The perks of playing basketball overseas
Travel, fans, money and more make playing abroad a win-win
The game of basketball has evolved into a global phenomenon. That’s obvious at every recent NBA draft, as you’ll likely see Thursday night. Unlike some sports, basketball is not confined to a class, race, gender or geography.
Growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, I, like many others, was also captivated by the game. Basketball has always been a part of my life. I have been playing professionally for eight years now in Denmark, Greece, Germany, Portugal, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and currently in China with HG Century in Chendai, Fujian.
I am often asked, “How did you get chosen to play professionally overseas?” The process is normally you play college basketball. After your college career, you sign with an agent, that agent has contacts with teams overseas and the agent shops your profile to teams with whom the agent is associated.
There are many advantages of playing basketball in Europe and Asia. You get paid well to do what you love for a living, so since I love playing basketball, every day is the weekend or a holiday for me. Except for a handful of teams, your team is viewed as the NBA team for that city. You are very visible, and fans will routinely approach you for pictures and autographs while you’re doing normal things like shopping or eating.
Another advantage of playing ball overseas is the ability to travel to cities that many people save up their entire lives to visit. You are usually no more than a cheap two- to three-hour plane or train ride from a neighboring city or country. This past season I played in Manchester, United Kingdom, and was able to travel to Paris for 44 pounds or $58 U.S. round trip.
Other advantages are your team pays for your round-trip plane ticket to the country and back to your home at the end of the season; your salary is tax-free; the team pays for your housing; and you get to meet people from all over the world, learn their cultures and establish lifelong friendships.
I played college ball at the University of California, Riverside. The NBA was my first option, and I never even thought about playing overseas until my college career was coming to an end. During my junior year of college, I was in a car accident and suffered a broken foot and fourth-degree shoulder separation. As a result, I didn’t get healthy enough to contribute until conference play of my senior year.
Upon graduation, I was faced with two options: Quit the game I love or fight for my career overseas.
Playing overseas is not like the NBA
Most people hear pro basketball and automatically assume that players are pampered and famous. As I said, there are many perks that accompany a pro basketball career internationally. But there are also issues that people outside of the business aren’t aware of. For example, contracts are not as legally binding as with professional sports leagues in America. Despite guarantee clauses in contracts, teams routinely will cut a player, or withhold his salary, if they perceive he is not playing at the level they think he should be. It is totally subjective, and the team has full discretion.
There is a governing body for pro basketball overseas, the International Basketball Federation. It has provisions for when teams and players can go to arbitration to resolve contractual issues, but that is not a deterrent because teams routinely breach contracts. It also might seem fun when you see an international player’s social media feeds and you see all the places he’s lived in or visited, but that usually comes at the expense of stability.
This is a very nomadic business. You have to be prepared to pack up and move at any time. It can be for a variety of reasons: for a better contract offer, a team’s financial issues, whatever. Lastly, after the first few months in a country, it begins to be a grind off the court.
Personally, I think America is paradise and I could not live in another country permanently. Over the course of a season, which usually lasts seven to eight months, basketball is the easy part. The hard part is after those two to four hours of practice or games, you have the rest of the day to get through away from your friends and family. I’ve missed countless Thanksgivings, birthdays and family events. I tell players all the time, if you don’t love basketball, playing overseas will be difficult, and no amount of money will give you peace.
Outside of games and practices, and occasional school visits or community events, professional basketball players overseas are afforded an abundance of free time. Within the last year, I have found more productive activities than watching every TV show. One major activity is the creation of my business, Vindicated Sports, a consulting firm that educates prospective basketball players on what to expect when playing overseas and how to succeed.
Lastly, having a good agent is important. Players playing overseas won’t have to pay an agent for their services. In international basketball, agents are paid by the team 100 percent of the time.
A good agent will thoroughly vet a team to ensure it is financially stable. The agent will negotiate bonuses into your contract, ranging from a playoff bonus to a statistical bonus. The bonus options are limitless and almost everything from a statistical perspective is negotiable. Some players have double-double bonuses, some have rebounds bonuses. I had a season where, besides my base salary, I was paid a bonus for every basket I scored. Whether it was a 3-pointer or layup, I received a bonus. Needless to say, that was the most money I earned in any one season.
They will also negotiate amenities in your contract such as meals, flights for your family to visit and housing that meets the player’s standard. Agents who are reputable and credible enhance your career and help you avoid many of the issues. On the flip side, there are predatory agents who peruse Facebook for players who express a desire to play overseas, and beguile the player into giving them hundreds of dollars under the guise of the payment leading to a player signing a contract.
Other predatory agents have devised a more sophisticated and sinister plan to use players. Just like the agents I mentioned, these agents will use social media to find desperate and ambitious players and then sell these players on a team that, unbeknownst to the player, is an associate of the agent. Once the agent receives his fee from the team, he ends all communication with the player, who doesn’t realize he is in a bad situation until it is too late, leaving the player to fend for himself in a foreign country.
Most players who are drafted Thursday night or had a good college basketball career at the NCAA Division I level and decide to play overseas will have credible agents clamoring to represent them and will be protected from the unscrupulous ones.
On-the-court game is different too
On the court, playing basketball overseas is very different from the AAU/NBA culture we have in the States. The international game is predicated on ball movement and player movement. Isolation basketball is seldom seen, and fundamentals (shooting, backdoor cuts, utilizing screens, pick and roll, etc.) are prevalent. I implore all players who are preparing to go overseas to incorporate fewer isolation drills in their training and really focus on the fundamentals, (specifically shooting, big men included) because teams will not hesitate to break the contract and send you home because of it. During the NBA lockout of 2011, some established NBA players went overseas, and many struggled and were sent home because of the difference in systems.
Also, fans overseas in general are much more passionate than in America and take supporting their teams personally. Compared with international basketball, the NBA fan experience is the equivalent of a golf crowd. International games have a heavy police presence in full riot gear because of how invested the fans are with their teams. Opposing fans will routinely become unruly and fight during games. It is not uncommon for the benches to be covered with plexiglass because fans will throw things such as batteries, lit flares and coins.
There are many things that a person must adjust to when living in a foreign country. A few obvious adjustments: the language barrier in non-English speaking countries and cultural differences. One major cultural difference that I’ve noticed is personal space. Compared with American norms, Europeans — and, on a more dramatic level, Chinese people — stand very close to one another, so when you travel to these cultures, do not be offended or indignant when this happens.
One aspect of the culture shock that took me some time to adjust to was overt staring in China. Being a pro basketball player in Europe, it is normal for fans to ask for pictures and to greet you in the streets. But in China I had people congregate around me while I’m eating or when I’m shopping in the grocery store. Their eyes weren’t fixated on me because I was a basketball player but because they don’t see black people that often and are curious. All foreigners from the West — white, black, Hispanic — will have a similar narrative, no matter their profession.
Seeing me visibly confused and uncomfortable, my translator explained, “They are staring at you like this because they think you’re so cool.” Once I understood the staring wasn’t malicious, it made my adjustment process easier and I was able to enjoy the Chinese culture.
In terms of food, each country in which I’ve played has its own cultural norms that are unique. Some have tea with certain meals; for some, bread is an essential part of the diet. Others hold lamb, rice, beef and coffee in high regard. It really just depends on the country.
Yet, I must say I have had a good professional basketball career with very few issues. I realize that God has blessed me with this life. So even if there might seem to be reasons for me to complain, I focus on the positive opportunities I’m afforded, and that has helped me tremendously on and off the court.