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 WNBAers—most of them Americans—went 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 language—she switches comfortably to Spanish mid-interview—and 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 success—and 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. government—meaning 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 another—as 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. standards—complete with full teams of paid players, full-time administrators, and strong, competitive schedules. Many—like the ones in Italy, Spain, and France—have 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.
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.”