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By Capt. James Van Thach told to Jonathan Wei
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The teams that place third or fourth or even lower in a domestic league might participate in the Ronchetti Cup, named for a popular Italian player, Liliana Ronchetti, who died young of cancer. EuroLeague and Ronchetti games fall under the auspices of FIBA, or Fédération Internationale de Basketball, the world's international basketball governing body. (The A used to stand for "Amateur," but was dropped after FIBA decided, in 1989, to allow professionals to play in the Olympics.) A federation made up of federations, FIBA sets the rules and conditions for international play.
Among those conditions is a limit on non-Europeans playing for teams competing in FIBA-sponsored tournaments: Qualifying teams can't have more than two non-Europeans (read: Americans). Restrictions on other nationalities, which used to be in place, have recently been dropped. "In our modern world of globalization, we cannot stop anybody from working anywhere in the world," says Florian Wanniger, FIBA's head of communications, acknowledging the federation's mix of protectionist policy and recognition of the new European order.
The leagues and American players must themselves negotiate a sometimes tricky transition. "Foreign players who only want to play for money, they don't want to learn the language, and they really have problems here," says Birgit Kunel, a chairwoman of the German Women's Basketball League, the DBBL. "This is really a problem more with the Americans than with the Australians. The Australians are much easier to handle. They try to learn, they try to earn something more than just the money from the culture."
Sometimes external factors make the adjustment difficult. Becky Hammon was in Israel for two and a half weeks before deciding to return home, along with several other American players. After the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, Hammon says she felt increasingly uncomfortable. She liked the country itself, enjoyed the ancient history all around her, and admired the ability of Israelis to go about their daily lives. But, she says, the adjustment was too much of a stretch for her South Dakota roots. "You don't realize how on edge you are," she says, "until one night I heard thunder outside and didn't know what it was." That's when she decided she'd had enough.
Vickie Johnson, her Liberty teammate, understands why some left. But she stayed behind. "It's worse on CNN than in reality," she says from Holon, outside of Tel Aviv, where she's finishing up her season (in international basketball, Israel is considered part of Europe). Her mother calls daily, still worried about what she's seen and heard, and Johnson reassures her that life goes on, even in a tense environment. And tells her not to watch CNN.
"Everything's in English," Johnson says. She was pleasantly surprised to discover familiar trappings so far away from home. "It's very Americanized here," she says. "I thought it was like the desert; you'd see all these people with stuff covering their faces, but it's not like that at all." The only thing missing, she sighs, is her beloved Gap.
Still, in discussing her life abroad, Johnson echoes many American pros who spend time thousands of miles away. Beyond the assimilation or lack thereof, beyond the thrill of foreign lands or of added dollars lining their pockets, there's the gnawing ache of homesickness. Johnson sorely misses her friends and family, especially her two nieces. "They're so young, they really don't understand," she says. "They see me one day, and then they don't see me for another six or seven months. That's hard."
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