience.
So, you think you can play overseas huh?
What’s really annoys me sometimes is when my friends or even random guys who haven’t played seriously ball in years comes up to me and be like, “Man I’m trying to go play overseas, can you hook me up?” I know they don’t know any better and is just trying to see if I can help them out, but I always have to break it to them that teams just aren’t signing American players easily like that. Believe it or not but the legit basketball teams overseas do extensive research on players now. These clubs just don’t randomly sign people without doing background checks. They want to view recent game film, look at medical records and they also want to know if you ever had a criminal record too. Sometimes they even fly to the states to watch guys play first hand in various camps and in the NBA summer leagues.
The other misconception about overseas basketball is that everybody thinks they can play overseas; it takes a little more than just being able to hoop. This assertion is intended for everybody on any level of basketball, not just the guys playing at 24 hour or LA fitness either. Just like some overseas players (American or European born) wouldn’t be able to play/adapt to the NBA, some NBA players wouldn’t be able to play overseas as well. I have heard of several stories of NBA players making an attempt and being back on a plane to the states before they even completed a whole season. The pace and especially some of the coach’s philosophies take a while to get accustomed to, that’s if you ever get accustomed to them. At times I still question whatever or not if I can play in this kind of basketball style. I’m not going to let that from stopping me from making the best of it though. Compared to America, I think they play dirtier in Europe. Me theory is what the players lack in skill they try to make it up by playing dirty and flopping all the time. Instead of trying to make an effort to play defense, they try more to see what they can get away with without being caught by the refs. It’s equivalent to playing against 2 or 3 flopping Manu Ginobli’s on the court every game. Flopping is ten times worse overseas, here are some videos of what I have to deal with almost every game. Combine the flops with how atrocious the officiating can get at times, and you might start to sense everybody is in cahoots together. I know there is no such thing as a perfect referee but the things I seen these refs call (or lack there of) makes me think they’re placing bets on the side or something. Let’s not forget there was a referee scandal in the NBA some years ago, so why would I not be surprised if it was going on anywhere else in the world?
Location, location, location…
I cannot stress enough that were “living” in these countries not "visiting". People (not all) for some reason look at what we do as a basketball vacation because they know eventually we will be back to America. True we will be back, but what were doing is relocating our whole lives into a foreign place. A vacation is something you go on for a month (or less) at a time. Now that I have cleared that confusion up, let us continue. To me, the location of the team you play for while overseas is just as important as how much you’re going to get paid. All teams are not located in big, heavy populated cities. If you’re caught playing for a team in the middle of nowhere, the potential isolation (I like to call it the basketball jail complex) if not handled properly can inevitably have an affect on the way you perform on the court and off. You have to be extremely mentally strong to last under such mentally draining conditions. My advice is to start a couple new hobbies to stay occupied. Last season I was told a story about Shawn Kemp and his very short trip to Italy. This story happened maybe five or six years ago, but the relevance still rings true to this day. The team he signed to play for was located in Montegranaro (a small town located on a mountain). On his second day upon arrival Shawn walked into their small, old, run down gym and with that (and other things I'm sure) he got on the next plane headed back to America. Now I played on that same team and it wasn’t too bad, then again I did have a year under my belt from already playing in another small town the season before. It’s located maybe 20 minutes away from the sea and Shawn wasn’t there probably long enough to find that out maybe. The gym he saw was the practice gym (we didn't practice there all the time) and not where the games were held, but I can still see how walking into it would still not make you want to return.
From asking different players and agents who’s been around the European circuit for a while, the most popular countries you would want to play basketball in (most competitive wise) would be: Spain, Italy, Turkey and Greece. If you play outside of Europe (not including the USA) for some reason you can be looked down upon as damaged goods. Why? I have no clue. Only thing I can think of is maybe they feel if you play elsewhere then possibly you wasn’t good enough to be in Europe in the first place. In any case many guys could care less about the competition level overseas anyway because they just want to get paid and they will go wherever the money takes them. If you wasn't aware there were quiet a few current NBA players that went to play in China during the NBA lockout (some went to play in europe too). I know for a fact that they went strictly for the money and not for the competition. There's another reason as well but you got to wait until part two. :-) I mean if you really think about it, in ten years or twenty years our jersey won’t be hanging up in the rafters over there anyways; I haven't seen a retired jersey in a arena yet. Unless you win a championship then your name might be mentioned from time to time, other than that you will be an afterthought in due time.
As I said earlier, money is the main motivation why guys go overseas. Even though I love playing basketball and using it to make money, I do care about my safety and protection even more. Just in case you aren’t familiar with the dangerous conditions basketball players do face when they live in another country. Here I present two examples of basketball players who were caught in very unfortunate situations while overseas: Chauncey Hardy, Tony Harris.
Getting paid to play basketball
In the end, the only reason any American basketball player would go overseas to leave behind their family and friends for 8 or 9 months at a time is because they’re trying to get paid for playing basketball. Once your college basketball career has ended, you have only a couple options (typically in this order) to use basketball as a means of income: 1) Get drafted or get signed to play in the NBA; all players in the league make at least six figures. 2) You can try your luck in NBDL (and hope to get into the NBA that way); the most you could earn in a season there is $24,000. I played one season in the NBDL and I told myself I wouldn't go back, the players simply don't get paid enough there. The only reason anybody would stay there and play for more than one season is because you don’t want to go play overseas (still chasing the NBA dream) or you can’t get any offers to go overseas. Your next/last option is 3) hop on a plane and play somewhere overseas and try your luck there. The money you earn overseas is in a much more broader range, the lowest I have heard an American player making is $80,000 (a season) and the most a little over a million dollars (a season). So playing around in the NBDL to chase a dream for the NBA while there’s a lot of money overseas to be had. Makes you start to put things into perspective, especially when you got bills and kids to take care of. We all know that athlete’s bodies get older, not younger, and the window of opportunity to earn income by playing basketball is only getting smaller by the day. So it would be wise to take advantage of making money of this magnitude while you can because you won't be able to do it forever. I’m surely not ready for the real world yet, once you cross over that line there’s no coming back. If you take more than two years off from basketball its very difficult to find a basketball gig again overseas.
I think I have a pretty good idea on how the money payments are dealt with overseas now. I’m sure it might or might not differ from country to country but this is what I gathered up so far while in Italy. First thing I realized is that teams are always trying to find ways not to pay taxes on the money they give the players. Over here, the rules are that the teams have to pay the taxes on the money not the players (as we have to do in America). But for some reason that still doesn’t stop Uncle Sam from finding a way into my pockets when its time to file taxes in the states. Anyways, since the clubs are always trying to cut corners and avoid not paying taxes on all of the money, they generally pay players in two ways. One of the payments is called the “image” and the other is the “league” payment. The image amount is always the bigger amount compared to the league payments you received. The reason for that is because the image money is the money the teams are not paying taxes on. The image is always transferred into your American bank account. Whereas the league payments have to go through the league (of that particular country) and you can accept that with a check or they can transfer that into your American account too.
If you play overseas long enough you will have a story or two to tell about a team being late or trying to screw you over with the money. Now this doesn’t take place in every country but the percentage is still pretty high nonetheless. I really wish that this wasn’t the case because I would love to just focus on winning basketball games and not why is this team messing with my livelihood. For example, until last month (Jan ‘12) I was still owed money from the first team I ever played with in Italy, that was back in 2009-10. Teams tend to be on average maybe one, two, three months late with the image payments. The league payments is different story, those tend to be more on time because like I said earlier it goes through the league and the team will get in trouble if they're late with paying the players those. Let's say a team lingers you on with promises and guarantees and so you wait and wait and wait who knows many months for the remainder of your cash. And then lets you finally realized they're not going to pay (or you simply had enough of waiting), you can file a claim with this place called FIBA and have them force the team to pay you. Eventually you will go to court (that can take up to a year) and when you win they will make the team pay you finally. And even after the final verdict, I heard you can still be waiting some months on your money. So after all that waiting on the team to "supposedly" pay you, plus the amount of time it took to go to court. It might be two years until you get the remainder of your money. :-( On a positive note, I have heard countries like France, Russia, China and a few other that do pay on time. The best advice I could anybody playing overseas is to keep all your check receipts and date everything! You will be better off in the long run, wouldn't you rather be safe than sorry? Stay tuned for part 2 coming next week, you haven't read nothing yet trust me. Until then...