Posted Jul 30 2011 10:40AM
When told a number of locked-out NBA players, even the A-listers, were seriously exploring their option of playing overseas, Sue Bird laughed.
"For us," she said, meaning women players, "it's not an option."
Yes. For the ladies in the WNBA, overseas basketball is a way of life, a requirement if they want to partake in some of life's simple pleasures. Like, eating. And coming up with the rent. And shopping somewhere other than Dollar General. Taking their talents to Turkey and Russia, Spain and Greece, Germany and France is part of the deal for those players who need more than a three-month WNBA schedule to make a living and keep their skills sharp. Which means, just about all of them.
And so, once the WNBA season wraps up, a large number of players will pack their parkas and jet to some foreign land where the cities are strange and the food stranger. They'll play for coaches and teammates who don't always speak the language and in front of fans who don't always throw rose petals (single-A batteries and insults have been hurled). The reason to do Euroball is simple: they stand to earn twice as much as they do in the WNBA, or four times as much for a lucky few players, such as Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi.
It's a different world on the other side of the ocean, where the only thing in common is the ball.
"It'll be all new to the NBA players, if they actually try it," said Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever, who has worn out a few passports. "Definitely nothing that they're used to over here."
Catchings and some of the other veterans who've been around a while will wait until January to travel overseas, as a way of preserving their bodies. The younger players will go in the fall and play professional basketball eight months out of the year, roughly the equivalent of an NBA season. Those who hook up with the well-run and funded teams will get free housing and transportation.
They also get a civics lesson. The Red Square in Moscow, all the sights of Paris, the historic streets of Madrid are landmarks they quickly become familiar with.
"You're over there, and one day you're playing basketball in Russia in a gym that's inside a building that survived World War II," said Taurasi. "Interesting."
It can also be an isolating experience, with players far from friends and family, who rarely if ever visit. Fighting loneliness is perhaps the toughest part of Euro life. And nobody back in the States has any idea what you're doing, since the games are not only not televised, they're completely ignored.
So it's really the love of basketball, along with the chance to make some spare change, that drives WNBA players, whose careers are shorter and a lot less lucrative than their male counterparts.
The golden era of Euroball was for those lucky enough to play for Spartak Moscow in the late 2000s. The team was owned by flamboyant millionaire Shabtai von Kalmanovic, who was George Steinbrenner without the temper. "Papa," as some of the players affectionately called him, lavished them with the kind of riches reserved for soccer players. They stayed at the finest hotels, were whisked around town in Benzes by a personal driver, ate at five-star restaurants. Bird, Taurasi and Lauren Jackson shared a mansion complete with a cook and housekeeper. And those players, three of the world's best, made well in excess of $500,000 for a four-month season, not counting the gifts they received after big victories.
Spartak ruled the international game, winning three straight titles. And then "Papa" was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 2009. The mega-salaries, for the most part, dried up shortly afterward, although Parker is said to make nearly $1 million.
The crowds overseas, while not much bigger than those at WNBA games, are more intense, which is customary for basketball games involving men and women.
"They're very passionate, let's just say that," Catchings said. "It varies from city to city, team to team. I've heard stories about things being tossed from the stands. But some of our players are so passionate, they'll throw it back."
Taurasi: "It can be volatile, violent, more like being at a soccer game."
As for the current NBA players contemplating an international experience during these uncertain times? Well, first of all, don't expect many to bother. Especially the big names, who are likely wealthy enough to weather the lockout. Perhaps some of the rank-and-file may be tempted, and even they will probably have an escape clause in the event of a labor agreement.
"If you embrace the culture," said Swin Cash, "then it's a lot easier. But it will also give you an appreciation for what you have in the U.S."
What the NBA players have in America is a league where they earn more than any professional athlete, where the arenas are roughly 90 percent full, where all games are televised and where they never need a passport to play a road game. That's a life that apparently isn't good enough, a life that a WNBA player can only imagine.
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