In this article you’ll learn exactly how overseas basketball works, why it works that way, and how you can get involved. Need more info on what YOU need to do to play overseas? All covered on my Guides & Tips page.
Every time I meet a person and they ask me what I do, this happens:
“I play basketball.”
“Oh! For who?”
What follows is some answer about playing overseas or a certain country or the last place I was at. If lucky, the question-asker is satisfied and the conversation ends. Other times they are not satisfied, and the conversation doesn’t…end…there.
“How does that work?”
“Do you play against other countries or…?”
“What league is that?”
“Is it better than the NBA or…?”
“So why don’t you play in the NBA?”
This guide will explain, for the uninitiated — be it for players, or fans of basketball — how things work, in a general sense.
Every Country Has Its Own League Within the Country, Just Like America Has The NBA.
A player who “plays in Italy” plays for a team in an Italian league, against other Italy-based teams in that Italian league. They travel throughout Italy, playing road games against those teams. The rival teams also travel to the player’s home town, to play at their gym. Just like the New York Knicks travel to Boston, Los Angeles and Denver for games, and those cities’ team travel to NYC to play the Knicks. Simple.
Unlike The NBA, International Basketball Has No Player’s Union (For Protecting Players) Or Salary Requirements (For Protecting Teams), So How Much Money A Player Makes Is A Wide-Open Situation. VERY Wide-Open.
The NBA has minimum and maximum salaries because of the NBPA (National Basketball Players’ Union), which protects players’ rights, and the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement), which is a contract between all NBA team owners and the NBPA.
The NBPA, in basic terms, fights for certain minimums for players (your own hotel room on road trips, a certain amount of per diem money, a league-wide minimum salary, etc) and goes to bat for players when there are player-ownership disputes (fines, suspensions, etc). The CBA is created for the owners (the NBA as a business, is essentially all 30 owners — the commissioner works for the owners) to protect themselves against the NBPA — maximum salaries (which did not always exist), dress codes, suspension guidelines, fine penalty regulations, guidelines on what can and cannot constitute “late” to practice, etc.
The NBA is the only basketball league in the world with a players union. This means, if you play in any league other than the NBA, you have no one looking out for your rights, save for your agent (if you have one). You are on your own. I have seen players sign multi-year deals for millions, and I have seen players who play for no pay. Americans overseas, in general, always are afforded a place to stay (not necessarily a nice place, but a place), and some amount of food — again this runs the gamut from every single meal paid for and/or prepared, to you being on your own in eating. All of these things can be negotiated in your contract, based on your negotiating position and power to even negotiate in the first place (which many overseas players lack).
Overseas basketball is a buyer’s market: there are more available players than there are available contracts, so teams can be picky and make take-it-or-leave-it offers to players, who, often, take such offers for fear of being left with nothing — in turn driving down salaries for all of us.
There Are A Few Select Top-Level International Teams Who, In Addition To Their Domestic Leagues, Play In A Group Against Each Other. The Main One Is Called The “Euroleague”.
Unless you personally know a person who plays overseas, this is probably the only International basketball you have heard of. The Euroleague is the best league in the world outside of the NBA. It consists of 24 teams, from various countries, who are considered the best of the best
(Note: in Europe, many times one club can “leapfrog” another in terms of leagues and levels not by way of team performance on the court, but by buying their way in. This happens at the domestic and Euroleague level. So the Euroleague is not necessarily the “best” 24 teams in Europe, but they are a good close representation).
Many very good current NBA players have played in the Euroleague; Manu Ginobili is one such player. If you are a college basketball fan and one of your favorite school’s top players didn’t quite make the NBA (or he did, but didn’t last long), there is a good chance he plays for a team that competes in the Euroleague. Keith Langford, Shelden Williams, Sean May, Drew Neitzel, Joey Dorsey, Josh Powell, Hilton Armstrong, Acie Law, Nick Caner-Medley, Matt Walsh, Omar Cook and Bracey Wright are just a few such players who are or have been in the Euroleague at some point in their careers.
Not Speaking The Native Language, For Americans, Is Not Much Of An Issue, As Most “Young” People (35-Under) Speak English.
I only speak English (and some Spanish) and have never had an issue getting around in any place I’ve been. Students in non-USA countries take English classes in school and watch tons of American TV; they know the language well, and a lot more about our culture than you’d think. The older people, I’ve seen, are the ones who don’t speak English many times and don’t care to learn (I have had multiple non-English-speaking coaches; that has been fun). But with a combination of basic English, a pocket translator (or phone app) and some gesturing (which is how I purchased condoms in Kaunas, Lithuania), you’ll get by.
Playing In Europe (Or Any Other Continent) Is Not Necessarily A “Better” Way To Get To The NBA. It Is Not Necessarily Worse Either.
The NBA’s G-League (formerly D-League) Is The Closest A Player Can Be To The NBA Without Actually Being In The NBA. But Many Good Players Don’t Play There. There Are Good Reasons Why.
The NBA is the most popular basketball league in the world, it has the best players, facilities, living/travel situations, and offers the most money.
But there are only 450 jobs in the NBA.
What this means: There are many very good basketball players who simply cannot all play in the NBA at the same time.
European clubs and NBA teams respect each other’s contractual agreements, which means this: Say you sign a contract with a team in Spain and play well, averaging 30 points per game for the first month of the season. The Chicago Bulls notice and want to sign you. They cannot act on this urge, however, until after your Spanish season is over, because you are in a binding contract with that Spanish team until the season is over or until/if that team decides to let you out of it early (highly unlikely, especially if you are playing well). So, signing with an overseas team is a season-long decision for players, forgoing an NBA shot that season (presumably, since the contract last well int the corresponding NBA season) when they sign that deal. Play well that season, and that player may get an NBA opportunity the following season.
The other option is the D-League, the NBA’s official minor league. The G-League does not offer much by way of compensation — their salary range is published online in many places — and houses you college-student style with the rest of the team. The level of play is high; the lifestyle is anything but. 15-passenger vans, Wal-Mart food trips and and coach-class flights are part of the G-League existence (which I don’t completely get, since the NBA backs the G-League the same way they backed the WNBA for many years before the WNBA was turning a profit. WNBA players play and practice in the same facilities as the NBA teams many of them share cities with, and earn 3-4X more money than G-Leaguers).
BUT, in the G-League, say you have that same great 30-point-per-game month that Hypothetical You had in Spain. In this case, an NBA team can sign you immediately; you could be playing for the San Antonio Spurs the very next day. You can go to (i.e., be called up by) an NBA team at any time when you are a G-League player, as opposed to being contractually married for a year or more (based on your contract) to a team overseas. By playing in the D-League, you are essentially betting on yourself in the chance that you’ll be one to hit that NBA contract lottery (which would be pro-rated for the amount of time you actually spend with a team). You can be called up and sent down between the NBA and G-League the same way baseball teams do their minor league players, with certain restrictions for teams in terms of frequency, player experience, etc.
So, many players have to choose between a year-long commitment to an overseas club, who could offer a better living situation, more money, and long-term stability on and off the court, and the chance of winning that lottery of being called to an NBA club in the G-League. This is not an easy choice as basketball players are people just like you; we want to live comfortably and have responsibilities — families, kids — outside of simply satisfying our basketball desires. We have to consider the endgame of basketball, hopefully putting ourselves in a position to continue living comfortably when our careers are done. Thusly, many really good players choose to play out their careers overseas, even when they have NBA teams wanting them to come over for non-guaranteed opportunities.
30 teams. 15 roster spots, up to 450 players total. Approx 85 players that were on rosters in 2012 were out off league in 2013. #NBA
— JALEN ROSE (@JalenRose) July 9, 2013
Let’s get into exactly what that means.
NBA Training Camps are basically tryouts in the NBA — for example, the Miami Heat will have 20 or so guys in Camp, but only 15 make the team. Guaranteed contracts — contracts the team has already agreed to with certain players — play a role in who makes a club also (some teams go into Training Camp with 15 guaranteed players already signed, but as a player, you may still take the Camp invite just to get the exposure and “NBA Training Camp” on your resume). Unlike in the NFL, every cent agreed to in an NBA contract is guaranteed, no matter your performance.
Say, you just played a great season in the Euroleague and decide to give the NBA a shot the following season. The best overseas offers usually are offered in the summer. NBA Training Camps begin in October. So to take this shot, you are giving up your chance at the best Euro offers that year, which will be long gone by October. But the NBA is your dream, so you go for it. You outplay an incumbent player who was on the team the previous year — but that guy’s contract is already guaranteed for the upcoming season. So the team you’re in camp with — which, remember, is also a business — decides to pay just one guy (the guaranteed-salary player whom you outplayed) instead of paying two player (you, and the incumbent they had to cut to sign you — remember, that contract is guaranteed; he gets paid even if he doesn’t play).
This is the “numbers game” you hear of often when solid players get cut from NBA teams. You missed out on the NBA, and now the best overseas offers are gone, taken by players who decided in the summer that they weren’t going to go after an NBA roster spot.
This is the craps game that overseas players opt out of to have a more steady situation basketball and money-wise abroad. Again remember, athletes are people with lives to live. Everything must be considered.
Overseas Basketball Players Have A Ton Of Free Time On Thier Hands. There Is A Wide Range Of What Is Done With That Time.
Just like you, I roll my eyes when I see a basketball player release a mixtape or upload a freestyle to YouTube. But I completely understand. As basketball players overseas, you’re looking at a maximum 5 hours per day of actual “work,” and the rest is up to you. You must find something to do.
Some make rap music or sing R&B. I write blog posts, make videos and read books. Some chase entertainment in bars, nightclubs and females. Some play video games. Some draw or paint. There is enough time to take a up a serious hobby when playing basketball is your job. So when you see a ball player doing one of the aforementioned things, it doesn’t mean he’s not dedicated to the game or his team (also doesn’t mean he is, but that’s another post for another time).
And I think that just about covers it. Any questions I have not answered, feel free to leave them in the comments. Any players in-the-know who have some info I left out, let me know about that, too.
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