“A free pass to travel”: Americans forge basketball careers in Europe basketball

OOn opening night of the 1990-91 NBA season, there were only 21 international players on the roster across the league. At the start of the 2021/22 season, there were 121 players from 39 different countries.

Of these, almost half are European, and since basketball has become America’s global game In ways other traditional sports have not, European players have steadily gained a foothold in the NBA, overcoming long-held stereotypes of foreign-born players as soft, slow and unsportsmanlike.

Nowadays, Europeans no longer just invent numbers. When the All-NBA teams were announced earlier this summer, three of the five players named the league’s best were European. In each of the last four years, the league’s MVP award has been won by a European.

But notions of basketball as a global game often consider only one direction of travel: that of Europeans crossing the pond to test themselves at the elite level, but rarely that of Americans going in the opposite direction.

Since the 2000 season, American participation in Europe’s premier competition, the Euroleague, has grown by 119%. During that time, Americans’ share of Euroleague points has increased by 76%.

But unlike the United States, where a select few are drafted into the NBA and WNBA and the rest brushed aside, Europe has dozens of leagues of varying sizes and levels, and each year hundreds of Americans take the opportunity to advance their careers abroad while earning some money and seeing the world.

“One thing you learn from playing abroad is that any level you want is there,” Mehryn Kraker, a WNBA draftee and former Spanish and Swedish league player, told the Guardian. “Whatever intensity level you desire, whatever commitment level, it’s there. It’s just sometimes that a big paycheck or the ideal country is sacrificed.”

But how do American players making careers abroad adapt to life in the European leagues, both on and off the pitch? The Guardian spoke to some who have played across the continent about life and basketball on the other, other side of the pond.

Did you have any expectations of what life would be like there?

Devante Wallace (Lithuanian, Finnish, Czech, Polish, Romanian, British and Austrian Leagues): “That it would be hard and difficult and you would get homesick. But he [former college teammate] I said the level of talent over there is really good [and] European basketball was really a textbook.”

Mehryn Kraker (Spanish, Swedish League): “I think I had a good idea [before starting her career with Cadi La Seu in Spain’s Liga Femenina de Baloncesto]. My sister was a rhythmic gymnast and [they] going to Europe… so when I was there, I’d already been to Europe once or twice.

“It seemed like a free pass to travel, but I don’t think you can prepare for it until you get there.”

Is there something you missed about living in the US?

Kirby Burkholder (Italian, Hungarian, Belgian and Polish leagues): “The biggest thing is connecting with your friends and family.” [and] “Sometimes breakfast dishes… I think America has the best breakfast.”

Kraker: “The ease of America…American culture made everything easy. You have everything you could need in one shop and it’s open all the time.”

Wallace: “Going to a soul food restaurant didn’t exist there, [and] I missed being able to talk the way I usually talk to my friends… you have to speak very, very slowly for them to understand you. Words can get lost in translation.”

What was the initial arrival and culture shock like?

Cheick Sy Savane (Montpellier Basket Mosson, France): “French people can be very cold in the first conversation… but once you develop a real relationship with these people, you have friends for life.

“They’ve been very relaxed about that, enjoying life, let’s have a wine at lunchtime and then maybe go back to work, kind of a lifestyle. It was extremely difficult to adjust to being from a fast moving area like New York.”

Burkeholder: “It was a very tough year. I was on the phone a lot at home… It’s a big new transition that you’re going into in that first year and a lot of players including me are having a tougher first year with all the culture shock.”

Wallace: “I won’t lie, it was difficult. My first week and a half [in Austria] … It was hard. I stayed in my room, I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to do anything.”

Burkeholder: “We had teammates at halftime who were smoking … We went out to dinner and they went outside to take smoke breaks [and] we thought that was pretty crazy.”

Kraker:Spanish and American cultures couldn’t be more different. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Spain. I think Spain was one of the countries that struck me as the most alien and exotic. But I think the Spaniards have mastered work-life balance, almost flawlessly… I didn’t realize how late they ate dinner. That was a huge adjustment that came from the States.”

What about the language?

Savannah: “That was probably the hardest part. The moment I arrived in the south of France… the moment you drive further south, they don’t even try to speak English. No, here they either speak French or they don’t speak it at all… so I had to study.

“It [the language barrier] almost separates you and creates a weird dynamic,” he adds, because “there’s already an initial preconceived notion about having Americans on foreign teams… It’s like you’re there to make way for someone originally from originated there.”

Burkeholder: “You need a teammate to go with you to help … or you’re trying to play charades and show off.”

Kraker: “To be in a little [Spanish] Town didn’t have a ton of English speakers… I had studied Spanish for five years in high school and a little bit in college, but I don’t think it ever prepares you for it until you’ve immersed yourself in it.

Mehryn Octopus
Mehryn Kraker (10) has played in several European leagues alongside her time in the WNBA. Photo: Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

What does Europe do better than the US?

Kraker: “Other people’s opinions are much more respected… I’ve never had as many honest and open conversations as in Europe, with respect on both sides.

“Europe in general is more accepting of different lifestyles and public transport is much more advanced and encouraged.”

Burkeholder: “The train – you can just get on. Every day off [in Italy] We got on the train and visited… we were in a very central location, we could go to Rome, we could go to Florence. One of my favorite things about playing abroad is being able to travel, see new places and learn about the culture.”

Wallace: “I’ve gotten used to taking the train. In the US, public transportation is terrible.”

Kraker: “The quality of food is much, much better in Europe. We were really spoiled, we had fresh fruit and veg at a farmer’s market twice a week on our way home from the gym for my first two years [in Spain]. And I remember going back to the States and going to the grocery store and picking up an apple and it’s been twice [as] expensive, and it didn’t taste nearly the same.”

Something worse?

Burkhalter: “They are notorious for money problems and I often had that at my club [in Poland]. In that particular year we didn’t even have a coach… there was an older player playing and coaching.”

“I got paid eight months late and I wasn’t even sure I was going to get paid,” she adds. “The hardest thing about basketball abroad is the business side…in the States, when you sign a contract, you get paid, you really don’t have to worry. But in Europe you can sign a contract and you’re never really sure if you’re going to get the money.”

Wallace: “In my freshman year, I saw three or four people get cut from a team. I’ve seen guys just get cut off from three games. They played badly, didn’t pass the ball. I’ve seen guys just not get paid. There have been some wild experiences.”

What are the differences in playstyle?

Kraker: “In general, the physicality of the Spanish league was something I didn’t think I was prepared for. I remember getting rocked in my first few games and thinking, okay, this is Spanish basketball.”

“The Spanish style is super fast and dominates protection… it’s just so fluid and everyone knows how to move on and off the ball.”

Wallace: “European basketball is completely different… You will move the ball a lot more and defend harder. The color is grabbed because there is no defensive three seconds [rule].”

“It’s not even the fact that they are [Lithuanian league players] super skillful, it’s the fact that they know the game inside out. They won’t impress you with their speed, they will impress you with how intelligent they are on the pitch.”

“It’s a lot more physical over here. You won’t get calls you get in America, or you probably won’t get calls at all. It’s really, really physical.” The Lithuanian league in particular, he says, is a “really physical league… the guys there play dirty”.

Burkeholder: “They are stricter with travel calls. The freshman year for Americans is tough because it’s literally a whole different step that we can take in college… My teammate had a lot of trouble with that, she would make an average of two trips per game.

Savannah: “It’s more of a team game… In the US, the player is king. While I’ve found in Europe that the team is king, the manager is king.” “As far as scoring goals in Europe,” he adds, “it’s a bit more difficult.”

How does the level of play compare?

Kraker: “The Spanish league is much higher than college. You play with women who have been to the Olympics and are 10 to 15 years into their pro careers…they’ve seen it all and done it.”

“Pretty much every team in Spain had WNBA players on their roster…every night was a tough game, whether it was the major league or the minor.”

Burkeholder: “These top teams in the Euroleague, there are so many people that could hang in the WNBA … you’re going to run into a lot of players [in the Italian leagues] that could definitely play just as well as some of these WNBA girls. During their time in Belgium, however, the level was more diverse: the league had two elite teams – a Euroleague team and a Eurocup team – but from the rest of the league “some could compare to a high school team. ”

Savannah: “The level I played at [French M3] could be comparable [NCAA] Division II… Athletics in the US is a whole different beast,” he says, “but the IQ in Europe is higher, so they don’t necessarily need these freak athletes.”