Across The Water
Making it to the NBA is the ultimate goal for lots of talented college players. But as numerous past Fighting Illini hard-court greats can tell you, playing professional basketball overseas is also a supreme experience – though not without its challenges.
By Sal Nudo
Small hands hoist up shots on the local playground. Teenagers compete in frenzied high school gyms across the country. College basketball players can practically taste it. What drives such athletes on a worldwide scale?
Playing in the National Basketball Association.
But what chance does a hopeful hoopster actually have of making a living in basketball’s revered dream world?
The fast answer is that there are more than 6 billion people on Earth and only 60 fortunate players get selected to join the NBA each year. Of those 60, only the first 30 drafted in the first round are guaranteed a contract. Yes, there is an NBA Development League and invitees, but the chances of making it to basketball’s apex are less than a 1 in 100 million shot. What players perceive as the Promised Land – where competition is tops, travel first class, hotels luxurious and adulation abundant – is immensely hard to reach.
“It’s what everyone aspires to, but it’s certainly not easy,” said Derrick Burson ’99 media, associate sports information director at the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. “Every year there [are] college All-Americans that don’t even get drafted.
“That’s just a reality.”
So what’s an energetic young man in the prime of his athletic life to do when his collegiate playing days are over? Back in the days of Bruce Douglas ’01 las and earlier – before the game of hoops went ballistic the world over – opportunities to play professional basketball overseas were not as plentiful, said Burson. Some cusp-of-the-NBA players may have had to settle for a job in the “real world” and dominate their basketball compatriots in the confines of a suburban gym.
These days opportunities flourish in countries the average person might not link to Michael Jordan’s sport. Stephen Bardo ’90 las – he of the late-1980s Flying Illini Final Four fame and now a college basketball analyst on ESPN – offered up his blood, sweat and tears on courts all over Spain, Italy, Japan, France and Venezuela. Kiwane Garris ’97, Illinois’ second all-time leading scorer and a two-year player in the NBA, gutted it out at high levels for more than a decade in Germany and Italy – and his playing days may not be over. Illinois State University transfer Marcus Arnold ’07 las now utilizes his physicality to put up big numbers for a team in the Czech Republic, a place he never imagined living in while growing up.
Long rides from gym to gym, grueling practices over an extensive season, occasional outdoor courts and constant language barriers (all for money that is really good but usually not NBA good) may not sound ideal. Yet playing professional basketball outside of the U.S., as several former Fighting Illini players can attest, is not without its hefty rewards and charms.
“I know a lot of guys scared [to go] overseas to play,” said Garris, “but I encourage people to take advantage of it. You can make a good living.
“I never thought basketball would take me so far.”
‘Soak it in’
During the 1990s, the 6-foot-6-inch Bardo played several seasons in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons. Years later, though, his reflections regarding the on-site cultural education he experienced while playing international ball offer serious competition to memories of the NBA’s potentially million-dollar contracts and a shot at U.S. stardom.
“I grew up overseas, pretty much, and I really matured and became a man going over there,” said Bardo. His forays into his overseas surroundings didn’t go unnoticed by his non-American teammates, who appreciated the former Illini’s willingness to visit storied sites in distant lands. Surprisingly, Bardo said, many American players eschewed the chance to explore their foreign environments. While others hit McDonald’s, Bardo, a serious history buff, was out and about visiting homes, cultivating friendships, viewing monuments and observing all he could.
“If you’re going to be across the water, you might as well soak it in,” he said.
Over the span of a decade, Bardo’s overseas pro career allowed him to explore 13 countries, win championships and put up fine statistics during his long sports career. His international experiences also did wonders for his mind, body and spirit.
“It was uncomfortable during the time,” he said, “but I look back on it and think it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It didn’t hurt, of course, that even as far away as Japan and Spain, folks who barely knew English were familiar with the 1988-89 Flying Illini squad, and they made sure to let Bardo know.
“We were known worldwide, so that warmed my heart,” he said.
Nothin’ but ’Net?
“We lost Internet access!!” proclaimed Trent Meacham ’08 ahs, edm ’10, on his April 13, 2010, blog posting. “So for anyone playing overseas, you know that the Internet is pretty much your lifeline back home. Some of the guys here will joke and question how Americans used to make it over here in Europe before there was Internet.”
Meacham’s insight about staying with it via the World Wide Web resonates with international players of his generation, who regularly rely on Facebook, Twitter, Skype and good old-fashioned e-mail to communicate back home.
“It’s just changed everything,” said DIA’s Burson of today’s multiple ways of reaching out. Because of technological advances, he said, current international pro players don’t feel so detached from home as guys did 20 years ago, when phone calls cost $3 or $4 a minute, and you could end up feeling like it was just you and your teammates. Case in point: Dee Brown ’05 ahs, one of the most beloved Illini basketball players of all time who’s now playing in China. At last count, he had more than 5,600 people following him on Twitter, where Brown keeps them posted (via the compact language of Twitter) with entries like: “In beijing WOW its so nice its an unbelievable city! Just got done shoppin … BIG GAME tom I will be ready!”
Meacham utilizes the Web to stay in touch with family and friends and to keep up with hoops scores in the U.S. (particularly when NCAA March Madness is in full swing). “Anybody can beat anybody on a given night,” he said on his blog about the 2010 tournament. “It’s just one of the things which make basketball the greatest game in the world!”
A self-described “homebody,” Meacham told Illinois Alumni that residing in Europe with his wife, Theresa, has forced both of them to escape their comfort zones and plunge forward. Once they got their bearings, Meacham said the experience of living in unfamiliar places has been healthy for their marriage, perhaps because he and Theresa are in the same boat together.
“Just a few weeks after we got married, we headed overseas without really knowing what we were getting into,” he said.
What Meacham has gotten into during the last two years are spots on teams in Austria and Germany, where he’s played against former NBA all-star Allen Iverson, been named to an all-star team himself and faced top-notch competition all over Europe.
While Meacham maintains his blog, uses Skype to watch his stateside niece grow up and connects as much as he can through Facebook, he also makes sure to meet lots of people in person, too, just like the older-school Illini players that trekked before him to faraway places.
“I really enjoy getting to know people,” said Meacham, “and I’ve already made some great friends in the short time I’ve been playing overseas.”
‘The world is a big place’
But players who choose the “nothin’ but ’Net” social interaction option may sometimes miss the here and now. For Jerry Hester II ’97 las, who played basketball overseas when serious online social networking wasn’t even on the radar, camaraderie with teammates – swapping stories, visiting people’s homes – ruled the day.
Currently an expert basketball analyst on the Illini Sports Network, a financial analyst for The Downey Group Inc. and a UI Alumni Association board member, Hester formed close relationships during the six years he spent abroad (1998-2004). “I can’t speak for the players now,” he said, “but that’s why pretty much every place I played I still have relationships with a lot of the players that were from that country.
“We did spend a lot of time together because we couldn’t get on the Internet.”
Hester’s stints with teams in Poland, Israel, Yugoslavia and England allowed him to travel to 24 countries – a figure larger than the number of U.S states he’s visited. His time in Poland seems especially poignant, when he became great friends with his translator, Bartek Halemba, who showed him the ropes early on. Something must have clicked with Halemba’s tutorials, because in 2008 Hester was voted the decade’s most popular player on Stal Ostrow’s team (1998-2008).
Poland was nearly a decade removed from Communism at the time, a fact that resonated deeply with Hester, who loved to absorb people’s life tales.
“Just to hear stories about what they went through made me appreciate what we have here in the United States,” he said, adding that the history books can only teach you so much.
Hester – who estimates he’s proficient at understanding Polish and halfway fluent in speaking it – said he wouldn’t trade his international experiences for anything.
“The world is a big place,” he said, “but at the same time, it’s not as big as we think.”
While the international landscape may be less familiar, professional basketball games abroad don’t differ that much from those in the NBA or college. Coaches scream away in Turkey just like they do at UCLA (and yes, they do the screaming mostly in English these days); fans cheer for the teams they support; referees continue to make good and bad calls; and players compete with gusto (partly because of the plethora of NBA scouts lurking around in Europe).
“Once you get on the court … the game is pretty much the same around the world,” said Bardo.
That includes the occasional scuffle. The physical style of play that’s so evident in a typical NBA game occurs in international games, too – perhaps on an even more rough-and-tumble basis. Once, after a few overly enthusiastic elbow exchanges, Bardo found himself involved in an on-court altercation shown on national Italian television. As he had it out with the opposing player at the sidelines, beneath the basket and on the ground, a policeman came over to break things up – or so Bardo thought. In actuality, the officer attempted to “stomp” on Bardo, whose teammates ended up escorting him safely out of the gym. Fuming fans later pelted Bardo’s team bus with ice as it drove off the premises.
Basketball may play second or third fiddle in soccer-crazed Europe and elsewhere, but fans overseas can get passionate – even downright rowdy – when it comes to their hoops teams. It’s not uncommon, said veteran European player Damir Krupalija ’02 bus, to see a couple of buses carry dedicated French fans 300 to 400 miles to follow their team for a big away game. And when it comes to the referees in other parts of the world, Krupalija said they sometimes have it rough.
“At U of I, no matter how bad the refereeing crew was, they never had to worry about their safety,” he said. “In some places I played that is not the case. Fans take it seriously.”
Learning from others
Basketball may have been invented in Springfield, Mass., in 1891, but Deon Thomas ’94 las, Illinois’ all-time leading scorer, thinks Americans could learn a thing or two from their fellow coaches in Europe.
Thomas – who experienced an impressive 14-year pro career in Spain, Israel, Greece and Bulgaria – believes true basketball is all about all-around skill (think guards posting up down low and big men running the point on a fast break).
That sort of player completeness is how the game is taught and played overseas, and Thomas would like to see more of it in U.S. basketball. “[Here] we rely so much on our athleticism that if a kid’s a great athlete … we give him the ball and say, ‘Hey, go do what you can do,’ instead of teaching this kid the basics,” he said.
“If he’s tall, [Americans] think he needs to play the post. I think that’s probably the biggest misconception … that has to do with basketball.”
In order to instill a wide assortment of skills into each player’s psyche and game, coaches will have to step it up in America, said Thomas. To that end, in his role as a coach and director of athletics at Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey, he has his guards go through the same drills in practice as his big men and vice versa.
“[All-around] basketball players should be made – not a guard, not a two-guard, not a center,” he said. “I think that’s one of the areas where we’re falling behind the rest of the world.”
A true basketball ambassador, Thomas would likely agree that the sport’s way of providing such massive togetherness on a worldwide scale is perhaps its greatest asset.
Illinois is well-represented on basketball courts worldwide, from the aforementioned Illinois stars to Cleotis Brown ’99 (Argentina, Ireland), Robert Archibald ’02 las (Spain, Italy, Ukraine), Cory Bradford ’02 las (Qatar, Mexico, Europe), Frank Williams ’03 (Italy, Argentina), Jack Ingram ’05 eng (Slovenia, Poland), Roger Powell ’05 las (Germany, Italy, Israel, Spain), James Augustine ’06 ahs (Spain), Warren Carter ’07 ahs (Israel, Turkey, Spain, Greece), Brian Randle ’07 aces (Israel), Calvin Brock ’08 ahs (Germany), Shaun Pruitt ’08 las (Puerto Rico, Greece, China, Croatia, Czech Republic) and Chester Frazier ’09 ahs (one year in Germany).
And who wouldn’t love those opportunities? Getting paid to play the game you love against outstanding competition in a different land offers a whole new outlook on the sport. You may be hard-pressed to find a former Illini hoops player who hasn’t extracted positive things from his time on the hard courts of numerous countries and continents.
Basketball has undoubtedly opened life’s doors to many past Fighting Illini greats. Playing their favorite game in far-flung lands has no doubt swung that door wider still.