Shock Basketball Worldwide
“(European teams) want the best players to come over and play for their club teams, and they go through the American players to find the best player that fits their club,” said Taj Williams, one of several Shock members to spend the 2009 winter across the Atlantic, including Katie Smith, Olayinka Sanni and Alexis Hornbuckle.
“You just have to take advantage of that opportunity while you can,” said Hornbuckle, who averaged 10.5 points a game in the Euroleague with Besiktas in Istanbul, Turkey.
Another Shock rookie, Olayinka Sanni, also played in Europe for the first time. Sanni, who had played for the Nigerian national team during her college career at West Virginia, went to the small town of Calais, France.
Sanni embraced her time playing for Cote D'Opale Basket, using it to immerse herself in a new culture. Hornbuckle spent most of her time in largely Americanized parts of Turkey, which illustrates the wide range of experiences players can have overseas. It varies from country to country and player to player, as established WNBA veterans are able to enjoy their surroundings more than players like Hornbuckle and Sanni. The youngsters are just trying to improve their game and keep their jobs – here and over there.
Competitors Become Teammates
One of the toughest elements of overseas play for WNBA fans to understand is that long-standing rivals in the summer can be teammates, and even best of friends, during the long winter season. Indiana Fever center Tammy Sutton-Brown played with Smith on the Turkish squad, Fenerbahce, last year. She is trying to convince Smith, who’s considering retirement, to hop on a plane again for next season. It sounds like Sutton-Brown could have a convincing argument.
“I love Tammy,” Smith laughed. “I played against Tammy for a long, long time and never, ever, had really any conversation with her, so spending some time with her and actually getting to know her was a blast.”
Smith and Sutton-Brown propelled Fenerbahce to the Turkish League Championship, Smith's second team title in a year after helping the Shock win the 2008 WNBA Finals. Good thing Smith is such a good sport and wouldn’t try to rub it in. “It’s fun to compete because you are playing against other Americans on other [European] teams,” she said. “It gives you a little bragging rights.”
Business Versus Leisure
Taj McWilliams, however, focuses on other aspects aside from basketball, which is just one part of the equation when determining where to play. “I like changing teams more frequently than staying with the same team because it’s different cultures, different things for me to see and be a part of,” said McWilliams, who began the 2008-09 season in Turkey and finished it in Italy.
“Some people chase money, they go team to team to get the best money. I go team to team to get the experience that’s there and the culture and the cities because that’s something I really want to have.”
That said, McWilliams won’t overlook financial security, either. Some teams overseas are known for having less punctual payment procedures than in the U.S. “You definitely don’t want to go 6,000 miles away from your home and the people that love you to be around people that won’t pay you and don’t appreciate your value,” she said.
The financial concerns are legitimate. Even the top salary from playing a five-month WNBA season doesn’t allow for an seven-month off-season vacation. Playing overseas is the players’ major moneymaker. “Europe is where the bulk of our money comes from,” confirmed Hornbuckle.
While the year-round training is helpful come the WNBA season, the players have to adjust to the slower brand of basketball played in Europe, which sometimes proves difficult. For McWilliams, the contrasting styles forced her to develop her overall game.
“I started older than most, and I didn’t get taught a lot of things. Overseas you’re kind of the ‘do-everything’ player; you’re not put in a box,” she said. “Here, I’m either a power forward or a center. Overseas, I had to bring up the ball; I had to play the 2 [shooting guard]. So for me it’s about developing and increasing the things you do well.”
Players learn to combine the two styles of play and tailor their WNBA games to reflect that, but for younger players, it’s about more than fundamentals. Basketball overseas also helps them mature and teaches them perseverance. “You go through trials,” Sanni reflected. “You just have to keep moving forward and not think about, you know, the negatives.”
Whether they go to improve at basketball or enjoy the culture, Shock players are eager to return overseas. “Even at 38 I still have offers to play overseas,” said McWilliams, who has lived and played in Europe for eight years. Even the all-business Hornbuckle sounds excited about returning to a European club.
“I’m looking forward to going overseas next year,” she said.