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Euro step: Why these former NBA players have opted to play overseas rather than in the league

Earl Clark, JaJuan Johnson, Anthony Randolph and Henry Sims say they’ll take guaranteed money and minutes over chasing a dream any day

The perks of playing basketball in Europe are pretty sweet: There’s the opportunity to explore several countries abroad. A home and a car. There are free plane tickets for loved ones. And, perhaps most important, a guaranteed salary that’s tax-free.

For a professional basketball player, nothing beats playing in the NBA. But Earl Clark, JaJuan Johnson, Anthony Randolph and Henry Sims prefer the riches and stardom that come with playing at the elite level professionally overseas. Randolph even turned down an opportunity to play for his hometown Dallas Mavericks to sign with the Spanish league’s Real Madrid, where he rubs elbows with soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo. Randolph plays for a storied basketball franchise that offers a private jet to road games, an apartment at the team’s training facility and tickets to Real Madrid soccer matches.

Clark, the former University of Louisville forward, was the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns. The 6-foot-10, 235-pounder has played for the Suns, Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. He has also played in the NBA’s D-League and overseas in China twice. The 30-year-old has been playing for Besiktas in Istanbul since 2016.

Johnson, the former Purdue forward-center, was drafted with the 27th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft by the New Jersey Nets, but on draft night his rights were dealt to the Boston Celtics. Johnson played for the Celtics during the 2011-12 season and in the former D-League before playing professionally in Italy, China, Turkey and Russia. The 29-year-old is playing for Daruşşafaka Spor Kulubu in Istanbul.

Randolph, the former LSU forward, was selected with the 14th overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors. The 6-foot-11, 230-pounder played for the Warriors, New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets from 2008-14. The 28-year-old played in Russia for Lokomotiv Kuban from 2014-16 and has been with Real Madrid since 2016.

Sims, the former Georgetown forward-center, went undrafted in 2012 and has played for the New Orleans Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets. The 27-year-old also had five stints in the former D-League and played professionally in the Philippines and China. He is currently playing for Guerino Vanoli Basket in Italy.

The Undefeated recently spoke to these players about their decisions to remain overseas rather than pursue an uncertain return to the NBA. The phone interviews have been turned into a roundtable format.

JaJuan Johnson, who played for the Celtics, now plays for Daruşşafaka Spor Kulubu in Istanbul.

Courtesy JaJuan Johnson

What were your hopes and dreams when you first got to the NBA?

Clark: It was a dream come true. It was a big business. A lot of kids need to realize that the NBA is more than basketball. For me, I always handled things on the court. I was real quiet, young. I thought if I just stayed in the gym, played well in practice, played good in games, you’ll get those opportunities. Everybody’s situation is different. There are different things you can do, like getting to know your coach and [general manager], things I wasn’t used to doing at the time.

Johnson: My expectation was to have a long career, be successful, make money, win a championship.

Randolph: I wanted to come and immediately make an impact on any team I was playing on. Hopefully, try to become one of the best players in the league and make a name for myself.

Sims: When I got there I was expecting the world, really. I knew I was going to have to work to play and to see time on the floor. But I was pretty hopeful. I expected to do personally what I had to do to work my butt off and see millions.

What were your best memories and successes in the NBA?

Clark: It was a good learning experience. I played with great guys and veterans who have been in the game for a long time. It was good for me at first playing for a veteran ballclub that was in the Western Conference finals. I was playing with great players like [then-Suns stars] Amar’e Stoudemire and Grant Hill, guys that had a lot of success. I learned a lot from them. My best memory was as a rookie being on a plane with Hall of Famers. Being on a team with Kobe Bryant. We won games with a lot of players hurt, and we ended up making it to the playoffs. I had talks with [Bryant] about basketball and how I could better myself.

Johnson: My biggest success and highlight was the camaraderie we had with the team in Boston. My favorite player growing up was K.G. [Kevin Garnett]. Just getting to play with him and talk about stuff outside of basketball. And it was not just him, we had a handful of veterans who were really influential in helping my career even to now.

Randolph: Opening nights. The first game you play and they announce your name during NBA introductions. Playing in front of the crazy fans in Oracle Arena [in Oakland, California] is something that I will always remember.

Sims: The best memories were definitely with the Sixers. [Head coach] Brett Brown gave me an opportunity to start and be in some pretty big games. We did our fair share of losing. But I do have memories of playing against LeBron [James] and playing against [then-head coach] Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls, those tough teams, those good teams.

What was your biggest challenge in the NBA?

Clark: Maybe if I went to a younger team with other guys that were more my age, I would have had more opportunity. I look at the pros and the cons of everything. A lot of experiences I take to where I am right now. It all happened how it was supposed to because it was helping me out today. If I could go back, what I would change is just being more of a business-savvy guy. Communicating with the coaches. Opening up more to guys that weren’t like me that I didn’t fit in with well. Opening up. Speaking up a little more. Asking my coaches what I could do better. I put everything on my agent. Especially in the NBA and in this world, if you talk and you’re a good locker room guy, that could get you a year or two more of opportunities in the NBA.

Johnson: The biggest challenge was playing with a team with a lot of veterans. You don’t practice a lot. And it is hard to find minutes because those guys were very established. It is tough to stay ready … understanding the politics side of it. You definitely have to play that game. You have to put in the extra work.

Randolph: Not playing was the hardest part about it. As basketball players, in order to get there, all of us had been superstars throughout our careers. Transitioning to not playing so much was kind of tough. There are a million things I would do different. I’m much older now than I was then. I look at situations differently. There were things where because of age I didn’t understand the position I was in. I was taken advantage of.

Sims: My biggest challenge was just understanding the business. If you have an opportunity to keep growing, you’ve got to find ways to do that. There was a time where I shot a couple 3s and I made them over a course of two to three games. They were wide-open 3s, so I ended up shooting them. Coach Brown was like, ‘Hey, we want you to start shooting more 3s.’ I shied away from it. I wasn’t used to doing that. And looking back, I probably would have taken the challenge instead of shying away from that. Things like that happened with more expectations of myself.

Anthony Randolph played in Russia for Lokomotiv Kuban from 2014-16 and has been with Real Madrid since 2016.

Courtesy Anthony Randolph

What year did you first go overseas, and what was your initial mentality?

Clark: My mindset was to come over here and see how it was in 2014 in China. It was a new experience. I was excited. It was a different game, a different style of basketball. I wanted to come over here and do well, make money and do well. My current stop is with Besiktas out in Turkey. It has been cool so far.

Johnson: It was 2013. I just remember my first year going to Visalia in Florence, Italy. I really couldn’t believe I was going overseas, to be honest. It was kind of one of those things where I got on the plane and this is the situation that I was in. Now, I am going to make the best of it, embrace the culture and embrace the situation. I couldn’t feel sorry for myself anymore. I just took it like a man and tried to make the best of this situation.

Randolph: My mindset, truthfully, was this was my last opportunity. If I didn’t make playing overseas work, my chances to get a job would be slim and none. My goal was to go wherever I got a job, make it work the best that I can. Then hopefully, once I get established, keep working to get back in the league. I didn’t take full advantage of my time in the NBA. I wasn’t going to mess this second opportunity up.

Sims: It was pretty difficult. My first overseas experience was in Asia in the Philippines my rookie year after I played in the D-League. I got called up from New Orleans and then came back to the D-League, and my agent said I had an opportunity in the Philippines. It was a little uncomfortable for me to say yes to, but it was a good situation. It made sense. As far as this team, I wasn’t as hesitant. It’s Italy. It’s not too much different than the U.S. The language barrier is much easier to deal with here than in China, which is a whole other world. The decision to come here wasn’t too difficult to me. It was just the matter of the place that I would go.

While you have had an opportunity to land a non-guaranteed contract to return to the NBA, why have you declined to go back? (Clark, Johnson and Sims are represented by Kluch Sports Group Management International, whose philosophy is that you do not go back to the NBA unless you have a guaranteed contract.)

Clark: After I went to training camp with the [Memphis] Grizzlies three years ago, I was playing some of the best basketball I had played. I was talking to the coaches. He said I was doing well, don’t pack your bags and everything was good. I thought I had a good chance to make the team. And I talked to the GM [Chris Wallace] one day. He told me that there were 400 players in the NBA and I was definitely one of them, but I should have never come to camp with Memphis because they weren’t going to pick up anyone [new] because they would be in the luxury tax, which they weren’t trying to do. [Wallace] wished me the best of luck. I was down there with Hassan Whiteside and they cut him, and he was playing well also. He was a hell of a talent. Once I saw Whiteside get cut, I said to myself, ‘I got two kids, a wife.’ I just felt like I wanted to move on. I knew what I could do playing basketball in other places. I thank God that there is basketball if you don’t make it in the NBA. They have places where we can come [internationally]. I just wanted to try it out.

Johnson: Obviously, I wanted to be back in the NBA. But here I am enjoying my time. I have had a few opportunities, non-guaranteed deals. But for me, it hasn’t really made sense financially. It would have to really be worth my while, in a way, to take that risk to pursue it. It’s been tough. Everybody’s dream is to play in the NBA. It’s still my dream to be back in the NBA. My goal initially was to have a long NBA career. But everything happens for a reason. I am making the best out of this situation. I enjoy being overseas, and it has been great for me.

Randolph: I have had more than a couple opportunities to go back. For me personally, I have stated to the teams that I talk to that I would want to have a significant role when I come back and I wanted to play. I am getting a little bit older. I don’t want to go back to the NBA to sit on the bench and kind of waste a year or two of my career. I enjoy playing. I enjoy competing against guys. The competition has gotten so much better over here that I’m challenged every night playing overseas. I’m 100 percent at peace if I don’t go back to the NBA. No regrets at all. I’m happy. My family is happy. We are very well taken care of. Real Madrid takes care of me. There are no regrets at all.

Sims: A non-guaranteed contract isn’t fun to have. You don’t know if you will be cut tomorrow or today. You are working your butt off to sit the bench. I have done that for a good amount of time. I wanted to be able to have some type of comfort and stability and be able to know I would be with a team all season unless something catastrophic happened. I know I’m going to have money coming in. Even if it’s a couple days late, that’s fine. Since I’ve been in the NBA, I’ve played there and I’ve proven myself, it was a little easier to turn down a non-guaranteed deal. I know what I’m worth. I’m better than a one-year, non-guaranteed contract. I can pretty much get the same amount of money guaranteed and travel the world. It’s not a bad decision to make.

Henry Sims, who went undrafted in 2012, now plays for Guerino Vanoli Basket in Italy.

Courtesy Henry Sims

What has been the best part of playing overseas?

Clark: The fans are the craziest that I have ever seen. They will curse you. They throw things. They want to see a war. They want to see a fight. They really care about winning and losing. Every game is a championship, especially the rivalry games. My team goes to different places here and there. But it’s not like the NBA, where you get to the hotel and then you go out and have dinner with friends. You are mostly with your team together all the time. We eat together, watch film and then go to our rooms to sleep. We got curfews. There are not too many moves you can make.

Johnson: I’ve seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Milan Cathedral. I’ve been to Rome and saw the Colosseum. I’ve been to Greece. I’ve been to Paris and saw the Eiffel Tower. Growing up in the States, you read about all these places and that. But being able to say you’ve seen these places, it is pretty cool. The food, trying a lot of that, has been pretty cool too. I’ve met a lot of good people in different countries. I traveled in Europe and other places overseas. Having the opportunity to live there amongst different cultures, people aren’t that different than we are in the States. They all have pretty similar values.

Randolph: It has been amazing. It helps you grow up and opens your mind. I have been all over the world. I have seen different countries. I have seen how a lot of people live. Their perception on life is totally different than it is for us. It makes you appreciate things a lot more and gives you a lot more time to focus on your family. You are in countries where you don’t speak the same language. When you have your family out here, you have no choice than to get closer and build a closer bond. There are no distractions. I have seen ancient ruins in some countries. Things you see as a kid [in books] growing up that you never thought you would see in person. You see some of the traditions other cultures have.

Sims: The coolest thing is just being able to travel. I went to Hong Kong, and I never knew it was so cool and exciting. I’ve been to Milan on an off day. Our city is about an hour away. I got to see Rome, Turkey and a lot of places. Rome was the coolest. A lot of people can’t say they have been to Rome for free.

What are some of the perks you receive playing overseas?

Clark: They give you a place to live. A car. A perk for me is having my kids in Istanbul, going to school with kids who are different from them and learning different languages. They are able to see the world. That’s the biggest plus for me, is having my family with me seeing another side of the world. I pay for my kids to go to school, but some guys negotiate in their contracts that the team pays half of the tuition for their kids to go to school.

Johnson: In most of the situations I’ve been in, I get a money allowance towards flights. They give you four or five flights round-trip for anybody to come visit. Most of the time they pay for your housing. They give you a car. The only expense you have over here is for food and gas. Everything else is pretty much taken care of. You save money for sure. In the NBA, you have to pay for your own rent and your own car. You spend less money over there.

Randolph: Real Madrid is one of the top three, if not the best team in Europe. We fly private everywhere for the most part. We get free tickets to the soccer games. We get to mingle with the soccer players and get to know them. We are able to interact with the owner of Real Madrid [Florentino Pérez], have a relationship with him, and he is really down to earth. We have some of the best trainers. We have one of the best facilities I have ever seen, on par with some of the NBA’s best facilities. It’s a great experience. You get the car. You get the house. You get the money and everything else. They take care of your breakfast, lunch and dinner at the training facility. You have your own room at the facility. It’s a pretty amazing setup. There is Real Madrid City, where the soccer and basketball players train, and we have our own residences inside of it with a cafeteria. It’s like a mini apartment with a living room, bedroom and bathroom. Yeah, it’s dope.

Sims: Car is paid for. Get a couple of plane tickets for my family to come see games that they couldn’t see [on TV]. Housing. All the money you make, you get to keep it. There are no taxes over here.

Johnson, who now lives in Istanbul, says of his time playing overseas: “I’ve never had any situations where I felt disrespected or uncomfortable anywhere I lived overseas. They see that I am tall and I’m black, so they pretty much know off the top that I play basketball.”

Courtesy of JaJuan Johnson

What is it like being black on and off the court overseas?

Clark: I don’t think it makes a difference. I don’t think Turkey has a lot of racism or people looking at you different. It is pretty regular. I have never had a problem going into any restaurant or got pulled over by police where I felt uncomfortable. Neither have my family or my teammates. Istanbul is a nice place. The people are cool. They have their religions that they really believe in. They are nice people. I really have no complaints.

Johnson: I’ve never had any situations where I felt disrespected or uncomfortable anywhere I lived overseas. They see that I am tall and I’m black, so they pretty much know off the top that I play basketball. I’ve seen, for example living in Italy, that there are some African people who live there. They are treated a little differently. Being an athlete, they treat you pretty good.

Randolph: I personally haven’t had any issues with race being overseas except for this past summer playing for Slovenia in the EuroBasket Championships [he received racist taunts after tangling with Kristaps Porzingis]. But as a professional, nothing.

Sims: It’s crazy. I’m black, 6-11, and my hair has grown exponentially [since I played in the NBA]. They look at you like you’re a zoo animal sometimes. It’s kind of surprising. When you see another black player, I know me, personally, you go out of your way to say hello. I’m like, ‘What’s up, man? How are you doing?’ [Your teammates] can’t understand you. Like China, you can’t have a full conversation. It’s weird. It makes you realize how great things in America are. But here [in Italy], it’s pretty much one race with a couple black people sprinkled in. I haven’t encountered any racists or anyone disrespectful, to my knowledge. I’ve heard stories of [black] players having bananas thrown at them during a game. Just stupid little stuff. I haven’t experienced that, but I do understand the look that you get, like you just came from the moon.

Have you had any trouble getting paid?

Clark: I got all my money. I don’t have any complaints on that side. I know that it does go on. My team, they gave us all our money for last year. One of the reasons why I came back is they pay.

Johnson: I did earlier in my career overseas. It is kind of normal where teams are kind of late on the payment. One month, two months at a time. I’ve been fortunate to play with some really good clubs who pay the day of, sometimes even earlier. I’ve had to go to FIBA court for the money. You’ll win the case. You’ll get your money eventually. There is just the inconvenience of having to wait on the money. I once had to wait eight months to get the money after I sued them. That is kind of tough at times. When you are on those lower teams, financially you have to plan for situations like that. In the NBA, getting paid a certain type of money, you know you’re getting paid at the end of the month, so ‘I can spend this.’ Overseas you are like, ‘I’m supposed to get paid today, but I may not for a while. You have to be smart financially and in planning certain things.

Randolph: I’ve had checks that were late and have had trouble having bonuses paid out. But I have never had any issues with pay from Real Madrid.

Sims: It has been on time, for the most part. There have been one or two that have been three weeks late. This team does it pretty well. It’s just something you got to deal with when you come over here. Every team is either late or very rarely do you get your payments at the same time, every time, every month. Here in [Italy], it’s not that bad.

How much do you enjoy being the star of the team playing overseas as opposed to being a role player in the NBA?

Clark: You always want to be a player that you think you can be and with a team that allows you to do what you are best at. But then again, over here it’s a totally different game. Maybe at halftime sometimes the score is 30-25. There aren’t that many possessions. Sometimes it’s a slow and grind-out game. The best player might average 10 points. You are not just putting up 30 and 40 points. But as far as just going out there and competing and the coach just letting you be you, that is definitely a great feeling.

Johnson: That is definitely one of the factors for me coming overseas. I experienced playing in the D-League. Obviously, D-League players don’t get paid a lot of money. I know I wanted to continue to evolve my game.

Randolph: It’s one of the most important things. I want to have that responsibility where if I play bad, the team expects more out of me and if I play good, they are not satisfied with it. That is the type of pressure that I want a team to have on me and that I have on myself.

Sims: It’s a good feeling. In the NBA, you forget how good you are sometimes. You don’t get to play to your strengths. You have to play the way the team needs you to play. Here, you have a lot of freedom to be the basketball player that you know you are and who you can be. You get a chance to be that all game almost. You get 30 minutes a game, whereas in the NBA you might get 20 minutes in a game.

What would need to happen for you to leave overseas to return to the NBA?

Clark: I don’t know what it would take to get me back. Any time I try to look for answers, it’s like, ‘You played well, but we don’t have any room for you,’ or ‘We want to go with a younger guy.’ If I don’t ever get back, I wouldn’t have a problem with it because I felt like when I was there I worked hard. I tried. I got a lot of good feedback from good people. Great players told me that I belonged here. I did some good things. There are not too many people who can say they played six years in the NBA. There are not a lot of people who can say they made it. As long as I can say I can provide for my family, I am just grateful that the game has taken me this far. I feel like I can’t just dwell in the NBA. I could never come here and be successful, because I would be always looking in the past.

Johnson: It would have to be the right situation basketballwise and financially. For me at this stage of my career, I would need guaranteed money. Now where I’m at the point overseas where I’m making good money, it would have to be a good situation where it made sense financially. It would be closer to home and playing in the NBA. My situation is great here. They take care of you. The NBA wasn’t an option for me at the time. My choice to go overseas, make pretty good money and evolve my game is the best situation for me.

Randolph: The right situation and knowing I have an opportunity to help a team win. That is the most important thing. The NBA, in my opinion, is all about the right team, the right time and right opportunity.

Sims: I would be at peace if I didn’t get back to the NBA, especially if I did everything in my power to get back. I already have proven myself. It would definitely have to be a guaranteed deal. I’m getting older. I’m not trying to be stressing every day about whether they will keep me. I know at least if I do get cut [in Europe] that I will get paid. If a guaranteed deal comes my way at all, I will be happy to be on an NBA court. If not, I’m not stressing. I’m eating pretty well over there.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.