For a player like Bria Hartley, who is also a mother, future decisions to play overseas are complicated as new opportunities and looming rule changes alter the women’s basketball environment in the United States.
IT’S BECOME A part of the fabric of a WNBA player’s career, one that could see significant changes next year.
At the conclusion of the WNBA season in September or October, players pack their bags, grab their passports and board a plane to destinations across the globe where their seasons will begin anew during the winter months and ending anywhere between February and early May.
During a news conference before the WNBA draft in April, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the average career for a WNBA player lasts less than six years. That means utilizing every chance to maximize earning potential – including playing overseas. The WNBA’s supermax salary for the 2022 season is $228,094; a top player like Breanna Stewart earns approximately $1.5 million per season overseas.
There is considerable sacrifice, from the isolation that comes with living in a country where you don’t speak the language to the missed time with friends and family.
This year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced many players in those countries to leave. It was later learned that Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner had been detained since Feb. 17 on charges that she attempted to smuggle vape cartridges containing hashish oil into Russia. The U.S. government announced last week that it now considers Griner to be wrongfully detained, a shift that means the U.S. will not wait for the outcome of her case and will work to negotiate her return. Griner is scheduled to have a hearing on May 19.
The looming implementation of prioritization, which will push players to put the WNBA first starting in 2023 or risk fines and suspension, adds another complicated factor for players who play overseas and seek to maximize their earning potential. Last season, 35 players reported late to camp and 12 missed games at the start of the season. Bria Hartley and Kahleah Copper are still competing in the playoffs for their overseas clubs even as the new WNBA season began May 6.
Andscape and Getty Images collaborated to document the overseas experience of four Black WNBA players in Turkey, Spain and the Czech Republic. Getty embedded photographers with the players in March to capture their daily lives. The players were interviewed in April, reflecting on their experiences, including navigating foreign countries as Black women and what the future holds for their professional careers.
This season marked Jones’ third in Prague. The reigning WNBA Most Improved Player, Jones spent her first two overseas seasons playing in Russia. Her sister and Washington Mystics forward, Stephanie Jones, played overseas this season in Poland.
Not a lot of people get to go overseas and experience this culture. For me, it’s being able to spend that time and take in what I can while I’m here.”
For Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones, the 2021-22 overseas season has been nothing short of a whirlwind.
After arriving in October for her third season with USK Praha, Jones returned to the United States in November to represent Team USA in the first FIBA 3×3 AmeriCup held in Miami. After winning the tournament, and earning tournament MVP, Jones returned to Prague.
She traveled back to the United States once more in February, this time alongside Alyssa Thomas, who plays with Jones both on the Sun and on USK Praha, to compete for the United States in the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament in Washington. Jones then made her way back to the Czech Republic for the final leg of her season.
“This season was a little crazy,” Jones said. “At times it gets to be like, ‘When am I going to have a break?’ But I like playing basketball, so for me it’s still fun and enjoyable.”
Jones, who won a third straight Czech league championship with the club in April, played for international basketball coaching great Natalia Hejkova. The Slovakian head coach, who was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2019, has won a number of championships at both the domestic and international levels.
“It’s great to be able to play for a woman who has accomplished so much overseas,” Jones said. “For me, I was excited to play for and learn from her.”
For many WNBA players, the overseas season offers a new opportunity for players to expand their games. Under Hejkova, Jones said, she’s been given the freedom to workshop new skills into her game, first in practice, then against competition.
“If I want to shoot some 3s, she doesn’t have any problem with me shooting 3s,” said Jones, who along with Thomas make up the top performers on the team. “We have that freedom with her and she trusts us to make the right decisions.”
After three seasons with USK Praha, Jones seemingly has found an overseas home in a city that she enjoys and a team situation she is comfortable with – a welcome change to how her international career began. Following her rookie season with the Sun in 2017, Jones spent her first year in Russia playing for Nadezhda Orenburg. Living in a small city, where few spoke English and even fewer looked like her, Jones often felt isolated.
“It was a hard experience,” she said. “Halfway through, I was like, maybe this isn’t for me and I should go home.”
It’s a similar sentiment Jones is now seeing reflected in her sister, Stephanie Jones, who played overseas in Poland.
“I’ve been trying to help her,” Jones said. “I think for her in Poland she doesn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy playing overseas. For me, it’s just telling her every team is different. Maybe this season might not be the best situation, but you can go to another team and it could be a whole different thing. For me, it was just saying to stay the course.”
On USK Praha, Jones gets to play with a familiar face in Thomas, who has been a teammate of Jones’ her entire WNBA career. Jones and Thomas are the only Americans on the roster. The natural chemistry between the two has made a world of difference to her on-court experience with the team.
“My teammates are great,” Jones said. “I love hanging out with them, too. But just having somebody from where I’m from, speaks English and everything, for me that was great to have her here on and off the court.”
When it comes to navigating the city of Prague as a Black woman, Jones said she’s felt comfortable, adding that, at the very least, she’s seen more Black people in the Czech Republic than in Russia. Like many players, she said she definitely experiences stares from local onlookers, though at 6-3, she believes it could also be a result of her height.
“It’s tough everywhere overseas, kind of,” Jones said. “I would say in Prague, I have the least amount of feeling like I’m so different from everybody here.”
Jones has felt the ripple effects of the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
Shortly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian teams were removed from her team’s EuroLeague schedule. Jones’ team’s gym sits across the street from the Russian Embassy, which she says has been a focal point for many protests. Jones has had a firsthand account of the war through one of her USK Praha teammates who is Ukrainian and has shared how her family has dealt with the invasion.
It hits a lot closer to home when you have people that you know that are truly affected by it compared to when you’re home and you hear about war overseas – it feels like you’re kind of removed from it.”
Jones worried about her sister in bordering Poland. She worried about fellow WNBA players playing in Russia, who then had to flee the country. At one point, she felt concerned for her own safety, talking to her agents to see what steps of her own she may need to take.
“There’s just a lot more to worry about being here,” Jones said. “It hits a lot closer to home when you have people that you know that are truly affected by it.”
Despite the challenges this overseas season brought, Jones maintained that, for her, the pros of continuing to play overseas – of which she named financial gain and the ability to play year-round – exceeded the cons. Any plans to continue will be paired with a heightened risk assessment of the opportunity.
Jones believes that there will be WNBA players who reevaluate and change how they navigate playing overseas compared to years past. With overseas leagues operating under different business models compared to the WNBA, even playing abroad for half a season may still be worth it to some players.
“Why would you give up this money that is on the table that you can go get?” Jones said. “I think for me, it’s just going to be like, somebody is going to have to change something – whether it’s the league or overseas, EuroLeague or whatever. At some point, somebody is going to have to make a decision.”
During her nine-year professional career, Hartley has played for clubs in Hungary and Turkey. Hartley has navigated most of her overseas playing experience as a mother. Her son, Bryson, was born in 2017 and went with Hartley overseas on multiple occasions. Hartley, who also holds French citizenship, has competed for France’s national team.
Istanbul is known to have crazy traffic and crazy drivers, but I feel like I’m from New York and I drove in New York City. I can handle it.”
This overseas season was a bit different for Bria Hartley. She played just six WNBA games last season as she made her way back from a torn ACL in 2020. After continuing to rehab her injury through the end of 2021, Hartley joined her club, Fenerbahçe Safiport, in January. The season marked Hartley’s fifth playing in Turkey. This was her second stint with Fenerbahçe after previously playing for the club in 2018-19.
On Fenerbahçe, Hartley was joined by a number of familiar faces from the WNBA. Her teammates this season included Amanda Zahui B. of the Los Angeles Sparks, Satou Sabally of the Dallas Wings, Kayla McBride of the Minnesota Lynx, Elizabeth Williams of the Washington Mystics and Kiah Stokes of the Las Vegas Aces.
“It’s always kind of weird when you’re joining a team at the middle of a season rather than at the beginning,” Hartley said. “I was joining a bunch of players that I had been with before, some of my friends. I was really comfortable coming here. I didn’t really have any worries coming here this year, I’ve just been really comfortable in Turkey and Istanbul in general.”
To play on Fenerbahçe, one of the best teams in all of Europe, is an experience. The club has won 14 KBSL (the top league in Turkey) championships since 2000. Hartley likened the championship culture that has been established to her days competing for the University of Connecticut.
“They’re expected to be good every year,” Hartley said. “I think kind of similarly coming from UConn where it’s the standard to be that good every year … it’s similar expectations.”
Fenerbahçe offers some of the best accommodations a WNBA player can get internationally. From the team’s locker room to the team’s physical therapist, Hartley described all of the club’s facilities as being top notch. But with that comes the expectation of winning, expected not only by the organization but the club’s loyal fan base.
“Their fans are great,” Hartley said. “Their fans are intense … I like going to a club where they want to win, they expect you to win.”
As a Black woman living in Turkey, Hartley said she’s never had any issues in regards to race.
“I don’t know sometimes if they think I’m Turkish or just because I’m lighter-skinned,” Hartley said. “Most of the time I have on basketball stuff, or if I have something Fener on, they’ll ask, ‘You play basketball?’ Playing for a club like that you kind of get a lot of love.”
Hartley said there’s a sizable athlete culture in the city. In addition to the women’s basketball team, Fenerbahçe also funds a men’s basketball team, men’s and women’s soccer teams and men’s and women’s volleyball teams.
Hartley said city locals have taken a liking to her son Bryson.
“I always say that here Bryson is more famous than me,” Hartley said. “I don’t know if they’ve seen a lot of Black babies.”
For most of her international career, Hartley has brought her 5-year-old son Bryson with her overseas.
“My first year, after he was born, I was in Turkey. The next year, he was with me in Turkey,” Hartley said. “I think at this point, it’s just kind of where I’m at, wherever I go, he’s coming. Just him being older, how I want to raise him and everything, it’s just important for me to be around and be with him.”
Hartley used to have a nanny watch Bryson while she was away, but this year was different. Hartley enrolled Bryson in an international preschool in Istanbul, recommended by a member of Fenerbahçe’s men’s basketball team. The school’s primary language is English and follows the California state curriculum.
“I just got into the single mom role and got my son in school here,” Hartley said. “One thing that I do like is that he is being exposed to these different cultures at a young age. I think that’s really cool and a really fun experience for him.”
Hartley’s day will typically start around 7:45 a.m., where she’ll wake up and get Bryson ready for school at 9 a.m. She’ll then return to her apartment to eat breakfast, and do some physical therapy before heading to practice around 1 p.m. Once practice ends at 3 p.m., she’ll receive treatment from the Fenerbahçe staff before picking Bryson up from school at 4 p.m. Bryson is usually in bed by 7:30 p.m.
“I think having him with me makes the overseas experience a lot better,” Hartley said. “When you come home to something, especially a little kid that is energetic and has as much personality as he has, tough losses and stuff it makes them a little bit better. Honestly, sometimes it’s something else to focus on. I’ve got to make sure he’s ready to do this or that. It kind of just keeps me in a routine.”
Bryson is also a fan favorite at Fenerbahçe’s practices. If he’s not on the sideline dribbling a basketball, he’s playing with Zahui B. or McBride.
“The whole team loves him,” Hartley said. “He’s just a really active kid and he’s a happy kid.”
As Hartley assesses how she’ll approach overseas play in the future, she’ll consider two primary factors. Bryson is slated to start kindergarten in the fall, and the other factor will be the continuous strain on her body that comes with year-round play.
“Dealing with the injuries I’ve had lately, it’s kind of like your body can’t take that,” Hartley said. “Eventually you have to decide which one you want to do or which one you want to maintain for the rest of your career.”
Some people just want to play in the WNBA. I know other athletes that feel like, ‘No, if I have to choose, I’m going to play overseas.’ ”
Hartley also understands that with the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, the overseas market for players is changing. (Starting in 2023, players with at least three years of pro experience who aren’t there for the start of the WNBA season will be suspended for the entire season, and in 2024, if they aren’t there for the start of training camp, they face a season-long suspension.)
“Some people just want to play in the WNBA. I know other athletes that feel like, ‘No, if I have to choose, I’m going to play overseas.’ I think there’s a lot of factors, I’ve definitely thought about it. I haven’t made any decisions about what I would do yet.”
Thomas is a seasoned veteran of the overseas lifestyle. Besides Turkey, Thomas has played overseas in the Czech Republic, Russia, Israel and Poland.
As long as I can play, I want to play. I want to use all of my healthy years. So that’s kind of the mindset that I go into it with.”
After beginning her 11th season overseas and her second season with Fenerbahçe in October, Jasmine Thomas switched teams and cities within Turkey, ending her year with in-league rival CBK Mersin. Thomas had never changed teams midseason, abroad or in the U.S.
“It’s an adjustment. I think I was fortunate that I was able to stay in the same country because I couldn’t have imagined trying to pack up all my stuff, have my dog and either come home first or switch to another country,” Thomas said. “I left within like 48 hours after signing everything. It was a different experience.”
Part of the transition was eased by the experienced roster Thomas would be joining. Over the course of a four-month stay with the team, Thomas played alongside her Sun teammate DeWanna Bonner, Tiffany Hayes of the Atlanta Dream, Kristine Anigwe of the Phoenix Mercury, Yvonne Turner of the Minnesota Lynx and free agents Shavonte Zellous and Temi Fagbenle.
“From a comfort standpoint, when you can play with players that you either played with before that you’re friends with, you’re definitely comfortable in that situation,” said Thomas, who won a 2022 Turkish Cup with CBK Mersin. “When it comes to on the court, just playing with experienced players, it’s a different kind of game.”
“Specifically in Turkey, I feel like the support for women’s basketball is great,” Thomas said. “Obviously the bigger clubs have the crazy fans that you see, almost similar to, like, soccer fans, where they have the signs, they’re all dressed in the colors, they have the drums. They really have their little chants and everything.
“That’s the standard. I feel like every team in Turkey that considers themselves a club that’s trying to compete to win anything in Turkey or in Europe – that’s the model that they’re going after. They’re working to really get their fans to be engaged and get involved.”
A big reason Thomas continues to play overseas is her willingness to learn the culture and have experiences in the cities and countries she plays in instead of settling for the comforts of home. This year, with teams and players traveling as they have in years past compared to a more remote structured season last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Thomas said she had less time to explore than she would’ve wanted. In her home city of Mersin, which is far smaller than Istanbul, there isn’t much to do besides going out to eat and shop.
Besides the importance of playing with other WNBA players, Thomas also mentioned the value of having other “imports” to share the overseas experience with. They don’t necessarily have to be American, or even WNBA players, but having the shared experience of being away from home, missing holidays, missing family makes a difference in her overseas stint.
“I usually celebrate those holidays with my imports when I’m overseas,” Thomas said. “So it matters. I think you come up with your own little traditions or things to make you comfortable.”
In Mersin, Thomas lives in her apartment with her 4-year-old dog, Ollie, which she bought in Turkey during her second season in the country. Thomas has brought Ollie with her overseas each year since.
“I feel like a lot of players end up getting dogs when they’re overseas, just because they’re alone and you have some free time or you want that companion there with you,” Thomas said. “Whether it’s good games, bad games, you’re homesick, you’re tired, you are just trying to push through, they’re always there just to make you feel love.”
Thomas said living accommodations, which are provided by the teams, have improved overseas since she first started her career. That is in part due to an extensive résumé Thomas now boasts both in the WNBA and abroad. For players overseas, contracts are key and contract negotiations will dictate what, besides salary, a player’s accommodations will be.
“People are spending eight months over there away from home, the least they can do is have a nice living situation,” Thomas said.
In September, Thomas announced her engagement to her fiancée and Sun teammate Natisha Hiedeman. A month later, both were in different countries, with Hiedeman playing in Russia and Thomas in Turkey.
Thomas said the key to making long-distance work for them was finding little routines. Between practices or before bed or whenever they could find pockets, they’d be on FaceTime.
“Or sometimes sleep on FaceTime,” Thomas added. “You just get used to it. I guess that’s the best I can say is you find a way to make it work and find comforts and things that you can do. Movie nights, things like that.”
More impressively perhaps, is that Thomas successfully planned a wedding from Turkey.
“My sister-in-law’s an event planner, so we were able to kind of get a lot of stuff, a lot of the major things done while we were over there,” Thomas said.
No matter where she is or who she is among, Thomas has never shied away from making conversation. Whether she’s out shopping, at the grocery store or at the gas station, Thomas is going to speak to everyone and ask them how they are with the hope of engaging in dialogue, language barrier or not.
At her team’s training facility in Mersin, Thomas would often see a female employee, whom she often greets in Turkish. The woman would reply with the “same little phrase every time.” But on this particular afternoon, when Thomas greeted the employee, instead of being met with a Turkish reply, the woman replied in English.
“I love you,” she said.
“I was so shocked because I didn’t know she knew any English at all,” recalled Thomas. “Usually the older people there don’t speak English. So I don’t know. It just was an emotional moment for me just because she’s a really sweet lady and you don’t really know anyone’s situation over there beyond what you see. That was special.”
“I think playing overseas is really just one of those things you kind of have to experience. I’ve been doing it a long time now. From my entrance to now as an older player, I think it’s kind of like a spectrum. When you first go, you feel like it’s different, it’s new, you are probably homesick more, but then you kind of have this time in the middle where it’s just like, you actually truly enjoy it.
You’re still doing it because you love the game, you still have goals that you set for yourself every year, but you also start to feel like, you’re missing out on family time.”
“It’s your grind time. You’re trying to assert yourself as a player, as a professional, you’re chasing these things. And then you’re also younger, you’re enjoying yourself, you’re being social, you’re experiencing these countries and cultures and realizing that basketball has given you this opportunity to do those things.
“Then I feel like it kind of comes full circle maybe toward the end where you’re still enjoying it, you’re still doing it because you love the game, you still have goals that you set for yourself every year, but you also start to feel like you’re missing out on family time. I think people can’t really understand that if they never experienced it. Some people don’t have to ever leave their comfort. That’s something that as WNBA players, we do it all the time.”
When Engelbert was asked in a pre-draft news conference if she saw a business model where teams could pay WNBA players enough to prevent them from seeking additional income overseas, she said she believed the narrative that players have to go overseas is “a little bit outdated” and “inaccurate.” Engelbert added that she believed new offseason team and league marketing opportunities and increased in-season salaries have given players more options.
“I would say I agree and disagree,” Thomas said. “When you’re talking about someone who is claiming their profession as a professional athlete, that means being able to make the maximum amount of income from your sport. Being able to do that in the States right now is still not the case for every player.”
Thomas added: “But the reason I say I will agree is because I do think that the newest CBA has given us more opportunities to kind of do things off the court and be compensated for it. But it’s still a work in progress. It’s still a long way to go.”
After winning a WNBA championship and earning a Finals MVP award, Kahleah Copper played her first year in Spain after electing not to play internationally last season. Besides Spain, Copper has played in Belgium, Poland, Israel and Turkey.
I think the support is just, it’s a little different here. … Not like they don’t enjoy it in the States, but it’s just different. … They genuinely look forward to coming out and filling up the gym and supporting women’s basketball.”
For a brief period after she won the WNBA Finals with the Chicago Sky, Copper contemplated staying home in the States. Second thoughts raced through her mind following the Sky’s long season, and the Finals MVP hadn’t had the opportunity she hoped for to spend time with family.
“I actually had just got a house too, so I had a lot of things to do,” Copper said. “It worked out.”
Luckily, Perfumerias Avenida would allow Copper to remain home for an extra month before leaving for Spain. It was Copper’s first year with the club, which also features the Sparks’ Katie Lou Samuelson, Bella Alarie of the Wings and free agents Karlie Samuelson and Maite Cazorla.
“They were easy to come into, easy to join,” Copper said. “I think they made the process really smooth for me, the coaches and my teammates.”
During the season, Copper lived in Salamanca, Spain, with her 3-year-old dog, Sunny. When Copper played in Belgium, she had another dog, Millie. When she went to Turkey with Millie two years later, Millie had puppies, one of which was Sunny.
“I had five dogs for a little bit,” Copper said. “[Sunny has] been everywhere ever since.”
Copper has appreciated her time overseas in Spain. She said she enjoys being in a small city and the people, adding that she runs into fans all the time while she’s out and can walk any place she needs to be. It’s a stark change from her experience in Poland, where she was stared at and lived with an uncomfortable feeling about being in a foreign country.
“It’s been pretty fun,” Copper said.
While overseas, Copper received news that no player separated from their families by thousands of miles ever wants to hear. In February, a close friend of Copper’s, someone she referred to as her little brother, had died. The following month, she learned that her cousin had also died.
“I think the most challenging thing was just being away from my family and having such tragic things happen while being so far away, and not being able to snap your fingers and be home,” Copper said.
Copper added: “I’m superfamily. For me to have to deal with so many different emotions and have to continue playing and having to be myself, but to be here by myself is tough.”
Copper would leave her team in Spain on both occasions to head home to the United States. After a few days at home, she’d fly back to Salamanca to rejoin her team.
“Sometimes you have to step outside of yourself and embrace people that you meet, embrace meeting new people,” said Copper of how she managed being away from her family and the isolation that often comes with playing overseas. “I think stepping outside of your comfort zone and what you’re used to is what’s most important. Just taking it one day at a time and thinking about what’s important for you, what it is that you need and just putting yourself first.”
Sometimes it’s you come over … you do the job and then you leave and that’s that. And there’s other times where you come over and you meet people and you connect.”
In an overseas season as trying and difficult for Copper as this one, she was grateful for the support that she received from her Avenida team, which rallied around her as she was working through her trials at home.
Copper described the team as being special and genuine. She never felt any pressure to stay in Spain and was supported in any decision she ultimately made. Her teammates checked in on her, brought her food and spent time with her.
“You come overseas and sometimes it’s … I mean, honestly, sometimes it’s you come over and you just, you do the job and then you leave and that’s that,” Copper said. “And there’s other times where you come over and you meet people and you connect. … It was kind of different, it was more family for me and that’s what’s most important.
“I think the fans were amazing. They were tweeting me all day, every day, pretty much the same. Not worrying about me coming back to play or anything. Also, I love kids, so for the kids, just to be able to be a role model or to be that person that can inspire them and just to be nice.”
Copper led Avenida to a third-place finish in the EuroLeague this season and was also named EuroLeague MVP while earning a spot on the EuroLeague first team. This year marked her first appearance in EuroLeague play.
“I think the support is just, it’s a little different here,” Copper said. “I think the love is. … This is something that they … not like they don’t enjoy it in the States, but it’s just different. I think that the support and the love that they have, especially in my city, which is really small, is just amazing. They genuinely look forward to coming out and filling up the gym and supporting women’s basketball.”
When it comes to navigating the language barrier, whether on her team, grocery shopping or strolling the streets of Salamanca, Copper says it’s not quite what people think it is. Copper said her Spanish is not great, but added that she knows enough of the language to get by. It just may take some extra effort to find that particular grocery product she needs.
“You always have Google Translate ready,” Copper said. “I think that’s an essential right there.
“Sometimes people think that people don’t speak English at all. Maybe they don’t know a lot, but it’s just like me, I don’t know Spanish and they don’t know English. It’s not super difficult, it’s not that bad.”
Copper has mixed feelings about her future playing overseas. Part of Copper is happy with the new features of the CBA that provide additional options for WNBA players that would make them feel more comfortable with deciding to stay home in the U.S., where they are still able to make some money and feel a sense of assurance financially despite not going overseas.
A player of Copper’s caliber, with her level of success on the court both in the WNBA and abroad, will surely make her highly sought out by teams making offers from all over the globe.
Copper has contemplated maybe playing every other year overseas. She’s also contemplated playing each year overseas until she’s 30, as long as she’s healthy. While some players might have their decisions made, many are like Copper, wrestling with a choice many wish they wouldn’t have to make.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Produced by ESPN Creative Studio: Michelle Bashaw, Heather Donahue, Jarret Gabel, Nick Galac, Luke Knox and Rami Moghadam.
Written by Sean Hurd
Edited by Ed Guzman and Ashley Melfi
Photography credits: Kahleah Copper by Aldara Zarraoa/ANDSCAPE via Getty Images, Brionna Jones by Maja Hitij/ANDSCAPE via Getty Images, Jasmine Thomas and Bria Hartley by Danielle Villasana/ANDSCAPE via Getty Images. Shoot production and photo editing: Jim Surber/Runway 4.
Development by Robert Kirkner.