Overseas And Back: Chasing The NBA Dream

Marcus Dove played for the Thunder in the Las Vegas Summer League.
For every welcome-to-the-NBA moment, there are moments like those of Marcus Dove and hundreds others of American ball players like him, people who move halfway around the globe to play professional basketball and to chase a dream.

Moments like the one Dove had minutes after stepping off a plane in Frankfurt, Germany, early last September when he couldn’t find his driver for two hours.

Dove couldn’t speak German, nor did he have a working cell phone.

Not exactly how he wanted to begin a new chapter in his life.

“That was my first experience – right off the plane,” Dove said.

There were plenty more stories like Dove’s at the Las Vegas Summer League two weeks ago, where 94 of the 297 players on 21 team rosters played last season overseas.

Dove, who played at Oklahoma State, spent a year with Verviers-Pepinster of the Belgian League before joining the Thunder in Las Vegas.

Like many others, Dove came to Summer League in hopes of catching the eye of an NBA executive and possibly earning a training camp invitation.

Including Dove, the Thunder had five players who played overseas last season -- Doug Thomas (Sweden), Richard Roby (Israel), DeVon Hardin (Greece) and Serge Ibaka (Spain).

For many, there’s the lost-in-translation aspect of leaving the States to play overseas, the culture shock that comes with learning a foreign language, adapting to new surroundings, tasting new foods and simply getting by.

Some can’t handle it.

“You always hear players say they don’t want to go overseas,” Thomas said, “but at the end of the day if that’s the only option, I’m going overseas.”

Others won’t let anything get in the way of their quest to play in the NBA.

“Europe is for people to improve, to develop on everything,” said guard Pooh Jeter, a California native who played for the Portland Summer League team after successful stints in Spain and Ukraine. “You’re practicing every day. You’re shooting every day. It’s all about development. It’s like you’re hiding somewhere else and when this opportunity comes you take advantage of it. Everybody puts in that work when you come over here. It’s just putting in that work ethic.”

Aside from putting in the hours at the gym, players still try to make time for family, no matter the thousands of miles that separate them.

Whether he was in Venezuela, Switzerland or Sweden, Thomas used the computer software Skype to make calls to his family in the Pasadena area. Roby, whose 10 months in Israel was his first time outside of the country, depended on Skype and iChat to keep in touch.

But even that didn't prevent Roby from missing the birth of his daughter by a week. Jeter was fortunate enough to have some family visit him in Ukraine. Dove spent Christmas with a teammate in Paris, only a few hours' drive from where he lived in a small town outside of Brussels.

Thomas has a son and a daughter on the way and said that all the missed holidays and birthdays have been the most challenging part of being overseas.

That’s why he makes it a point to talk to his son as often as possible through the internet. For Thomas, it’s about calling and voice recognition.

“So when he sees me and he hears my voice, he knows who I am,” he said. “But I’d say if you have a youngster you better make sure you stay in contact with him because you can fall off. You’re gone seven months and you’ve got to stay on that phone, stay on that phone. That’s the only way I had to communicate with him.”

Communication in general presents its own challenges when living overseas, whether it’s learning a new language or finding one’s way around town.

Where Dove played just outside Brussels, French and Dutch were the primary languages.

“I could understand it better than I could speak it,” Dove said.

So when Dove went out to eat, he’d often find himself pointing to what he wanted from menus.

Jeter knew some Spanish when he was in Spain, but it was much harder to pick up Russian while in the Ukraine. While in Switzerland, Thomas took a French class for two weeks. James White, on the other hand, said there wasn’t as much of a language barrier in Istanbul, Turkey, where he played for a season before heading to the Development League and eventually signing a multi-year contract with the Houston Rockets in March.

“Most of the guys on my team spoke English,” he said, “so that was an easy transition.”

As far as transitioning to a different lifestyle, it all depends on where a player lands a contract.

White said he lived in a nice apartment near Istanbul and was given a Volkswagen Jetta. While living in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, Jeter said the team gave him an apartment, a maid, a driver and a cook. Roby, on the other hand, had the fortune of six American teammates.

“A lot of the guys were older, too, so they’ve been there a few years,” Roby said. “So they showed us the ropes a little bit.”

But regardless of where a player winds up, there might come a sense of loneliness, uncertainty and even fear.

When Thomas played in Valencia, Venezuela and made trips to Caracas, a place torn with violence and politics, he said it was common for people to walk around with machine guns in public. He said he lasted a week in Venezuela.

“I couldn’t take just the living,” Thomas said. “Just the environment, it was grimy. It was like war. You could smell it and see it and that could affect somebody’s playing. I couldn’t really eat, I couldn’t sleep. You can’t drink the water because everything is real bad over there. You’ve got to always be careful and make sure you’ve got somebody who can tell you what’s going on over there before you just get to doing things.”

Of course, none of this speaks to the transition they must make as basketball players.

Players can wind up in a high-level league such as the Spanish ACB League, where Jeter played, or the nine-team Professional Basketball League in Venezuela, where Thomas played for a few weeks. Others go onto achieve a certain level of fame, such as White, who gained some notoriety from winning a Turkish slam dunk contest.

But whether a player is earning a high six-figure salary or $70,000, a majority of their paychecks are sent back to the States to support loved ones.

Thomas, for one, said he would keep about $500 a month to himself and sent the rest back to California.

“I’m real family oriented,” he said. “I want my family to have what I didn’t. It was rough growing up, as far as in the surroundings and decision-making. I don’t want my children to go through any of that. I’ll do whatever I have to. Overseas, here, wherever. I’m not going to give up.”

And whether a player does enough at the Las Vegas Summer League to earn a training camp invitation or another trip overseas, the desire to reach the NBA usually remains present.

“That’s what you’re striving for,” White said. “That’s why you’re in the gym every day. That’s why you’re trying to play hard, that’s why you’re there. It’s my goal to make it back here and establish myself here. It’s a good experience, but this is where I wanted to be.”

Contact Chris Silva