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Women’s Professional Basketball Overseas: Behind the Scenes

ByQueen Ballers Club|@queenballers| February 16, 2022
womens-professional-basketball-overseas

More than 60% of WNBA players headed abroad during the offseason this year. There are times where women’s professional basketball overseas can be a magical wonderland for WNBA players: a fantasy full of glamorous stat lines, MVP envelopes stuffed full of fresh $100 bills, private jets, and exclusive concerts. But for every fairy tale, there are also instances of hoopers met with too many elbows to the face, and empty promises of payment.

So today, we’ll explore the overseas experiences of WNBA players across the decades through their eyes: the good, the bad, and the ugly  — and on some of the most iconic teams. Kelsey Plum of the Las Vegas Aces shares how players make the decision about where to go. “I wish we could find a way to not have to go in the same capacity that we have to go overseas. It’s a tough situation, and I know why people stay and I know why people go.” she explains.

We’ll hear from four-time WNBA All-Star Ticha Penicheiro, Marina Mabrey of the Dallas Wings, Jackie Young of the Las Vegas Aces, Sami Whitcomb of the New York Liberty, Jasmine Thomas of the Connecticut Sun, and Stefanie Dolson of the Chicago Sky, as they discuss their highs and lows abroad. Veteran Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird even reveals what she misses most about overseas play. Let’s get into it!

Women’s professional basketball overseas: the decision

The decision about whether to play overseas, and where to play, can be challenging for WNBA players. It’s something they consider on an ongoing basis, as they often get contacted with opportunities throughout the W season.

“Your agent will hit you ‘Hey we’re getting an offer from this team – an offer would be this amount of money to go for this amount of months, you’d probably be playing with this other American or this European.’” said point guard Kelsey Plum.

Players can chose to accept or decline offers. Or they can work with their agent to negotiate a bit, for example by asking for more pay. Of course, they risk losing the contract in that case, to a player who agrees to play for less or commits more quickly.

“There are times, too, where it’s like say we’re competing for a contract, I ask for a little bit more, and they’re like we’ll take [someone else]. It’s like OK I lost out. It happens, it’s happened to me before. Or also basically they can offer both of us and you take it first. That’s just a reality. That’s with a lot of different businesses.” said Kelsey.

Ultimately players pick their league and team based on a variety of different factors they weigh against each other. It comes down to where the league is, the salary, and how much they stand to learn on the court.

“Overseas there’s usually a triangle: location, money, good basketball. It’s really hard to find all three. So usually you have to ask yourself, what’s your priority? Do you want money and good basketball, poor location? Poor location meaning it’s negative 30…So a lot of times, there’s no wrong answer, it’s just kind of your preference on what you want and you kind of go from there based on your choices.” Kelsey explained.

Women’s professional basketball overseas: The good

Once players arrive overseas, sometimes, everything just goes right. Over the course of her career, Ticha Penicheiro played for Parma, Ekaterinburg, Spartak Moscow and then in Turkey as well. Her experience playing for Spartak Moscow was nothing short of a movie — and sets an example for how women’s basketball players should be treated, not just overseas but always.

No cap

“I wish that there were more Sabtai’s [Kalmanovich] in the world [the General Manager of Spartak Moscow] because that’s how women should be treated. We flew private. We stayed at five star hotels. Our salaries were amazing. He truly believed in us, and he treated us like total queens.” said Ticha Penicheiro in Off the Looking Glass with Kate Fagan and Jessica Smetana.

That year, Ticha was playing on a stacked team. While teams could only have two players playing on American passports, some US players were able to get foreign passports.

“Our team was crazy. I mean we had an All-Star team. I was playing on the team. But I’m Portuguese, so I had a Portuguese passport. Sue Bird, at the time, had an Israeli passport. Diana Taurasi had an Italian passport. And then we had Lauren Jackson, Tina Thompson. We won everything. And we had so much fun off the court as well. And [Sabtai] was the main reason why everything went so smoothly….He did a lot for women’s basketball, especially when we talk about European basketball.” said Ticha.

Similarly, Diana Taurasi shared stories of winning a big game and then taking a charter to St. Petersburg to party for the weekend. Or of Sabtai dropping off gifts of jewelry as a surprise. Ticha remembers things always being above and beyond her expectations.

“[Sabtai] would have a party, and he’d fly in like…an Italian singer or R. Kelly the R&B American singer….He did all these parties. Usually after the game he would put like $1,000 in an envelope, and whoever was the MVP he would just hand you the envelope. So you know overseas there’s like no [salary] cap, there’s no rules, like anything goes. Everybody’s just trying to be the MVP so we can get a little extra money. But we had so much fun. And he was respectful. We were you know players, but we were also women that work extremely hard, and sometimes we didn’t get what we deserved. So he went above and beyond with everything that he did, was nothing average. Everything was over the top.” recapped Ticha.

Beyond earning high salaries, flying private, and winning championships, there are other benefits to overseas play.

A chance to try new things

While abroad, players get to develop their skill sets by testing out new moves, schemes, and strategies because they’re often given more latitude on their teams – and expected to deliver results. Overseas play can even provide a bit of a wake up call if a player needs to improve. That’s the situation Marina Mabrey found herself in the first time she went overseas.

“Well first I played in EuroLeague my rookie year with TTT Riga. And I had some moments where I had to recognize my weaknesses. And that’s where I kind of spent the time to myself to try to get in shape, and really make myself an impact player in the league. I got to really develop my confidence against WNBA players there. So I’m grateful for that opportunity.” said Marina on Bringin’ out the Big Guns.

“And then to switch the perspective, I went to Israel, and that was different to say the least. But I did get to develop my scoring game and like really get to figure out what things I’m good at, and what I can develop and get to try it out. The league was a little bit weaker than EuroLeague and WNBL.” she continued.

That can be the beauty of overseas play. It’s an opportunity where players can try some things that they don’t always get to do in WNBA.

“I go over there and I get to kind of be a different player. Or I guess the player I think I am.” said Sami Whitcomb on Learning from Legends. “Because I am trying to be that player and do those things. And then I’m trying, when I come back to the WNBA, to figure out how I can incorporate some of those things. But not in a way that’s like ‘OK, take a chill pill.’”

Marina, after figuring out she really could put up 40 points per game, next wanted to play in a league where she could be up against strong competition to continue developing, which led her to Australia. She needed the chance to test out her new moves to find out which could really work in the WNBA. She also wanted to get her name into the Australian league before other WNBA players. Because the dates it runs align perfectly with her being back for the start of the WNBA season – a key consideration with the WNBA CBA’s prioritization rule taking effect in 2023.

Jackie Young’s experience was a little bit different than Marina’s. She benefitted from getting in time with a WNBA teammate abroad, and that chemistry later translated back on the court in the US. After Jackie’s rookie season, she played 3×3 basketball. So she didn’t end up going overseas until the beginning of the year. While she was set to play in Turkey, she wasn’t there very long because that’s when Covid hit.

“I honestly don’t remember how long it was. But I can just remember being scared over there, and not knowing if we were going to make it out of the country. And still practicing a little bit until they’re like ‘Okay, no more practices.’ And we’re like ‘Okay, this must be serious.’ So we ended up leaving and thankfully got out in time. I think we were one of the last few flights to get out. So I didn’t really have a full experience over there. But I would love to go back. When I was over there it was good. I actually played with Riquna [Williams] over there and so now we’re playing in the league together.” said Jackie.

Jackie also later played in Australia, for the same team as Marina (the two previously played in college together at Notre Dame). Similarly, for Jackie, her arrival in Australia was about the opportunity to play in a good league, but match the CBA and still try to improve her game.

“Definitely a league where I can improve my game. And just work on things in a realistic circumstance. I know that every day in practice that I’m going to be competing against great players. And once the games start we’re going to be playing against other WNBA players. And so this is a great league where you can just try to work on things so that you can bring it back into the WNBA. But I knew this was a great place to come. Weather is great. I knew it was a great league, and it’s a shorter season also. Going overseas is harder for me. I’m not going to lie about that. So definitely picking a shorter season will be good for me.” said Jackie.

Competitive stakes

Other WNBA players are drawn overseas less for individual development, and more for the competitive experience and the pay winning the championship brought. Sue Bird is one player who had her eyes on the prize.

“Going overseas was always – so I think what’s always unique about me and my game is I’m a point guard and I only play well when the team plays well. I’m not the person like, ‘Go out there and ball out, go average 20.’ Nah. That’s not how this works. The balling out and the big numbers, that happens when the team is [playing well]. So when I would go overseas it was very similar.”

“I was just trying to win, and trying to play my role in that part. And were there some teams I was on where I had to do more, or I had to do less? Absolutely. But it was never about going over there and trying to like [ball out] – I mean I was in the gym, I was shooting and all those types of things. And I was lucky to play on really good teams where we were always competing for EuroLeague and that was the important part. So it was always just eyes on the prize.” said Sue Bird.

Going overseas can also help W players develop by putting them in a pressure cooker. “But what I do think overseas does really well for players is you’re just in that game mode. So when you do come back, you’re like ‘Oh I just played a game 5.’ There’s probably bonus money on it. So I know what pressure is. You’re kind of just in that mode. That’s what I miss about overseas now that I don’t go. You have to find ways. You’re not going to get that in pick up [games].” said Sue.

Food and fun

There’s also the benefit of the social interaction off the court and the chance to experience everything a different country has to offer, and often subtle growth that brings. Stefanie Dolson’s favorite place to play has been Turkey. “I mean everyone loves Turkey because it’s the party country. And a lot of the teams are fairly close to each other, or it’s like a 45 minute flight to get to Istanbul. It’s where a lot of the Americans play. So you guys have a weekend off, or night off, everyone goes out to party in Istanbul. It’s pretty Westernized so they have good food. But also I just love Turkish food.” she said.

“That’s a huge part of why I continue to play overseas. I do like to learn the culture, have the experiences. When I was in Israel, I would go to Shabbat Shalom and everyone’s families would get together and have these dinners. And I enjoyed being part of those, getting to know my teammates and experience that part of their culture or just trying the different foods. I’m not someone that just because I’m away from home, I want those comforts of home.” said Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas to The Undefeated.

Women’s professional basketball overseas: The bad

However all the benefits of being abroad, can pale in comparison to how challenging the experience can be in some cases.

Language barrier

The language barrier, the driving, and the food can also be hard to adjust to. Sometimes players are the only person on their team that speaks English, and they’ll be given a translator. Even things such as not being able to find the hair product they typically use can make getting settled in abroad a challenge.

“With the hair products, that’s a huge thing. And I would honestly say a lot of us learn how to do certain things with our hair, with our natural hair while we’re overseas, because of that lack of representation, not knowing whether we’re going to have someone to do our hair. A lot of the styles that you see me with, I actually learned how to do from YouTube overseas.” explained Jasmine Thomas. Players can also end up feeling isolated.

Physicality on the court

Year round play on the body is stressful. And the physicality of certain leagues has the opportunity to land players serious injuries. And those injuries can even cut short their W seasons. The Washington Mystics’ Alysha Clark missed the entire 2021 season after suffering a Lisfranc injury of her right foot while playing in France. Breanna Stewart tore her Achilles tendon while playing for Russia’s Dynamo Kursk, and missed the 2019 WNBA season. Marina quickly discovered that the Israel league was much more physical than her other experiences, though she was able to have a positive outlook about it.

“Yeah physical to say the least. But honestly it taught me something about myself. Like I had to control my emotions, I was getting thrown out of games crazy sh*t…Techs second quarter fouled out.” said Marina.

After Jackie’s year in Turkey, she played in Israel too, the following year, and found the league to be physical as well. “It was definitely physical. I can actually remember in one game I was at half court. And they threw me the ball, I jumped up to get it, and somebody just took my legs out. That was just normal. They were definitely physical. I mean they just kind of use their physicality because they knew they were as skilled. But I was able to work on my game over there and that’s when I really developed the mid-range game. And just trying to get to my spots and raise.” Jackie said.

Missing family and moments

Many players miss their family, and important moments from holidays to birthdays.

“I think the hardest thing for me is just leaving my family. I’m a huge family person and once I’m not playing in the WNBA I just try to get – what my 10 days or however long it is – I just try to spend it with my family. So I think that’s the biggest thing for me is just missing out on what they’re doing: Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays. Really just being there, just being in their presence, and just having them around – that’s the hardest thing for me. So whenever I’m not playing basketball, I’m spending the majority of my time talking to my family and my boyfriend.” said Jackie.

“I feel like I’m used to kind of being away from my family. I lived by myself when I was like 15. So just stuff like that doesn’t really bother me as much. But kind of just like missing out on things back in the states. It’s like ‘Oh wow I didn’t know that was going on.’, ‘Oh, I could have hung out with this person here.’” said Marina. “It’s not so much ‘Wow I’m away for this long.’ It’s like when they all Face-Time you it Christmas. It’s like awww, OK.”

“Yeah you miss birthdays, engagements, all those sorts of things.” shared Sami.

Women’s professional basketball overseas: The ugly

Sometimes things even get down right ugly. For instance experiencing racism, or when a paycheck never arrives.

Racism

Then, there’s the fact that players tend to stand out, and can encounter racism. “Even now, after 10 years of playing, it doesn’t get any different, people really actually stare at you. They watch you and you can’t really say whether it’s specifically because you’re Black or maybe because you’re tall or maybe just because you look like you’re not from there. They’re curious as to why you’re there.” said Jasmine Thomas.

“This was in Poland. I had a younger teammate. … When she would sing songs, rap songs, she would use the N-word. Several times we had to tell her, ‘It’s offensive to us. We don’t like that. It’s not appropriate for you to use that, even though it’s in a song.’ We had to explain to her why and the history of it, because that’s not something that crosses borders all the time.” Jasmine shared with the Undefeated.

Not getting paid

Most WNBA players go overseas to get paid. “…Overseas at UMMC Ekaterinburg, where basketball is very valued, we’re treated really well and able to make a lot of money.” said Breanna Stewart who earns approximately $1.5 million per season overseas reported ESPN.

Following Stefanie Dolson’s first WNBA season, she went abroad to Russia. But, halfway through, she went to Turkey because the Russian team was so bad on the court and off. “…It was more off the court, it was not a good situation. They weren’t paying, and they weren’t going to pay.” said Stefanie. She later went on to also play in China and Italy, though it remained merely a means to an end for her.

“Yeah for me, unfortunately…I don’t really enjoy it. And also I don’t think I’m a great overseas player in a way. Just like girls go overseas and they ball out. They take 25 shots a game because they can, and they should…But I don’t know if I’ve even ever taken 25 shots in a game in my life. So I just don’t know how to play like that…People don’t see me overseas like ‘Oh we want Stef Dolson because she’s going to come over here and score 30 points.’ For me I just go to make the money. That’s why I went to China. China is a short season too. So for me that’s the best. Most money, shortest season, kind of bang it out, and get back home. And that’s what I tried to do but then it didn’t work out because of Covid.” said Stefanie.

Women’s professional basketball overseas

Overseas play gives hoopers the option to get paid while doing what they love. The benefits for hoopers abroad are numerous, especially once they find a country and a team that fit their playing and life style  — and get the bag they want. However, women’s basketball abroad certainly comes with its challenges.

With the WNBA raising $75 million recently and ratings on the rise, plus prioritization right around the corner, and the stateside option of Athletes Unlimited, it will be interesting to see whether players continue to go abroad at a similar rate.

By the way be sure to watch: here’s how to watch players overseas.

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