My mom and my aunt didn’t know what was wrong with me.
We were at dinner in an Atlanta restaurant, and I was in tears. My rookie WNBA season had just come to an end, and my team at the time, the New York Liberty, had just lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. I could see the pity in both of their faces, and I remember realizing they probably thought I was distraught from losing. But I wasn’t. I was crying because of the e-mail my agent had just sent me.
The message should have been good news: A new contract with a new team. The only problems were that the team was in Gorzow, Poland, and the terms specified that I had to be there within 10 days.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, most WNBA players also play basketball overseas. The reason for that is purely economic. Most people assume that because the WNBA is a professional sports league, we’re paid just like the pros in the NBA. But our salaries—and our lives—aren’t even close. The WNBA’s minimum salary is around $37,950, and the maximum for players who aren’t in their rookie contract is $107,000. That means the lowest paid player in the NBA is making at least four times more than the highest-paid WNBA player. As a result, the great majority of the 140 WNBA players travel the globe to play for teams in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and South America almost immediately after the season ends.
Traveling is something that I’d wanted to do ever since I was a kid. Most people in my hometown had never left the state, let alone the country. Watching shows featuring Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern made me want to experience different cultures and learn as much as I possibly could. So I was definitely up for the adventure of going abroad. But the thought of having just 10 days to get back to New York, pack up, drive back to South Carolina, and try to reconnect with family and friends was initially overwhelming.
There was a ton to do in almost no time. Traveling as a professional athlete isn’t like your ordinary European vacation. There’s a lot of paperwork involved in getting the proper visas you need to work in another country. You might think this would be worked out for you by the team, but it’s not. That’s just not how Europe works. When I finally got the green light from the Polish Embassy in America, I got on a plane bound for Europe the following day.
When my flight arrived in Berlin, Germany, I remember thinking how cool it all was. The people of Berlin are hip and modern, and the surrounding area is beautiful. Then I walked outside with my luggage and spotted an awkward looking guy in an oversized, tri-color windbreaker holding a sign with my name on it. He was my ticket to Gorzow.
I am not one to complain. I realize that different places are great for different reasons, and often you have to spend time somewhere in order to discover its charms. But my impression upon arriving in Gorzow was that it was nothing like what I’d seen on the Travel Channel. The skies? Gray. The people? Unsmiling. The architecture: very communist, since much of the old city was destroyed in World War II. The signs? Indecipherable.
In fact, in time I discovered that the language barrier is one of the most difficult things about being abroad. It’s what keeps you from getting to know many of your teammates or the people in your new city. You can try your best to learn the local tongue, but it’s especially difficult in places like Poland, Israel and Korea, where the language’s characters aren’t Latin, leaving you without any context clues. A simple task like going to the grocery store and asking for chicken wings becomes immensely frustrating. If you’re lucky, your team will provide you with a translator. If not, you’re on your own.
But by far the hardest thing about living abroad for months at a time is being away from your loved ones. The time difference means you have to choose between getting a good night sleep or talking to your family. I would often stay up until 3:00 a.m. Skype-ing with my friends and family. That catches up to you when you’re wrapping up your second practice in a day (yes, the team practiced twice a day.)
The feeling of isolation that results brings all of the Americans abroad together. When you meet another Statesider overseas, that person automatically becomes your BFF for the duration of your stay in that country. It’s not that you don’t want to be friends with teammates from other countries—you do. It’s just that, when you’re away for such a long time, you feel an enormous sense of relief when you’re able to speak with someone and not have to struggle in another language, and not watch them struggle with yours.
I don’t want to make it sound like playing overseas is bad. Although I have had some of the worst experiences while playing abroad, I’ve also had some of the best times of my life in Europe and elsewhere. Some of my fondest memories are of the times when I was playing in Israel and getting to explore Old Jerusalem, or the times when I was in Italy sipping my morning espressos at a neighborhood cafe in Pozzuoli. Every team that I’ve played for has allowed me to make new friends and lasting relationships. We all keep in touch on social media and email.
Right now, my best friend, Tina Charles, is playing over in Istanbul. I’m hoping that this month I’ll be able to visit her. And maybe this time I’ll be able to experience Europe as a tourist and get to do some of those things I couldn’t do while I was there as a player.
Read the first two entries in Greene’s Lantern: