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When she graduated from Arizona State in 1984, Kym Hampton, the former New York Liberty star, didn't have much of a choice about what to do next if she wanted to play professional basketball. Without a pro league in the U.S., she went to Europe, like countless American athletes before her, to a continent where women could make good money playing ball.
When Becky Hammon graduated college in 1999, the current Liberty guard faced a different world. The WNBA was in full force, and young women could dream about playing pro hoops stateside. But this year, after a grueling WNBA season, Becky, along with seven of her Liberty teammates, headed to play an additional professional season overseas.
While no longer the only option, European leagues remain a viable and, players say, necessary venue for women adjusting to a WNBA season that's too low-paying, and too short, to let them be full-time, full-year professional athletes. And so it's back to Europe they go. More than 90 WNBAersmost of them Americanswent to Europe this off-season. A handful more went to Brazil and Australia.
Hampton had never traveled overseas before she signed a contract with a team in Vigo, Spain. "I wasn't really scared," she recalls. "I guess I've just been adventurous when it comes to traveling." Hampton quickly gobbled up the culture, and languageshe switches comfortably to Spanish mid-interviewand now looks back nostalgically at her time there. She spent six straight seasons in Spain, playing in three different cities. Besides the warm people and terrific food, she says, there was nothing quite like Barcelona's famous nightlife. "We used to go in clubs at two or three in the morning, and come out at eight or nine," she says.
In 12-plus years abroad, Hampton also played in Italy, France, and Japan, finding something special about each of the countries, relishing the new cultures she discovered, and, yes, thoroughly enjoying the pay. That first year she only made $1200 a month, but by the time she played in Japan in the early '90s, Hampton was bringing home $20,000 a month.
That era in Japan was the salary heyday for overseas play, says Bruce Levy, Hampton's agent and the person probably most responsible for opening up the European market to American women. At one point, his athletes in Japan were averaging $150,000 for five months work, "and the players were treated royally." A fan of travel who usually enjoys the challenge in mastering the intricacies of other countries, Levy says that it was his own cultural misunderstandings that may have ended up drying up the Japanese market.
"I hate to say it, but I was probably responsible for it ending," he says, a little sheepishly. "It took me a while to understand how to do business with the Japanese." Mistaking Japanese politeness for flexibility, Levy pushed his contracts higher and higher each year. Levy says he kept pressing, "even though they would say things like 'that would be difficult,' which I learned in the end meant 'no fucking way.' " The Japanese have since closed their league to American athletes.
But Levy's dealings with foreign leagues have usually met with more successand he's been doing it since the late '70s. While WNBA salaries average $55,000, and can dip as low as $32,500 for veterans and $26,500 for rookies, players can make $70,000 for half a year's work in Europe, and some earn double that. Additionally, says Levy, a contract will typically call for the foreign club to pay all of an American athlete's foreign taxes and certify such in a document for the U.S. governmentmeaning players usually net the contract's full amount.
WNBA players say they go overseas for more than just the money. Since its inception, critics have said that the WNBA's four-month, play-only-when-the-boys-are-done season makes it tricky to stay in top shape year-round. "The season is so short," says Liberty forward Vickie Johnson, who's played abroad for five straight years. "You can't sit out for eight months and expect to come back and play as hard as we do. You're going to get hurt." The trick, she says, is not playing for too many months, or else overseas play can lead to fatigue and an even higher risk of injury.
Some 50 European countries have women's basketball leagues of some quality or anotheras do a smattering of Asian and Latin American nations. About 10 of the countries in Europe feature leagues that would be considered professional by U.S. standardscomplete with full teams of paid players, full-time administrators, and strong, competitive schedules. Manylike the ones in Italy, Spain, and Francehave been powerhouses in women's hoops for years. The other leagues vary; some have a couple of clubs with mostly professional players and the rest amateur. Others are entirely amateur with the exception of an American or another foreign player, if that. Many have offered organized women's basketball since the 1950s.
Like the overseas club soccer structure that can so confuse Americans, European women's basketball is a little hard to navigate. For instance, teams often play a couple of different seasons all at once: The best squads in Europe, while competing in their individual country's league, may also qualify to play simultaneously in the EuroLeague, a sort of super league that brings in teams from all over the continent. A top Italian team, for example, might play national games on weekends and EuroLeague games on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The EuroLeague season eventually narrows a field of 16 down to a final four. This year's semifinals are in Messina, Italy, from April 20-22, when USV Orchies (France) takes on BK Gambrinus (Czech Republic), and MiZo Pecsi VSK (Hungary) will face CJM Bourges Basket (France). All four teams field at least one WNBAer, and that player is usually the star.