By David Driver
Used with permission
As a Cougar basketball player, Jan-Michael Thomas (’01 Bus. Mgt.) was one of the top long-range shooters in the country. Now he's a lot farther than a three-point shot from his American roots.
Thomas spent this past basketball season playing for a pro team in Szolnok, Hungary, about an hour southeast of the capital, Budapest.
"It is a great country, in terms of basketball, for someone who wants to get the opportunity to play," says Thomas, a point guard who grew up near Los Angeles. "They are real passionate about sports and life." That can be said about basketball fans throughout Europe.
With more and more Europeans on the roster of NBA teams, Americans such as Thomas have to look outside the United States if they want to continue their hoop careers. Teams overseas are willing to pay competitive prices—and provide free housing and transportation—to get Americans across the Atlantic.
Thomas, in fact, wanted to play overseas in the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons but was left without a job due to the tight market for imports. During that time he stayed in shape and had a small role in the movie, Coach Carter, which starred Samuel L. Jackson and was released January 2005.
Besides Thomas, several other former WSU players were with pro teams overseas at some point this past season: Tyrone Brown and Terrence Lewis, New Zealand; Mike Bush, Luxembourg; Chris Crosby ’01, Norway; Carol Daniel, France; Isaac Fontaine ’97, China; Cedrick Hughey and Jerry McNair, Mexico; Jay Locklier ’01, Argentina; Kojo Bonsu-Mensah and David Vik, Portugal; Pawel Stasiak ’03 Poland; and Ezenwa Ukeagu ’04, Germany.
And at least one WSU graduate, Guy Williams, helps players hook up with teams overseas. A former Cougar and NBA player, Williams works for SportsTalent, an agency based in Washington State that represents players.
Crosby, Daniel, and Locklier have each played for pay in the minor leagues in the United States and several other countries. Locklier, who grew up in South Carolina and graduated with a degree in business, played in the National Basketball Development League (NBDL), a feeder system for the NBA.
"I would think some of the pluses are obvious," he says. "It is run by the NBA. There will be no problem getting your money. Plus you will be playing in front of NBA scouts. It is kind of political. Everyone is out for themselves. It is not just players: coaches, trainers, referees, the front office–they all want to move up to the NBA."
So what are the positives and negatives of playing overseas?
"I would say, first of all, it depends where you are," says Locklier, explaining that some countries pay on time and others do not. "It is a real-world education. You get to see a lot of places you normally would not see. The negative is being on the road eight or nine months a year, living out of a suitcase. We take a lot for granted here in the United States. If we say you get paid the first of the month, you get paid the first of the month. That is not always the case in some Europe leagues."
Locklier played last fall in Argentina, then returned to Pullman for the spring semester to pursue a master's degree in athletic administration. He hopes to play basketball this fall, but also plans to send out his resume for a "regular job" in athletic administration.
Crosby, who hails from Colorado, has been with pro teams in Portugal, Greece, Australia, and Norway and with minor league teams in the U.S.
"It's stressful," Crosby says of playing overseas. "The job stability . . . there is no job stability. But I have enjoyed it a lot. It has made me a better person. You have to understand people better. I feel so lucky to be 27 now and still be playing basketball."
While the NBDL pays around $25,000 per season, top Americans who play in Europe can make a lot more money, depending on the country and, of course, their ability and experience. NBA-caliber players can make at least $500,000 per season in countries such as Spain, Italy, and Greece. Top American players in Hungary can make nearly $100,000 per season.
And while Crosby was never drafted by the NBA, he says he made $4,500 per month, tax free. with a 10-month contract this past season in Norway. On top of that, he had a meal allowance that he figured was worth another $1,500 per month. So that works out to a season salary of about $60,000.
Daniel, another former Cougar from Colorado, has also made a living as a pro basketball player in the American minor leagues and overseas. Daniel has played with teams in France, Japan, the Philippines, Israel, and Australia. He ranked sixth in the Continental Basketball Association in rebounds this past season. He averaged 11.5 points and 7.8 boards per game for the Yakima Sun Kings after he began the 2004-05 season in France.
What are the positives and negatives of playing in the States instead of going abroad?
"Staying in the States, there is no language barrier, and you are close to home," Daniel says. "Financially, it becomes a lot harder" to make a living in North American minor leagues.
How did WSU prepare him for new cultures?
"Being in a small place like Pullman, you have to learn to fend for yourself. Overseas, you are isolated," Daniel says.
Nearly every male basketball player who begins his NCAA career at the Division I level, especially in a league like the Pac-10, has dreams of the NBA. But the laws of supply and demand are against him, especially with the influx of foreign players to the NBA. This past season there were more than 70 foreign-born players in the NBA from nearly 30 countries.
"There was never an opportunity [for me] as far as minor leagues in the States," Thomas says. "That is for people with big names. I knew I wanted to come to Europe. I wanted to travel and see the countries."
Who knows? He may be part of a large Cougar contingent in Europe in the upcoming season.
"I have no problem staying in Europe," Thomas says.