I’ve written many articles about playing basketball overseas. So it’s only right that I write another one.
I played at Penn State Altoona, an NCAA Division 3 school that had produced a grand total of ZERO professional basketball players, male or female. Me and one teammate made it pro, starting in 2005-06.
No one has made it since.
My career spanned nine years and traversed eight countries, though it was far from a smooth ride.
There were years when I wasn’t able to procure professional basketball employment. I was employed by those years — just at places like Foot Locker, Bally Total Fitness, LA Fitness, and Philadelphia Sports Clubs. You gotta do what you gotta do.
I’ve attended somewhere between 10-15 exposure camps / combines / tryouts — all of which were financed on my own dime.
Some of them were worth the investment. Some were not.
I dealt with only two agents for the entirety of my entire career. The efforts of both these agents combined to help me get 2 of my 8 playing situations. The other 6 were self-initiated and self-negotiated.
As Omar Little would say on The Wire, “all in the game, yo.”
I’m telling you all of this not to impress you (well, maybe a little bit), but to impress on you that if anyone can explain how to make an overseas career happen from pretty much NOTHING, I can.
The messages I receive most often from players about playing overseas is some form of…
“What steps do I take to play overseas?”
“I just need to know what to do…?”
“I want to play overseas.”
So let’s lay things out as plainly as possible, in order of operations.
Understandings: Things You Need To Know And Accept As Part Of The Game You’re Getting Into.
No One Owes You Shit.
Exactly as it says.
If you’re going to make it playing overseas, you must be — and remain — the majority stakeholder in your basketball career. Your family, college coaches, professional coaches, and even your agents don’t have as much control over what happens in your career as you do. Everything begins and ends with you, and all final decisions need to be made by you.
The purpose of college is to prepare you for adult life. Professional basketball (or professional anything) is adult life. It’s time for you to man (or woman) up. By that, I mean: take 100% responsibility for everything that happens (or doesn’t happen) for you in the pro basketball game.
So many players attempt to enter the pro game while holding onto stories of what some coach or agent did to them as if anyone cares. No one does. Handle your business in the present.
You Will Need To Make Investments In Yourself.
This exposure events and tryouts I mentioned in the intro? I spent a total of around $10,000, total, on all of them in aggregate. The ones that paid off more than made up for the ones that didn’t.
Here’s the thing, thought: I had NO GUARANTEES that ANY of them would pay off.
I had to make the investment UP-FRONT, with no assurance that I’d ever make that money back.
Without any assurances, the only thing I really had was a belief that my playing ability would generate a return on investment. Fortunately, that’s what happened.
This is one of the hardest things for players to accept about the overseas game: There are no guarantees in this. Which means you have to:
- Believe in your game enough to put your own money behind it
- Have the money to invest in yourself. If you’re lucky, you have a parent or family member who will fund your dreams until your dreams pay you back. If not — if you’re like I was — you better be stacking your money from your job or business or whatever it is you do to make money to fund your hoops goals. You will need it.
Once You’re In, You Can’t Afford To Start Slow.
This is referring to when you actually get an opportunity in the form of a contract, an invite, a practice or short-term tryout offer with a team.
Be ready to impress as soon as you get on the court.
They (team coaches and officials) are evaluating you from the moment you walk into the gym, and they want to be impressed quickly. They don’t have time for you to get loose or comfortable or to get used to the environment. In the time it takes you to get acclimated, they could have found another player who didn’t need all that getting-ready time.
If you’re a shooter, make shots.
If you’re an athlete, play above the rim and do athletic stuff.
If you’re a ball handler, shake off some defenders.
Whatever it is that you do well, make it obvious, quickly.
The more money a team has invested into you — such as if you have any guarantees in your contract — you may be afforded more time to get comfortable and start producing for your club. If you’re on a tryout deal or don’t have any contract guarantees, they lose nothing in letting you go.
I’ve seen players get brought in to join teams, and get fired — released — just a quickly as they had been acquired (read: after ONE practice). Most of the victims won’t tell this story, but it happens often. Just don’t let it happen to you.
You’ve been forewarned.
Overseas Ball Is Not A Rec League Or Pro-am Game.
I, like you, see the “highlight” videos of NBA players and college and overseas guys playing in “exclusive” pickup game runs and allegedly high-level pro-am leagues every summer where some player “pulls up” and “shows out” by scoring XX points in front of a crowd and does some move against some NBA player.
Since this is a popular thing now, let’s get a few things clear.
- What you see in those pro-am leagues doesn’t happen in college, NBA, G-League or overseas games. Which means: Just because you play in one of these leagues and do well, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re pro-ready.
- Overseas basketball, specifically, can be a highly structured environment in terms of how your teams and coaches want you to play. Meaning, you can’t just improvise and freestyle all game long like you might do in some summer league.
- If you are incapable of playing within a system — one that may not emphasize getting you the ball — you won’t last on many overseas clubs. Overseas ball is not about going one-on-one, James Harden style, and scoring as many points as possible while everyone else stands around waiting for the occasional pass. While you may be great at isolation play, the team may not allow many chances for you to do so. Can you play any other way? Can you be happy even if you’re getting only 5-7 shots per game? You’d better be able to.
- Unlike in pickup games and summer pro-am leagues, overseas coaches will expect — DEMAND — that you play defense (in the Game Group, there is an interview I did with a pro coach in Spain who emphasized this point). Defense is NOT the rest time you get in between offensive possessions. If you aren’t mentally and physically conditioned for playing hard on D, you won’t last long.
Actions: Things You Need To Actually Do To “Get On” Overseas
Make It Your Most Important Business To Get Into The Overseas Game.
What I mean by this: Make a decision that you WILL make it “getting on” overseas. This may require you to “sell out” in every other area of your life just to make this basketball thing happen.
That’s what I had to do.
I lived in my parent’s house until I was 24 years of age. I took jobs that I could quit easily and quickly just to keep my schedule and availability flexible. Between the ages of 22 (college graduation) and 26 (4th and 5th playing contracts), I didn’t party or hang out at all; I barely even dated (shout out to MySpace!).
You may have to sacrifice many things that you enjoy just to make basketball work. If you’re not fully committed to the decision, this will be extremely difficult to stick to, especially when you’re six months into a “regular” job and you haven’t heard from your agent in that time.
Identify Where Shit Is Going Down And Where People Are Getting Seen, And Be There.
Be on the scene.
When I graduate college in 2004, “the scene” was exposure camps: where players like you show up and play ball in front of an audience of scouts, coaches, owners, general managers and agents, with hopes of impressing someone enough for them to make you an offer.
My first exposure camp in 2005 is what got me in the pro game. My performance there I had on video; I used that video and scouting report to market myself to agents; the one agent who signed me found my first team who signed me to my first playing contract.
If you don’t have teams or agents calling you — I didn’t — you need to get your face seen and your game known. Find the exposure camp or combine that makes sense for you and be there. Don’t think you can just sit at home and the opportunity will come to you.
Maybe it will, but I wouldn’t bet on that.
Sharpen Your Game.
This one should go without saying, but this article is laying out “everything.”
Be good at playing basketball.
While you’re doing everything that I have laid out above and will lay out below, working on your game should be the constant that no one even has to ask you or remind you about. The last thing to slow your progress toward a professional basketball career should be your ability to actually play ball.
Live in the gym. If you have a job, there and the gym should be the only places anyone ever sees you.
Home. Gym. Job.
Be In Game Shape, And Stay In Game Shape.
Game Shape: Ready to play a full 40-minute full-court game, playing hard on defense and offense.
To do this, you need to be doing what any coach would have you doing to get ready for a season — the stuff you probably don’t like doing on your own.
Suicides / Running lines.
Full court layups.
Sprints as a penalty for losing a shooting drill / missing free throws.
Short breaks in between conditioning drills.
NO SITTING DOWN ALLOWED.
Like I said: the same things your coaches have made you do in the past, you need to be disciplined in making yourself do on your own.
Being in game shape is the first and easiest way you can show a team that you’re a serious player when they bring you in or if they’re watching you at an exposure event or tryout. Be the one guy/girl who’s not sucking wind or pulling on your shorts during a break in the action. Stand up during timeouts. Run up and down the court 4-5 times back and forth without getting winded.
Game shape. If you’ve played on a team before, you know what it looks and feels like.
Build (And Constantly Update) Your Resume.
In professional basketball, your resume and stats are your game film.
Anyone can talk about what they can do. No team has ever signed a player off of what he said he can do. You need to show it.
Every good game you play, save that footage. Save it in two places, just in case.
The better the competition you have a good game against, the better it reflects on you. The higher the quality of the footage, the better and more legitimate you appear.
If you don’t have any game film, get some.
You play in basketball games, right? If you don’t, you aren’t ready to play overseas.
Get someone to film one of your games, or ask the camera guys in the gym for a copy of what they shot. Pay for it if you have to. Leave the rap music out of your footage.
Don’t only show your highlights. Everyone’s a star in their highlights. Teams are smart. Have highlights, but also get a FULL game to show.
Recruit Agents To Represent You.
Oh — you thought agents are supposed to recruit you?
Maybe they will. But if they don’t…
You can get a deal without an agent. I did it multiple times. But the game may not be the same now as it was back then. As we all have more access to information, teams can be more picky about who they sign now.
Even if you do get on sans agent, always be looking for one.
I signed with an agent once while I was still playing under a contract I had negotiated on my own. I did this because I understood the value of having someone other than me, someone who had many more contacts, and much more experience than me, pushing my name out there.
Pro basketball is a business, and in business, knowing the right people can often do more for you than having the right skills can do.
Somewhat counterintuitive, but nonetheless true.
Agents’ info is often freely available online. They have poubic social media profiles. They’re often looking for players to represent. Doesn’t mean they’ll want you, necessarily, but at least you can shoot your shot (pun intended) and ask.
This is why gathering resume materials (game film, stats, places played) is so important. This is the first thing any agent will want to know about you: How marketable is this player? Can/would any of my pro team contacts want him/her?
Repeat The Above Steps In Perpetuity Until A) You No Longer Have To, Or B) You Retire From Professional Basketball.
The above action steps never end.
These are all part of the ongoing game of being a professional player that you will grow to embrace — especially as they start working for you.
And if you ever step away from the game and plan to get back in, just pick back up at the beginning of this section and start over.
Continual Actions: Things You Should Keep Doing Even After You’ve “gotten On” In The Pro Game
Keep A Log Of Your Games, Stats And Film.
Every game you play as a professional, even the bad games, work in your favor: It’s one more game of experience that thousands of other players — players who would love to take your spot — don’t have.
Ten games is better than five games; three years of experience is better than one year. It shows teams that you were at least competent enough to hold down a job for that amount of time.
Have all your film at the ready to share with anyone — team, agent — who asks for it. Upload it to YouTube and you can leave it as Unlisted if you don’t want to publicize it, but you’ll at least have the link to show to anyone who wants to see. Keep your stats organized and saved in your Notes app or in Google Docs or Evernote for easy sharing with any interested parties.
Keep Reaching Out To Agents Until You Find A Good One Who You Trust With The Marketing & Advancement Of Your Career.
To keep your career going, you need people to know about you and what you’re doing.
Agents know people.
So, keep reaching out to and connecting with agents. Until you find an agent you are comfortable enough with that you truth that he/she will get your name out there on your behalf better and more efficiently than you can yourself, this is your job.
I never quite found this person for me. Maybe you will have better luck. Either way, someone needs to be in charge of your marketing. If you don’t have marketing skills, find someone who does.
Don’t leave this to chance. There should always be someone who is tasked with having you name circulating in the overseas market.
If You Don’t Have An Agent, Keep Your Contacts Warm.
When I was in Mexico, I knew an older player who had basically hustled his own way to a long career in the country.
He didn’t have one agent, but he knew several of them — coaches as well — and he would keep in constant contact with each of them, reaching out to them once per month or so. He’d tell them where he was playing, how he’d been doing on the court, and learn from them what they were doing and what they might be looking for at the moment.
He explained to me that he did this just to keep himself top-of-mind with those guys. That way, if he was ever a free agent looking for a job, he had a bunch of warm contacts he could reach out to to make something happen.
If you’re a player who does not have an agent, this is what you need to be doing as well.
Even if you’re gainfully employed and doing well, don’t lose touch with the people you know from other countries and clubs — you may be unemployed one day, and will be wishing you’d maintained those relationships.
This principle applies to any industry you will ever work in.
Put Some Money Away.
Remember something while you’re playing professional basketball and enjoying life: basketball careers end.
And, unlike many other industries, basketball players and other athletes retire (or are forced into retirement) a good 20-30 years earlier than people in most other industries. Your career window is short, and your window for earning closes closes quickly.
So, you should put some money away for four reasons.
- You will have created a certain lifestyle for yourself and your (extended?) family while playing. And, as Jay-Z said, when you’re used to filet mignon, it’s hard to go back to Hamburger Helper. “Lifestyle” is not just about income — it’s about time, associations, and expectations. Money is a tool that allows you to control these things.
- Whatever you do after basketball, you’ll probably not be as good at it (at first) as you were at playing basketball — which means you may not be making the same amount of money. You may have to start at the bottom all over again, like a former NBA player who decides to get into coaching, and starts out working at a high school or assisting in the G-League. That’s a significant pay cut. Would you be ready to handle it financially?
- You may want to take some time to enjoy life, and/or spend time with your spouse and kids that you couldn’t spend while traveling the world playing basketball. The more “runway” you have saved up, the more time you afford yourself for doing this (and the more time you give yourself for finding yourself life’s next venture).
- You might find yourself prematurely out of work even during your career! This happened to me multiple times. I was simply unable to find a contract. This led to me building what we now call a “brand,” through publishing what we now call “content.” I started doing this because I couldn’t be sure that I’d get another shot at pro basketball — and when I did, I was in a position to choose rather than having to take just anything offered to me.
Professional basketball is a volatile industry. Give yourself some sort of safety net for all the inevitable randomness you will encounter along the way.
Soak Up The Experience.
While you do need to focus on your skills and performance and career advancement, you know like I know: playing a sport for a living is not the normal full-time job. Even the hardest-working player has plenty of downtime.
This is why you see athletes having TV shows, YouTube channels, podcasts, opening businesses and recording rap albums. There’s available time for them to do these things.
Though I don’t know your off-court interests — mine were writing books, blogging and recording videos — be sure to take time to enjoy the experience of traveling the world to play basketball.
I experienced several less-than-ideal situations during my playing career. But each time, I had to remind myself that I was in ________ (country) getting paid to play basketball. There was no one back home that I could complain to; to them, I was “living a movie.”
While you know that the overseas life is not always exactly a movie, you also have to admit: playing ball for a living beats damn near any other job you could have instead.
So, go sightseeing in the towns you play in. Get to know the locals. Try some of the food. Learn at least a few phrases of the local language. Go out with your local teammates a time or two to see how things are (this need not become a habit!).
I don’t know about you, but I never went on an international vacation — every stamp in my passport happened because of business. You are one of the 1% who get to travel the world because of your ability to play a sport; soak up that experience. Even if you come back to the same places on vacation years later, it won’t be under the same circumstances.
That just about covers it.
If there’s anything specific that I haven’t covered here, check all these articles I’ve written about the overseas game — on topics ranging from agents to exposure camps to money — on the Athlete page here.
And make sure to claim your free physical copy of my book The Overseas Basketball Blueprint at http://BallOverseas.com.
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