Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2005 | Features


By David Driver

When Dean Oliver, 01BBA, returned to Iowa to play basketball in the Iowa City-area Prime Time League this past June, he didn’t mind the sweltering heat or the relatively sparse number of spectators in the North Liberty Community Center. He was probably glad that fans weren’t throwing coins at him or that riot police weren’t lined up outside. That sometimes happens in the kind of arenas he’s been playing in recently. No, the NBA hasn’t taken a turn for the worse. For the past year, this former Hawkeye has been playing professionally in Europe, where he’s discovered new quirks in a familiar ball game.

Increasingly, former ballplayers from Iowa and other universities are making their living in countries where even those fans who have heard of Michael Jordan might not be able to find Chicago on a map. Far from the superstar status that pro-ball players enjoy in the States, these men usually earn modest salaries and play before sparse and sometimes hostile crowds. They may have to deal with jealous teammates, an unfamiliar language, or racist communities. They play in cities where they can’t even read the road signs. Often, though, these former Hawkeyes discover that being able to play the game they love makes it all worthwhile.

After graduating from the UI, Oliver played parts of two seasons with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA. Released by the team in December 2002, he injured his Achilles tendon playing in the summer 2003 Prime Time League. While his NBA dreams may have ended there, his hoops career didn’t. This past April, he was averaging nearly 15 points and two assists in 27 games for Slovan, a team based in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. He also made the Eurobasket League All-Imports team in June.

Even though the former Communist country is regionally famous for its hoop talent (two players from Slovenia were selected in the first round of the NBA draft in 2004), Ljubljana has only 200,000 people. The stadium is so small that Oliver’s team plays some of its home games in the neighboring town of Maribor.

Former Hawkeye guard Jason Price, 01BA, also headed for Europe when he realized that his chances of playing in the NBA were slim. “You have the luxury of traveling all around the world for free and continuing to play basketball on a very competitive level, and, on top of that, you get paid,” he says. “It’s an experience not many people are able to do. I’m having the time of my life.”

Jacob Jaacks, 00BA, went to Europe after he was cut by the Raptors before he even played a regular-season game for Toronto. His agent sent him to Limoges, France, where he won a championship and led the league in rebounds in 2000-01. Jaacks, who also played in Italy before joining a Spanish team this season, says not only is he working his dream job, he’s gotten a taste of the world by playing for European teams. He’s seen the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame Cathedral, as well as castles in France and Italy.

“I didn’t know what I would do with basketball after my career at Iowa,” says Jaacks, who averaged 12.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for the Hawkeyes in 1999-2000. “Of course, I wanted to play in the States so I could be close to my family and friends, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Like most Americans playing in Europe, Jaacks receives a tax-free salary, an apartment, and the free use of a new model car. NBA-caliber players can make as much as $1 million per season in big basketball countries like Spain, France, Italy, and Greece, but even first-year pros in Austria and Germany can expect to clear $40,000—which often beats salaries in the American minor leagues.

American players are expected to earn those salaries by scoring most of their team’s points and producing wins. If they don’t, they will likely find themselves on a plane back home. “There’s definitely a lot of pressure,” says Jaacks, who remembers being one of 19 American players that Limoges tried out in the space of six weeks. Even though most European teams can only use two American players at a time, they try out as many imports as possible. “They wanted to find the right fit,” Jaacks says of his experiences in France. “They were bringing in big guy after big guy. I was fortunate that things worked out for me.”

The special arrangements for American players can cause problems between teammates—most native players don’t get a free car or free housing.  On the other hand, native players with decent ability have more job security than high-priced American imports.

Americans have been going to Europe to play pro basketball since the 1960s. An estimated 3,500 players now make their homes and careers abroad. Since those early days, the overseas game has improved in both quality and popularity. 

Many good European players begin their athletic careers in soccer, finding that skills such as speed, hand-eye coordination, and body control carry over to the hardwood. Olympic competition in Athens illustrated how effectively basketball has taken hold overseas. Four of the top seven men’s basketball Olympic teams were from Europe. And, when the games were over, Italy placed the highest, taking silver to Argentina’s gold. The U.S. team of NBA players had to be content with a bronze medal. 

Nearly every European country now has a professional men’s basketball league. Some even have a second-tier league, and most have pro leagues for women. Many teams are able to pay big money to attract foreign players, while sponsors provide additional perks. The sport’s popularity varies from country to country, though, and soccer continues to dominate most of Europe. In England, for instance, the major daily newspapers make little mention of British Basketball League games, which are attended by only a few hundred fans. In Paris, on the other hand, newspapers give the sport much more attention, and game attendance in many French cities and towns reaches several thousand.

As American players soon discover, 2,000 fans can make as much noise as 10,000. European basketball fans display the kind of passion that makes even the most ardent Hawkeye fan seem tame. “European crowds are a little crazier than Big Ten fans,” says Jaacks. “The entire game, they beat on drums, scream at the refs, scream at the other team. It is loud.”

When the Adriatic League Final 8 tournament was held in Belgrade, Serbia, this past April, at least 50 riot police stood by in case fights erupted between the followers of Red Star and Partizan, two rival teams that share the same practice facility in the city. At an earlier game, police had been forced to break up a melee of angry fans. For the semifinals, though, fans contented themselves with making rude gestures at their rivals.

Occasionally, American players experience a downside to this fan mania. Former Tennessee Tech player Charles Edmonson, who has made his career in Europe for nearly ten years, once played in Bosnia against a barrage of “American, go home!” calls from fans who also threw coins onto the floor. African-American players, who tend to stand out in many European countries, have to get used to stares on the street and sometimes unrepeatable words from opposing fans during games.

Most American players in Europe agree, though, that basketball is basketball. The goal is still ten feet off the floor, ten players run on the court, a long shot is worth three points, and other baskets are worth two. Some important differences do exist, though. The European game consists of four quarters of ten minutes each, the three-second lane is wider near the basket, and offensive and defensive players can touch the ball once it hits the rim. Subtler differences also become noticeable—officials are prone to call a big first step as traveling, and team play is emphasized much more than the dead-on accuracy of a superstar shooter.

“My biggest challenge on the court was adjusting to the traveling call,” says Price, who plays in Germany. “As a point guard, I had to adjust pretty quickly because I handle the ball a lot. It was highly frustrating, but I’ve got it now.”

Most pro hoop teams in Europe practice twice a day and play once or twice a week, compared to NCAA Division 1 teams that practice once a day and play twice a week. That was the biggest adjustment for Oliver, who practices nearly four hours a day with Slovan. He also had to adapt to a ten-month season. “I was always resting [to recover],” he says of his first days with the team.

In the past, some players felt they would be forgotten by the NBA if they played in Europe, but, increasingly, scouts are crossing the ocean in search of talent. In 2004, the NBA draft included players from Slovenia, Latvia, Spain, Ukraine, Denmark, and Russia. Even if you aren’t good enough for the NBA, you can have a long career in Europe.

Oliver has already decided where he’ll be for the next season.

“I’m planning on going overseas again next year,” he says. “I’ve kind of adapted.”

Whether it’s called baloncesto, basquetebol, or pallacanestro, it seems that European basketball translates into a promising career for American players.