“Why didn’t you just go to Europe?” is a question I get asked often. You see aside from being kinda tall, I actually played ball in college, but never went on to have a pro career like some of my friends thanks to a freak encounter with a heart condition when I was still in college and the fact that I probably wasn’t that good to begin with. The questions I’m pelted with on a daily basis indicate to me that people seem to think that you can go to an NBA or top European team and say “I’m ready now” and receive a lucrative contract to play basketball. The reality is way more nuanced than that.
There are 4,381 college scholarships available for basketball, and that’s just on the Division 1 level. Only 450 players can be employed by the National Basketball Association in any basketball season; only 60 get drafted each year and less than half of them actually hang on to carve out a career in the NBA. Your cousin that wants to be a rapper has a better chance of being signed to RocNation than your other cousin that plays ball has to make the NBA. The basketball players who don’t go to the NBA (the vast majority) are left to ply their trade all over the globe. This may seem like an easy way for somebody with some blacktop skills to collect checks in strange locales. The truth is that there’s nothing easy about being a professional basketball player.
They don’t just let you in the door
Professional basketball contracts don’t just fall in your lap. “The process to signing to a team like applying to any job basically boils down to who you know,” professional basketball player Quentin Demeritte explains to me. He goes on to explain that players from flagship programs like Duke and Kansas are more likely to get the top jobs (i.e. the leagues you probably heard of like the Spanish ACB, and the top leagues in countries like Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Italy). Those rare instances, like in the cases where heralded players like Kyle Singler and Sylven Landsberg received lucrative contracts out of college are the exception rather than the rule. For most players, where they play and the money they make is entirely dependent on what their agent can negotiate for them.
Quentin goes on to say that in some cases guys that played at major schools but didn’t necessarily light the world on fire can also find themselves making big money in Europe just off the strength of their big name Alma-mater. “There are guys out of school who average 3 points their senior year and end up playing in top leagues,” he adds.
Bennet Davis of Chartres, in the French League, swore it was all luck getting signed to an agent (being all-AEC every year he played at Northeastern University didn’t hurt either, I suppose).
“I have had the same agent since I left college in 2007. KMG Sports Management Group CEO is Richard Katz, and the head of basketball operations Chet Ervin; I got connected with them through JJ. Barrea.” Davis states that the agents spotted him while watching a tape of his former teammate and eventual NBA champ (Barrea) and that was all it took to launch his highly successful overseas career.
The thousands of players that go to mid-major, or mediocre major D1 programs with aspirations of getting a paycheck to play basketball have to rely on their agents and whatever connections they might have. And signing to an agency isn’t easy either according to Demeritte. “If a player isn’t scouted out of college by an agency,” he explains, “he has to send tapes and a bio/resume. If the agency doesn’t think they can help the player they aren’t gonna sign that player. And with no agent a player has minimal chances to sign a contract.”
An overseas contract is by no means a guaranteed deal. Most international contracts are for a single season. Players don’t get paid if they’re not playing and some have to find jobs during the off-season. The uncertainty doesn’t end there. International imports are expensive for foreign teams usually operating in the red. If they go on a losing streak, the owner may not see the point in wasting money on an import and simply send him home… which happens more often than you think.
The competition is way better than you think
People seem to think that a U.S. college basketball player going “overseas” dominates those no-name foreigners we never heard of like in that hoax going around the internet a few months back that reported Kanye West scored 106 points on some wheelchair-bound kids. The reality is way different. The guys playing in places you didn’t even know had leagues are better than you think.
Jauraun ‘Kino’ Burrows spoke to me about the level of play he faces in Sweden. “I think all of the imports are [division] 1″. He goes on to say that although not all of the Europeans he faces in that league are D1 level athletes, their grasp of fundamentals more than make up for their lack of athleticism. “[They] may not be high level D1 physically but they are great role players and great at what they do, they’re great sharpshooters or great rebounders, etc”.
To illustrate the level of competition you might find overseas, let’s use Australia as a case study. It seems like the Aussie NBL would be a nice place for an okay college basketball player to try to collect a check when they’re done with school. A glance on the league’s statistical leaders page will quickly erase that illusion. The leading scorer is former PAC-12 first team player Brock Motum, while the leading rebounder is NBA and overseas veteran, Josh Childress. The league is full of other players who have played in the NBA like Childress or will play at some point in their career like Motum, such as Scottie Wilbeken of the Cairns Taipens, the Reigning SEC player of the Year fresh off a Final Four run with the University of Florida, former NBA draftee Jordan McRae, formerly of the Tennessee Vols. The reigning player of the week is Jermaine Beal – former standout guard from Vanderbilt (they seem to love SEC guys in the land of Mad Max).
The Aussie league is full of guys that can flat-out play, and it isn’t near anybody’s short list of top international leagues in the world. So if any of you blacktop warriors out there thinks they can go somewhere and drop 20, you may wanna rethink that.
Playing professional basketball is a grind
“Practice practice and more practice” is how Bennet Davis describes his daily routine. It may seem that getting paid up to six figures to play a game a lot of you play for recreational purposes in exotic locales is a paid vacation. The reality is that playing professional basketball is a physically intensive full-time job. Players practice at least once a day every day during the season, and this isn’t even including the lifting, conditioning and extra shooting that constitute players’ in-season daily routines.
Preseason is even tougher, according to Davis. “Training camp can sometimes make you wonder if you should have chosen another profession,” he jokingly admits. Getting in basketball shape is tough and the physical ordeal doesn’t get much easier once the season starts.
The act of getting up and getting mentally and physically prepared to practice or play every day can become a drag. I played 30 games per season in college and it was the physical equivalent of waking up every morning, running full-speed and jumping into a wall, going to sleep and waking up knowing that you’ll have to soon run into this wall tomorrow. You have bruises in places you never even knew existed and you’re sore, not because you’re hurt but just off principle. I would be over it by game 20. Professionals may play anywhere from 30 to 50 games while working out or practicing two or three times a day, six times a week. Most of the guys I know are so burnt out by season’s end that they don’t touch a ball for a month after the season’s over.
Playing basketball for a living when it’s all said and done can be a pretty good deal. You get to live abroad while being paid to play a game, sometimes even with your family (as in the case of Bennet, who has his wife and infant son with him in France). However, if you think getting paid to play basketball overseas is as easy as your aunt going to her MP during an election to get her “gubment” job, you’re thoroughly mistaken. It takes talent, an inhuman work ethic, height and some good luck. Things that most of us don’t have.
Culled from 10thyearseniors.com