“A free ticket to travel”: American basketball players establishing themselves in Europe

There were just 21 foreign players on NBA rosters on the first night of the 1990–91 NBA season. As the 2021–22 season got off, there were 121 players from 39 different nations in the group.

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Nearly half of those players are from Europe, and as basketball has surpassed other traditional American sports as the country’s national sport, European players have gradually established themselves in the NBA and dispelled the long-held myth that players from other countries are weak, unathletic, and soft.

Europeans are no longer only a statistical anomaly. Three of the five players chosen as the best in the league were Europeans when the All-NBA teams were revealed earlier this summer. A European has earned the league MVP title each of the last four years.

Thoughts of basketball as a global sport, however, frequently only take into account the movement of players in one direction: Europeans traveling over the pond to compete at the highest level, with Americans seldom making the other trip.

In the Euroleague, the top tournament in Europe, the percentage of Americans has increased by 119% during the 2000 season. Over that period, Americans’ percentage of Euroleague points scored has climbed by 76%.

But in Europe, there are dozens of leagues of different sizes and levels, and every year hundreds of Americans take the opportunity to continue their careers abroad while earning some money and seeing the world, unlike in the United States where a select few are drafted into the NBA and WNBA and the rest cast aside.

As a former player in the Spanish and Swedish leagues and WNBA draftee, Mehryn Kraker told the Guardian, “One thing you learn while playing overseas is that whatever level you want, it’s there.” “It’s available at any intensity or commitment level you choose. That might, however, occasionally mean sacrificing a substantial salary or the perfect nation.

But how can American athletes who are pursuing careers overseas adjust to both the on- and off-court lifestyle in the European leagues? The Guardian conducted interviews with many basketball players who had traveled across the continent to discuss life and basketball across the ocean.

What kind of expectations did you have for life there?

Devante Wallace (Czech, Czech, Polish, Romanian, British, Austrian, and Lithuanian leagues): “That it would be hard and demanding, and you would miss your home country.” However, he (the old college teammate) claimed that European basketball was really textbook and that the talent level there was quite high.

Mehryn Kraker (Swedish and Spanish leagues): “I believe I had a fair notion [prior to beginning her career in Spain’s Liga Femenina de Baloncesto with Cadi La Seu].” As a rhythmic gymnast, my sister would go to Europe with her teammates.I had thus visited Europe once or twice by the time I arrived there.

“It didn’t seem like a free ticket to travel, but you can’t really plan for it until you get there.”

Have you missed anything from American life?

In the Italian, Hungarian, Belgian, and Polish leagues, Kirby Burkholder said, “The most important thing is the relationship to your friends and family,” and occasionally, “breakfast food Indeed, American breakfasts are the greatest, in my opinion.

Kraker: “America’s comfort of living… Everything has been made simple by American society. One store that is always open and has everything you could ever need is available.

Wallace: “It wasn’t available where I was going to eat soul food, and I missed being able to converse with my pals the way I typically do. You must speak very slowly for them to comprehend you. In translation, words might be mistranslated.

How did the first cultural shock and arrival go?

“French people can be very cold in initial conversation… but once you actually create a real relationship with these people you have friends for life,” says Cheick Sy Savane, Montpellier Basket Mosson, France.

“They have a pretty relaxed lifestyle that involves enjoying life, having a drink at midday, and perhaps returning to work later. It was quite hard to adjust to coming from a fast-paced place like New York.”

Burkholder: “That year was really difficult. I spent a lot of time on the phone at home. Entering your first year is a major adjustment, and many players—including myself—find the cultural shock to be particularly difficult.

Wallace: “I won’t lie, it wasn’t easy. It was difficult during my first week and a half in Austria. I used to prefer to stay in my room and avoid going outside. I had no desire to take action.

Burkholder: “We had smoking teammates at halftime. We used to think it was really absurd when they would walk outside to smoke during our dinner dates.

Kraker: “There is no comparison between the cultures of Spain and the US.” To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about Spain. Spain was, I believe, one of the nations that most struck me as alien and unusual. However, I believe that the Spanish have practically perfected work-life balance. I was unaware of how late they ate dinner. That was a significant shift coming from the United States.

How about the language?

“It was probably the hardest thing,” said Savane. They don’t even try to speak English any further south than they did when I first arrived in the south of France. No, you either speak French here or you don’t speak at all. I had to learn as a result.

There’s already an early preconceived perception about having Americans on foreign teams, so it almost divides you and creates a weird relationship, he continues. It appears as though you have moved there to occupy the position of a native person.

Burkholder: “To help, you need a colleague to go with you. or you’re pointing and attempting to play charades.”

Kraker: “There weren’t many English speakers because it was a tiny [Spanish] town. Although I took five years of Spanish in high school and a small amount in college, I don’t think anything can truly prepare you until you really put it into practice.