American Women Playing Basketball in Europe.

In November 2014, Bria Hartley and Kayla McBride were newcomers at the start of their first season of European basketball. By March 2015, the season was winding-down for Diana Taurasi. Their experiences illustrate the spread of American sports abroad that matches the growth of soccer in the United States; the challenges and rewards of living in a different country; and the different approaches to civic life in Europe and America.

Most American sports teams are run on a business basis. Many European towns regard successful teams as a source of civic pride that more than offsets any monetary cost. European women’s teams generally benefit from sponsorship by local governments or subsidies from soccer clubs. As a result, there are teams all over the place.[1] In Russia the “oligarchs” who rose up after the collapse of Communism and were brought to heel by Vladimir Putin pour in money without regard to the market pay-off. Instead, it’s a form of public relations. Company teams give a sense of pride to the employees. The companies view the teams as “socially-oriented projects.” To raise the level of play and to provide models for the local girls striving to excel, the teams bring in American players. In Europe, the pay is about double what players can earn in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). In Russia, it can be vastly higher. Over the last decade, hundreds of American women basketball players have gone to Europe during the American off-season.

After playing a season in the WNBA, in Fall 2014 Bria Hartley and Kayla McBride went to play for a team in Sopron, Hungary. Their early experiences surprised them, not always in a good way. Communications were a problem: the landlady at Hartley’s first apartment spoke little English (and Hartley’s Hungarian was—understandably—not all she might have wished it to be); there was a feeble Wi-Fi connection. European wiring systems aren’t always up to the standards of urban America: McBride feared she had blown up her Xbox on one occasion (sparks flying). European appliances, like refrigerators, are small and Europeans shop every day or every other day. There’s nowhere to go in Sopron between practices. By American standards, there are no tourist attractions; just a bunch of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. By American standards, there is no place to shop; no malls, just local markets.[2] Although Vienna is less than fifty mile away and the team gave the women cars, neither one knew how to drive a manual transmission and the street signs are in Hungarian and German. At nighttime, the city can seem a little like the set of a horror movie: no streetlights, an inconstant hallway light.[3]

Even the team itself is difficult to penetrate. American women players very often find apartments in the same complex, but the Europeans scatter around town. Many of the local players have some English. So, on the court in practice, English is the “lingua franca.” However, off the court, Hungarian is easier for the majority. So, they’re lonely.

They seize on the familiar: a WiFi café where they can e-mail home; a Tesco (the European version of Walmart); brands with American names like Heinz, even if it isn’t exactly ketchup that comes out of the bottle.[4] They call home a lot, they go home during the holiday break, and their families plan to visit.

Diana Taurasi’s situation is both very different and similar. She has been playing off-season basketball in Russia for seven years.[5] She now plays for the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company’s Yekaterinburg team. The money is vastly better than what she can make in the WNBA, even playing for the championship Phoenix Mercury. The Mercury pays her a tad over $100,000 a year; Yekaterinburg pays almost $1.5 million.[6] Taurasi has a far more luxurious life and more supportive environment than do Hartley and McBride. She has her own translator, her own driver, and a free apartment in a very desirable district. Also, Taurasi’s team has been together longer and has older players, so it hangs together much better than does the team on which Hartley and McBride play. They go out for dinner and drinks, catch a drag show, go to the skeet range. Finally, by experience, Taurasi was more suited to adapt. She is the child of Argentine immigrants to the United States.

Still, playing in Russia presents all sorts of contradictions to Taurasi that don’t appear for McBride and Hartley. Yekaterinburg has a Hyatt with a luxury spa and rows of demoralizing Soviet-era workers’ tenements; it has oligarchs with private jets and pre-game tailgaters cooking chickens that they slaughtered that morning; championship games can draw 4,000 more-or-less sober miners. Shabtai von Kalmanovic, a KGB officer-turned-businessman who recruited Taurasi to play for his Moscow Spartak in 2006, got shot to bits in 2009. The killer has never been found. That murder taught Taurasi something about Russia. She remarked after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, “They’re never going to find [the killer], and if they do, they’ll pin it on some guy from Chechnya.” The worsening of Russo-American relations has made many Russians (80 percent in one poll) anti-American. Even among the team’s fans, Taurasi can feel it building up.

In short, it’s a lot like study abroad or working abroad. Sue Bird, a WNBA player with a decade of experience in Russia, advises: “just relax because it’s really not that bad. Once you get comfortable and find your way, you’re good to go.”

[1] Seth Berkman, “Overseas, Lost in Transition,” NYT, 11 November 2014.

[2] There are, however, a great many low-cost dentists. This makes Sopron a Mecca for the chewing-impaired.

[3] Really, all that was needed was the goalie for a hockey team to be living in the same building.

[4] See: “Pulp Fiction” (1994, dir. Quentin Tarantino).

[5] Charly Wilder, “Where the Money Is,” NYT, 18 March 2015.

[6] So, when her Russian coach asked her to sit out one American season to ease the wear and tear on her 32 year-old body from playing year-around, she agreed.

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