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I grew up near Syracuse, N.Y., witnessing a special time in Syracuse University basketball history. In the 2002-03 season, the Orange went 30-5 en route to a national championship, starting a freshman guard named Gerry McNamara for every game.
“G-Mac” quickly grew to be a fan favorite through clutch performances, an infectious passion and a devastating 3-point stroke. He was the rare player who could fill a building by himself, thanks to buses full of supporters that would caravan from his hometown of Scranton.
McNamara graduated in 2006 and was projected as a possible mid-round pick but went undrafted.
Every major team, across many sports, has a player like this every couple of years: An incredible college player with a following, no doubt, but not good enough for the majors. So what do players do when they can play at the highest amateur levels but can’t make the big time?
For most, it means playing internationally. Baseball has its U.S.-based minor leagues, but for basketball, hockey and football players, there are few serious domestic opportunities. McNamara followed the typical track and went overseas, playing in Greece and Latvia.
Pro-basketball leagues overseas have attracted former NBA pros to China, Russia, Italy, Spain, France, Israel and Turkey. Gridiron stars have the Canadian Football League. Hockey players go to Canada, Russia or Eastern Europe to play in major leagues over there.
The attraction is the opportunity for a greater paycheck, more playing time —
and against possibly better competition. Bobby Jones, a former Sixers rookie who bounced around a handful of NBA teams from 2006-08, said that while you can make around $24,000 playing in the US-based NBA’s Developmental League, overseas paychecks can be $80,000 and up. American players often get their living expenses paid and their paychecks tax free. Fifteen-year NBA veteran Stephon Marbury is making a few million a year in China just a few years after what would have been a career-ending episode with the Knicks.
In addition to the usual challenges faced by any expatriate employee, athletes face a special set of problems. The worst is that those fatter paychecks have less of a guarantee of showing up. It’s common for international teams to pay late, short or not at all, and that leaves U.S.-based players as broke foreigners with little recourse. Teams know that and sometimes use the paycheck as leverage.
The uncertainty and family stresses are big issues as well, as many players go overseas alone. Daryl Greene played for Niagara University when I was a student there, and he is now a typical example of the life of an overseas player. His wife describes the unpredictable life as being hired by a team with notice of only a day or two, or he can be sent home after only nine games because of team turmoil.
The culture shock can be jarring. Check out former NHL star Pavel Bure trying to talk around organized crime connections and extorting players in Russia, making the whole thing sound like that’s the way it is. How about guns, drugs and corruption in your league? Sometimes that’s what you face if you want to keep your dream of playing professionally, and you can’t do it stateside.
Bill Sayer is a financial analyst in the insurance industry and holds a degree in economics. A native of Upstate New York, Bill enjoys watching college football, the NFL, NHL and Premier League soccer from his home in Palmyra. Have a suggestion, link or question?