On the opening night of the 1990-91 NBA season, there were just 21 international players on rosters across the league. By the time the 2021-22 season tipped-off, that number was 121 players representing 39 different countries.
Of that number, almost half are European, and as basketball has become America’s global game in a way that its other traditional sports haven’t, European players have steadily gained a foothold in the NBA and overcome long-held stereotypes of foreign born players as soft, slow and unathletic.
Nowadays, Europeans no longer just make up the numbers. When the All-NBA teams were announced earlier this summer, three of the five players voted as the best in the league were Europeans. In each of the last four years, the league’s MVP award has been won by a European.
But notions about basketball as a global game often consider only one direction of travel: that of Europeans coming across the pond to test themselves at the elite level, but rarely the Americans going in the opposite direction.
Since the 2000 season, the share of Americans in Europe’s premier competition, the Euroleague, has grown by 119%. In that time the share of Euroleague points scored by Americans has increased by 76%.
But unlike in 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 the chance to continue their careers abroad while earning some money and seeing the world.
“One thing you learn while playing overseas is that whatever level you want, it’s there,” Mehryn Kraker, WNBA draftee and former Spanish and Swedish league player, told the Guardian. “Whatever intensity level you want, whatever commitment level, it’s there. It’s just sometimes that might come at the sacrifice of a large paycheck, or the ideal country.”
But how do American players forging careers abroad adapt to life in the European leagues, both on and off the court? The Guardian spoke to several who have played across the continent about life and basketball on the other, other side of the pond.
Did you have any expectations about what life would be like there?
Devante Wallace (Lithuanian, Finnish, Czech, Polish, Romanian, British and Austrian leagues): “That it would be tough and difficult, and you’d be homesick. But he [former college teammate] was saying the talent level over there is really good [and] European basketball was really textbook.”
Mehryn Kraker (Spanish, Swedish leagues): “I think I had a decent 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 travel 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 about life in the US?
Kirby Burkholder (Italian, Hungarian, Belgian, and Polish leagues): “The biggest thing is the connection to your friends and family,” [and] “sometimes breakfast food … I think America does have the best breakfast.”
Kraker: “The ease of America … American culture has made everything easy. You have everything you could possibly need in one store and it’s open all the time.”
Wallace: “Going to a soul food restaurant, they didn’t have that over there, [and] I missed being able to talk the way I usually talk around my friends … you’ve got to talk really, really slow, so they understand you. Words can get lost in translation.”
How was the initial arrival and culture shock?
Cheick Sy Savane (Montpellier Basket Mosson, France): “French people can be very cold in initial conversation … but once you actually create a real relationship with these people you have friends for life.
“They have this very laid back, enjoy life, let’s have a wine at high noon and then maybe get back to work kind-of-lifestyle. That was extremely difficult to get used to being from a fast paced area like New York.”
Burkholder: “It was a very tough year. I was on the phone a lot back home … It’s a huge new transition that you’re going into that first year, and a lot of players, including myself, have a tougher first year with the whole culture shock.”
Wallace: “I’m not gonna lie, it was difficult. My first week and a half [in Austria] … it was tough. I used to stay in my room, I didn’t want to go outside. I didn’t want to do anything.”
Burkholder: “We had teammates at halftime smoking … We’d go out to dinner and they’d be going outside for smoke breaks [and] we thought that was pretty crazy.”
Kraker: “Spanish and US culture could not be more different. I didn’t know a lot about Spain, to be honest. I think Spain was one of the countries that seemed most foreign and exotic to me. But I think the Spanish have mastered work-life balance, almost to a fault … I didn’t realise how late they did dinner. That was a huge adjustment coming from the States.”
What about the language?
Savane: “That was probably the hardest thing. The moment I got to the south of France … the moment 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 talk at all … so I was forced to learn.
“It [the language barrier] almost separates you and creates a weird dynamic,” he adds, because “there’s already an initial preconceived notion about having Americans on foreign teams … It’s like you’re there to take the spot of someone originally from there.”
Burkholder: “You need a teammate to go with you to help … or you’re trying to play charades and pointing.”
Kraker: “Being in a small [Spanish] town there weren’t a tonne of English speakers … I had taken five years of Spanish through high school and a little bit in college, but I don’t think it ever prepares you until you’re immersed in it.”
What’s something Europe does better than the US?
Kraker: “Other people’s opinions are much more respected … I’ve never had so many honest and open conversations as I did when I was in Europe, with respect on both sides.
“Europe in general is more accepting of different lifestyles, and public transportation is much more advanced and encouraged.”
Burkholder: “The train – you can just hop on. Any off-day [in Italy] we were hopping on the train and visiting … we were in a very central location, we could go to Rome, go to Florence. One of my favourite things about playing overseas is being able to travel and seeing new places, learning the culture.”
Wallace: “I became accustomed to catching the train. In the US the public transportation is terrible.”
Kraker: “The quality of food is much, 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 it was twice [as] expensive, and it did not taste anywhere near the same.”
Burkholder: “They are notorious for money issues and I had that a lot in my club [in Poland]. That specific year we didn’t even have a coach … there was an older player playing and coaching.”
“I got paid eight months late, and I wasn’t even sure if I was gonna get paid,” she adds. “The hardest thing about overseas basketball is the business side of it … in the States, if you sign a contract you’re getting paid, you really don’t have to worry about it. But in Europe you can sign a contract and you’re never really sure if you’re gonna get that money.”
Wallace: “My first year I witnessed three or four people get cut from a team. I’ve seen guys get cut just off of three games. They played bad, didn’t pass the ball. I’ve seen guys just not get paid. There’ve been some wild experiences.”
What are the differences in playing style?
Kraker: “In general the physicality of the Spanish league was something I don’t think I was prepared for. I remember being rocked my first couple of games and thinking, OK, this is Spanish basketball.”
“The Spanish style is super fast and ball screen dominant … it’s just so fluid, and everyone knows how to move on and off the ball.”
Wallace: “European basketball is completely different … They’re gonna move the ball a lot more, play harder defence. The paint is gonna be packed because there’s no defensive three seconds [rule].”
“It’s not even the fact that they’re [Lithuanian league players] super skilled, it’s the fact they’re super knowledgeable of the game. They’re not going to wow you with their speed, they’re going to wow you with how intelligent they are on the court.”
“It’s much more physical over here. You’re not gonna get calls you get in America or probably won’t get a call at all. It’s really, really physical.” The Lithuanian league in particular, he says, is a “really physical league … guys there play dirty.”
Burkholder: “They’re more strict with travelling calls. The first year for Americans is tough because it’s literally a whole different step we can take in college … My teammate had a lot of trouble with it, she would average two travels a game.”
Savane: “It’s more of a team game … In the US, the player is king. Whereas I’ve noticed in Europe the team is king, the coach is king.” “As far as scoring in Europe,” he adds, “it’s a little more difficult.”
How does the level of play compare?
Kraker: “The Spanish league is much higher than it was in college. You’re playing with women that have played in the Olympics and are 10 to 15 years into their pro careers … they’ve seen and done everything.”
“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 Euroleague teams, there’s so many people that could hang in the WNBA … You’re gonna come across a lot of players [in the Italian leagues] that definitely could be playing just as good as some of these WNBA girls.” During her time in Belgium, however, the standard was more varied: the league had two elite teams – one Euroleague team, and one Eurocup team – but of the rest of the league, “some of them could compare to a high school team.”
Savane: “The level that I played at [French M3] could be comparable to [NCAA] Division II … The athleticism in the U.S is a whole other beast,” he says, “but the IQ is higher in Europe, so they don’t necessarily need these freak athletes.”