OOn opening night of the 1990-91 NBA season, there were only 21 international players on rosters across the league. At the start of the 2021-22 season, that number was 121 players representing 39 different countries.
Of this number, almost half are European, and as basketball has become the American sport world game unlike its other mainstream sports, European players have gradually gained a foothold in the NBA and overcome long-held stereotypes that foreign-born players are soft, slow and unsportsmanlike.
Today, Europeans do nothing more than count. When the All-NBA teams were announced earlier this summer, three of the five players voted the league’s best were Europeans. In each of the past four years, the league MVP title 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 elite level, but rarely Americans going in the opposite direction. .
Since the 2000 season, the share of Americans in Europe’s premier competition, the Euroleague, has increased by 119%. During this period, the share of Euroleague points scored by Americans increased by 76%.
But unlike the United States, where a chosen few are drafted into the NBA and WNBA and the rest cast aside, in Europe there are dozens of leagues of varying sizes and levels, and every year hundreds of Americans take advantage of it to pursue their careers. abroad while earning some money and discovering the world.
“One thing you learn from playing overseas is whatever level you want, it’s there,” WNBA rookie and former Spanish and Swedish league player Mehryn Kraker told the Guardian. “Whatever level of intensity you want, whatever level of commitment, it’s there. It’s just sometimes that it can come at the cost of a big paycheck or the perfect country.
But how do American players making careers overseas adjust to life in European leagues, on and off the pitch? The Guardian spoke to several players who played across the continent about life and basketball across 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): “How hard and difficult it would be, and how homesick you would be. But he [former college teammate] said the level of talent there is really good [and] European basketball was really a textbook.
Mehryn Kraker (Spanish, Swedish leagues): “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] would be traveling to Europe… so by the time I was there I had been to Europe once or twice.
“It seemed like a free ticket to travel, but I don’t think you can prepare for it until you’re there.”
Is there anything you missed in life in the United States?
Kirby Burkholder (Italian, Hungarian, Belgian and Polish leagues): “The most important thing is connecting with your friends and family,” [and] “Sometimes the breakfast food…I think America has the best breakfast.”
Cracking: “America’s ease… American culture has made everything easy. You have everything you could possibly need in one store and it’s open all the time.
Wallace: “Go to a soul food restaurant, they didn’t have that there, [and] I missed being able to speak like I usually speak with my friends… you have to speak very, very slowly, so that they understand you. Words can get lost in translation.
How was the initial arrival and the culture shock?
Cheick Sy Savane (Montpellier Basket Mosson, France): “The French can be very cold in an initial conversation… but once you create a real relationship with these people, you have friends for life.
“They have this very laid-back lifestyle, enjoy life, let’s have a wine at noon and maybe get back to the work lifestyle. It was extremely difficult to get used to coming from a fast-paced area like New York.
Burkholder: “It’s been a really tough year. I was on the phone a lot at home… It’s a huge new transition you’re going through this first year, and a lot of players, myself included, are having a tougher first year with all the culture shock.
Wallace: “I’m not going to lie, it was difficult. My first week and a half [in Austria] … It was hard. Before, I stayed in my room, I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to do anything.
Burkholder: “We had teammates at half time who were smoking… We were going out to dinner and they were going out for smoke breaks [and] we thought that was pretty crazy.
Krak: “Spanish and American culture couldn’t be more different. I didn’t know much about Spain, to be honest. I think Spain was one of the countries that struck me as the most foreign and exotic. But I think the Spaniards have mastered work-life balance, almost wrongly… I hadn’t realized what time they had dinner. It was a huge adjustment coming from the United States.
What about the language?
Savanna: “That was probably the hardest thing. By the time I got to the south of France… by the time you go further south they don’t even make the attempt to try to speak English. No, here you speak French or you don’t speak at all… so I had to learn.
“This [the language barrier] Almost separates you and creates a weird dynamic,” he adds, because “there is already a preconceived idea at the start about the presence of Americans in foreign teams… It is as if you were there to take the place from someone who is from there.
Burkholder: “You need a teammate to help you…or you try to play charades and point fingers.”
Cracking: “Being in a small [Spanish] town, there weren’t a ton of English speakers… I had taken five years of Spanish in high school and a bit in college, but I don’t think it ever prepares you until you’re there not immersed.
What does Europe do better than the United States?
Cracking: “Other people’s opinions are much more respected… I’ve never had so many honest and open conversations than when I was 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.”
Burkholder: “The train – you can just hop on. Any holiday [in Italy] we were jumping on the train and visiting… we were in a very central place, we could go to Rome, go to Florence. One of my favorite things about playing abroad is being able to travel and see new places, learn the culture.
Wallace: “I got into the habit of taking the train. In the United States, public transport is terrible. »
Cracking: “The quality of food is much better in Europe. We were really spoiled, we had fresh fruit and vegetables twice a week at a farmer’s market on our way home from the gym 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 that was twice [as] expensive, and it didn’t taste the same.
burk holder: “They are known for their money problems and I had that a lot at my club [in Poland]. That year we didn’t even have a coach… there was an older player playing and coaching.
“I was paid eight months late and I didn’t even know if I was going to be paid,” she adds. “The hardest thing about basketball overseas is the business aspect…in the United States if you sign a contract you get paid, you really don’t have to worry about that But in Europe you can sign a contract and you’re never really sure you’ll get that money.
Wallace: “The first year I saw three or four people get kicked out of a team. I saw guys get cut right after three games. They played badly, didn’t pass the ball. I I’ve seen guys not getting paid. There have been crazy experiences.
What are the playstyle differences?
Cracking: “In general, the physique in the Spanish league was something that I don’t think I was prepared for. I remember being shaken up in my first games and thinking, OK, this is Spanish basketball.
“The Spanish style is super fast and the ball screen dominates…it’s so fluid, and everyone knows how to move on and off the ball.”
Wallace: “European basketball is completely different… They are going to move the ball a lot more, play tougher defense. The painting is going to be packed because there is no defense three seconds [rule].”
“It’s not even the fact that they are [Lithuanian league players] super skilled is the fact that they know the game very well. They’re not going to blow you away with their speed, they’re going to blow you away with their intelligence on the pitch.
“It’s much more physical here. You won’t get any calls you get in America or you probably won’t get any calls at all. It’s really, really physical. The Lithuanian league in particular, he says, is a “really physical league… the guys there are playing dirty”.
Burkholder: “They are stricter with roaming calls. Freshman year for Americans is tough because it’s literally a whole other stage we can take in college… My teammate struggled with that a lot, she averaged two trips per game.
Savanna: “It’s more a team game… In the United States, the player is king. While I noticed that in Europe, the team is queen, the coach is king. “As for scoring in Europe, he adds, it’s a little more difficult.
How to compare the level of play?
Cracking: “The Spanish league is much higher than it was in college. You play with women who have been in the Olympics and are 10-15 years into their professional careers… they’ve seen it all and done it all.
“Every team in Spain pretty much had WNBA players on their roster…every night was a tough game, whether it was top league or bottom league.”
Burkholder: “These top teams in the Euroleague, there are so many people who could hang on to the WNBA… You’re going to meet a lot of players [in the Italian leagues] it could definitely play as well as some of those WNBA girls. During his time in Belgium, however, the norm was more varied: the league had two elite teams – a Euroleague team and a Eurocup team – but from the rest of the league, “some of them could compare to a high school team.”
Savanna: “The level at which I played [French M3] could be comparable to [NCAA] Division II… Athletics in the United States is a whole different beast,” he says, “but the IQ is higher in Europe, so they don’t necessarily need those monster athletes.