As someone who’s lived in Atlanta for the past six years, I distinctly remember the shocking announcement that Josh Childress had decided to leave the Hawks. He passed up on the team’s $36 million offer, which would’ve paid him a respectable $5.6 million in his first year. Instead, the forward accepted a more lucrative three-year offer from Olympiacos, a Greek basketball team. At the time, it made him the “the highest-paid basketball player in the world outside of the N.B.A.,” but he’s since spoken out against his decision. If you read his interviews from before and after his stint in Greece, it seems as if he didn’t quite consider all the tradeoffs of leaving the NBA before he crossed the Atlantic.
In recent years, a growing number of American players have decided to take their talents abroad and play outside of the United States. Veterans like Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury, and Jordan Farmar have headed overseas this year for a variety of reasons, whether it be money, searching for playing time they can’t find in the NBA, or a longing for different cultural experiences.
For younger players, however, playing basketball overseas has become an increasingly alluring prospect. Detroit Pistons’ small forward Kyle Singler and Texas Legends guard Chris Douglas-Roberts were among dozens who found short-term gigs in other countries during last year’s lockout.
Even with the NBA’s labor problems in the rear-view mirror, playing in a foreign country offers an alternative to those not yet ready for the NBA, typically promising better money and tougher competition than most D-League gigs. The right overseas opportunity can eventually lead NBA hopefuls toward secure roster spots back in the United States.
But it isn’t for everyone. Playing overseas involves taking risks and living with uncertainty. You never know how it’s going to pan out. Some players, like Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings, thrive, where others, such as Jeremy Tyler, falter.
Jennings became the first player to ply his trade overseas, straight out of high school, bypassing the NBA’s minimum age requirement in 2008. He had considered attending the University of Arizona, but the appeal of playing professionally led him to sign a $1.65 million contract with Pallacanestro Virtus Roma, a top Italian team.
“At the time, I was 18 years old, and growing up, our dreams were to go straight out of high school to the NBA. I think that was every kid’s dream back then,” Jennings recalls.
For most younger players, going overseas represents an opportunity to learn about the game at the professional level. As many will attest, in addition to getting paid to play basketball, it can also be an eye-opening life experience.
Jennings, who grew up in Compton, California, had never traveled outside the United States. Douglas-Roberts, a three-year NBA veteran, played in Bologna, Italy, last year with uncertainty swirling around the 2011-2012 NBA season. He also felt like his horizons had expanded in a similar fashion.
“I lived in a different culture for a whole year. I met great people from all sides of the world,” Douglas-Roberts proudly says proudly. “I can actually say I lived a year in Italy. Guys from my neighborhood in the west side of Detroit cannot say that.”
It’s becoming increasingly common for newly drafted players to play outside the United States in order to hone their skills before trying their luck in the NBA. After the Minnesota Timberwolves took Robbie Hummel with the 58th overall pick in this year’s draft, the former Boilermaker signed a one-year contract with Obradoiro CAB, a team in Spain’s top league, Liga ACB. He currently lives in Galicia’s capital, Santiago de Compostela, which is roughly three times the size of West Lafayette, Indiana, where he’d played the past four years.
“It was a great opportunity for me to come over here in what’s relatively thought of as the second-best league in the world,” Hummel says. “Next year, the plan is going to be to try and make the Timberwolves, but I think [playing overseas] is just a good way to experience good basketball.”
Kyle Singler, chosen by the Detroit Pistons in the 2011 NBA draft, embraced the opportunity to live and play overseas with the lockout looming. He initially signed with Lucentum Alicante, a second-tier squad in Valencia. Once the lockout ended, he had the option returning home to try making his NBA team. He instead opted to remain in Spain for the remainder of the year, signing with the Real Madrid.
“I knew at the end of the year that I was probably going to come back to the United States,” Singler says. “But with the shortened season, I didn’t really know if I was going to play a lot [with the Pistons] just because of the lockout. I felt like staying was the best choice.”
The move worked out brilliantly for Singler as he went on to crack the Pistons’ starting lineup this season.
For these players, there was a drive to to improve their game when the path to the NBA wasn’t a direct one. Instead of starring on a D-League team or riding the bench in the NBA, they got quality playing time against formidable competition. Hummel and Singler both thought the ACB, filled with crafty veterans, offered an ideal intermediary step between college and the pros.
“High-level major college basketball is a level below the play here in the ACB just because you’re playing against guys that are 30 years old and have so much experience,” Hummel says.
“You are playing against guys that have been playing professionally for 10, 12 years,” Singler adds. “The skill levels of those guys are higher than those in college, so you’re playing against good competition.”
For young Americans, a major part of the learning curve comes with adjusting to a much more physical style of play. Not only that, but Singler cautions players to “lower their ego,” as most European players already perceive them to be selfish scorers.
“You’re already stereotyped as an American that wants the ball,” Singler says. “You kind of have to play as a team player at first and once the season rolls along, you can start playing your game.”
Brandon Jennings, who likely would’ve thrived as a top scorer for the Arizona Wildcats if he’d played college basketball, instead worked on other aspects of his game in the Italian Lega A. The point guard only averaged 5.5 points per game and shot 35.1% from the field in 27 games, but he credits the season as one that immensely prepared him for the following year.
“Once I got to the NBA, I wasn’t nervous or anything like that,” he says. “You got to think — the hostile environment that I played in overseas was nothing like how it’s here in the States. I knew [I’d improved] when I actually got into the NBA workouts and had to try out with teams — the fact that I knew how to play the pick and roll better than a lot of other guards … I think my mindset was totally different.”
Hummel, who recently made his debut with Obradoiro CAB after undergoing preseason knee surgery, thinks that his Spanish league experience will help him gain perspective. The Timberwolves prospect sees this as a chance to avoid the “culture shock” that comes with playing in the NBA as a rookie.
“I think playing over here will definitely help me understand what it means to be a professional basketball player, Hummel says. “In college, basketball is like a job, but you have class, social activities, and homework to all take up your time, as well. Here, and also in the NBA, it’s your job to work at basketball and be the best player you can be.”
Many off-court challenges also await American players. Nearly all of them struggle with language barriers and cultural differences.
“It’s tough for some Americans to leave the United States to go over to somewhere new, somewhere where you’re not familiar with the food or the language or the culture,” Singler says.
Some teams, like Maccabi Haifa or Obradoiro CAB, cater to their players’ needs. Rosen says he provides all of his players with an apartment and a car. Hummel’s team found him a nice apartment. He’s enjoyed the food and people so far, adding that “there’s really not much more” he could ask for.
That level of accommodation, however, is hardly the rule. Douglas-Roberts didn’t know much about his living situation before heading to Europe, choosing Bologna over Russian and Chinese opportunities since he thought it would be safer for his family.
“I didn’t expect it to be similar to how I was living in the United States. I didn’t expect it to be anything like the NBA,” Douglas-Roberts says. “I had a great experience, you know, but I feel that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. It was good, and I had my highs and lows. But the lows were really low.”
Not only did Douglas-Roberts continually feel like “the foreigner,” as he found it hard to communicate with his teammates, but some of the adjustments exceeded even his worst expectations.
“I didn’t have hot water some days, I didn’t have heat in the winter,” he says. “Where we practiced, the showers were filled with mold. It was really unsanitary. I couldn’t really adjust to [it] when I was over there all year. It was a struggle every day.”
Douglas-Roberts’s wife and daughter accompanied him, which helped make the year abroad much more manageable. Jennings not only lived with his mother and brother, but also had three American teammates, including former Michigan State forward Andre Hutson and Villanova product Allan Ray, to show him the ropes.
“When Christmas or Thanksgiving came around, we would all have holidays together with all our families and everything,” Jennings says. “It still felt like [I was] at home. We still kicked back and watched NBA games during the day.”
Hummel received great accommodations, but that hasn’t helped shake the loneliness that many players encounter. He’s killed time by watching movies, taking guitar lessons, and Skyping with friends and family back at home. He already knew one of his current teammates, former Ohio State shooting guard William Buford, so he’s managed to acclimate faster with a familiar face on his team. It’s still been a struggle off the court, which he can’t always access because his team shares a gym with a soccer team.
“You’re by yourself a lot, Hummel says. “You can spend extra time in the weight room, but the baskets aren’t [always] up … I’d like to go work on basketball, but sometimes you can’t.”
That being said, he views his international experience as a positive one, given that he knows the flip side of how some players can’t adjust to life abroad.
“I’ve heard some horror stories of guys getting into bad situations and leaving after 24 hours, which is unreal to me,” he says.
Not all players find that comfort zone. Tyler, who eventually found his way to the Golden State Warriors, struggled immensely overseas. He skipped his senior year of high school to play professional basketball in Israel. He went alone to Haifa, but only played seven minutes per game before leaving the team 10 games into the season.
Maccabi Haifa team owner Jeff Rosen doesn’t think that Tyler’s case means that Israeli basketball is necessarily a bad fit for younger players. He has seen “import” players thrive and fail under his watch.
“Jeremy was only 18 years old when he came to Haifa, and he did not have his family with him, which would be a difficult situation for anyone going abroad on their own,” Rosen says.
According to Rosen and these four players, the right situation is vital to one’s international performance. Finding a relatively comfortable living situation strongly correlates with performing well on the court.
“For rookies or first-year guys who go overseas, it can be tough,” Singler admits. “For me, I embraced the idea of it being kind of different. Every day was just a new experience, and I just really enjoyed that.”
After failing to land a guaranteed contract before the 2012-2013 season, Douglas-Roberts declined to head overseas for another year. Although he learned plenty from his time in Bologna and gained perspective as a player, he wanted a more stable situation and the chance to be called up to the NBA, which may very well happen with the Dallas Mavericks sometime this year.
“I had the opportunity where I go chase the money overseas or to stay on this and get back where I’m supposed to be. So I decided to stay,” he says. “The day after I got released from the Lakers, Donnie Nelson was basically ecstatic. He emphasized the fact that he doesn’t expect me to be [with the Legends] that long, but they’d love to have me. I made the decision to come here and continue to work, just continue to work.”
Looking back, Jennings thinks he would’ve ended up a “in a Wildcat uniform” if he had to make the choice all over again. That being said, his year abroad informed his understanding of the world around him.
“I still do encourage kids to go to college at the end of the day,” he says. That’s just the way we actually live our life. [I went overseas] with the mindset of: ‘I’m here to learn. I’m here to learn how the professional life is supposed to be. Take in the coaching and just enjoy the ride.’”
More importantly, though, his overseas experience laid the foundation for his NBA career. And that opportunity is something that Jennings wouldn’t trade for anything.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” he says. “I would never regret it.”
Max Blau is a staff writer at Creative Loafing and contributes to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, NPR, and Paste Magazine.