The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Made Life Hard on Overseas Basketball Players — The Playgrounder
According to FIBA’s migration report, 1,781 Americans played overseas in 2019. Most of these players are lesser-known players who are looking to continue their careers while getting paid. Some achieve great success; players like Brad Wanamaker, Patrick Beverley, and PJ Tucker have successfully made the leap to the NBA after spending several years in Europe.
Players overseas struggle with uncertainty, even in the best of times. They are often thousands of miles from their homes, without their families, in places where they may not even know the language. There is a lack of long-term security, since contracts are typically for only one year. The pay is considerably lower than in the NBA, though players are often set up with apartments and cars to get around. In some particularly bad scenarios, teams pay players late or not at all.
It is even relatively common for players to leave their teams during the season, sometimes because of a struggle to assimilate to a foreign culture and sometimes because of a lack of on-court production. And teams can be harsh; Christian Wood, who just received a $41 million dollar contract from the Houston Rockets, was cut from a team in China before even playing a game in 2017.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Life has been difficult for everyone, with activities that used to be normal, like going to work or travelling home for the holidays, now fraught with danger. The pandemic has further compounded the challenges American basketball players overseas face as well, from having to rush home through travel restrictions in the spring, to a brutal market for free agents in the summer, to living overseas through league suspensions, and a second wave of nationwide lockdowns.
CHAOS IN THE SPRING
In the spring, as the coronavirus enveloped the globe, leagues around the world stopped playing, and many players lost their jobs. Most contracts did not have clauses for handling what would happen when play stopped, so it was up to agents to negotiate with the teams for a proper payout for players. This could get hairy; The Athletic ran an article recently about the struggles of American players abroad that included, among other things, a story of how a Polish team stopped paying a player and kicked him out of the apartment they had given him.
Former Stanford Center Josh Sharma was playing his first professional season for Spirou Charleroi in Belgium last year when the Belgian Basketball League was cancelled, and his contract expired. He was no longer getting paid, though he was allowed to collect benefits from the Belgian government if he stayed. “But at that point it was the time and where they’re saying ‘oh, no more Americans are getting into the country,’ so me and all my American teammates were like ‘let’s get out of here as quick as possible,’” Sharma told me.
Tyrell Sturdivant, an American who played college basketball for Stony Brook, was playing in Gießen, Germany last season when his league was suspended. Sturdivant said, “Really my goal was always to play pro and [the] European market is one of the best [for] basketball outside of the NBA, so I was really lucky to get the opportunity to play here.”
His team still had games left on the schedule when United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advised Americans overseas to come home immediately. Sturdivant was left in a tough spot; stay in Germany and risk getting stranded without a job, or come home and risk missing the end of the season.
“Without our season being fully cancelled, I went ahead and booked the flight home, since I didn’t want to be stuck in Germany,” said Sturdivant. His gamble paid off; the German season was soon cancelled. But he was left with an uncertain future once he got home.
TRAINING BACK HOME
After they came home, players had to figure out how to train. Due to lower salaries, overseas players typically don’t have the workout setups that some NBA stars have. And with public gyms around the country shut down, they had to make do with what they had.
“There was a period of two months were there were no courts at all. There were no indoor courts open, and they took all the rims off of outdoor courts,” Sturdivant recalled. Sturdivant works as a trainer in a gym in the offseason near his home in Delaware, so when restrictions were lifted in his area, he worked out there.
When restrictions were strictest early in the summer, Sharma could not find a place to play either. “We picked up a basketball hoop off the side of the road that some people were giving away,” he said. Sharma combined driveway shooting workouts with free weights until Massachusetts began to lift restrictions on gyms. Then, he started working out with his old high school junior varsity coach. “People I knew would get me into random gyms. I’d say just give me a time and a location and I’m there.”
In a normal year, Sharma would be trying to work out for NBA teams; he spent the 2019 offseason in the Summer League with the Utah Jazz. Unfortunately, the NBA’s modified schedule led the league to cancel this year’s Summer League and mini-camps, depriving Sharma of opportunities to get noticed by an NBA team. European clubs are also known to scout the Summer League.
Despite the difficulty, Sharma and Sturdivant persevered. “Players [who are] dedicated to their craft find a way,” said Tony Brown, an American agent and retired player who represents several players abroad, including Sturdivant, “even if that means they have to adapt drills to a soccer field.”
A BRUTAL FREE AGENCY MARKET
While they trained in America, players entered a brutal free agent market. Since they are mostly on one-year deals, a great number of players hit free agency every offseason. This offseason, most teams were cutting budgets.
Most teams play in small arenas with small television deals. Some teams base their budgets on ticket sales, and those teams are hurting because fans cannot attend games in large numbers in most places. Other teams rely on sponsors or benefactors. Some of these teams are doing better, but not all. Since companies worldwide have struggled due to the COVID pandemic, many sponsors are unable to support basketball in the way they did before.
Playing through the pandemic also brings added costs. Teams cover the cost of player testing, which can add up, though the testing is not as frequent as in the NBA. Even billion-dollar NBA teams are feeling these costs, so it is no surprise that the less deep-pocketed teams abroad are struggling.
Israel’s Maccabi Rishon LeZion and Germany’s Fraport Skyliners opted out of this season’s EuroCup (Europe’s second-tier continent-wide competition) for financial reasons. Some smaller teams have folded. Everyone is tightening their budget, impacting the Americans who play abroad.
Americans are generally the highest paid players on their teams overseas; on average, Americans play more minutes and score more points than their teammates. But these teams’ already tight budgets have gotten even tighter, and no one feels those constrictions more than the high-priced American imports.
“Teams went from signing six imports to signing five. If that happens over fifty ball clubs, we lose fifty jobs,” said Teddy Archer, another American agent.
On top of that, many leagues have restrictions on how many foreigners each club can sign. This was not an issue last season for Sharma, who qualifies for a British passport through his mother. But the United Kingdom left the European Union in January, so he no longer qualifies as a local in most European leagues. “Brexit hurt me on that one,” said Sharma.
Sturdivant and Sharma did both find teams for this season, in Luxembourg and Poland respectively. But getting to Europe presented difficulties of its own.
Players who have managed to sign in Europe have faced added hurdles in getting there. In most cases, players have to take COVID tests before they can get on a plane to a foreign country, and then quarantine upon entry.
Sturdivant signed to play this season for BBC Arantia Larochette in Luxembourg’s Total League. To get to Luxembourg from his home in Delaware, he booked a series of connecting flights from Philadelphia to Miami to Spain to Luxembourg.
The first leg of Sturdivant’s journey went smoothly, but he ran into issues in Miami; they would not let him on the plane to Spain. It turns out Spain was not letting in anyone who only had an American passport, even for just a connecting flight. Sturdivant had to fly back to Philadelphia and book a new flight that connected in Portugal. And, since he had to have a negative COVID test result within 48 hours of his flight, he had to get tested again.
This kind of experience is common. Archer’s clients in Russia and Germany had to take COVID tests before leaving and upon landing, and had to quarantine until they got a negative result. His client in Latvia faced a fourteen-day quarantine upon entering the country.
In Europe, quarantines and lockdowns are often stricter than they are in the United States. In Greece, for example, anyone who wants to leave their house must text the government with a reason for going out. Luckily for athletes, exercise is a valid reason to leave. Still, playing professional basketball after quarantining for fourteen days is a tall ask. Many players go out for runs to stay in some shape, but they cannot do full workouts, much less play basketball, in quarantine.
When Sturdivant finally got to Luxembourg, he had to quarantine while he waited for his test results. During that time, his team was playing preseason games, depriving him of precious game time to get familiar with his teammates. “I watched a lot of film on my new team, and some of the players we were playing against, and the time went by pretty fast,” said Sturdivant.
Because it is so difficult to travel overseas now, teams are placing a premium on players who are already nearby. Remember how players would sometimes leave teams in the middle of the season? That is happening far less frequently this year because of the logistical challenges of getting a replacement during a global pandemic.
If a team has an American, they will likely keep that player, even if things are not completely working out. This also means that the Americans who did not find teams over the summer are caught in limbo without an easy solution.
Leagues across the world did start up again this fall, though some did not start on time. Now Europe as a whole is seeing skyrocketing numbers of COVID cases, and some countries (including Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and others) have reentered lockdown.
The basketball leagues in these countries are following suit. Some have suspended play entirely. Sturdivant flew over in September, and the season started smoothly. But the league soon paused games as cases spiked.
Now, Sturdivant’s team is holding no-contact practices with the season’s schedule up in the air. These consist of shooting drills with three people to a basket, lifts, and agility drills-very different from a normal professional practice. “It feels like a youth practice, or a pre-season part two,” said Sturdivant.
Sturdivant is still getting paid, and the league does have plans to eventually resume the season. But for now, he is filling time by substitute teaching at the international school (where the students mostly speak English) and working at a local gym. While different from having to defend an opposing star basketball player, this presents its own challenge.
“The first day I had first-graders, and they were full of energy, you know how it is. It was difficult,” Sturdivant confessed. But he is relishing the opportunity. “Teaching is something I’ve never done, and it’s a good life experience.”
Overseas professional basketball is a tough gig, especially so during COVID. But players like Sturdivant and Sharma are dedicated to getting through it. They, and countless others, will keep working hard on their games, miles from home, through lockdowns and all. Players who are dedicated to their craft find a way.
Originally published at https://www.theplaygrounder.com on December 8, 2021.