Players benefiting financially, physically from overseas
Years ago, playing overseas was the only option for American women who wanted to pursue professional basketball careers after college.
That changed, of course, in the late 1990s when two pro leagues were established. The WNBA, in particular, was a welcome relief after its inception in 1997 for players who were tired of having to pack up their lives and set up house in foreign countries where they needed translators to order a burger and fries. As the years passed, more and more of the best pro players in the United States seemed to stick closer to home when the season wrapped up.
But there's a new trend this WNBA offseason, as more than 100 of the league's players -- the most ever -- have headed across the ponds for various reasons, even though they don't have to. The group -- which for the first time features all 10 members of last season's WNBA first and second teams -- includes Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Michelle Snow, Tammy Sutton-Brown, Nykesha Sales, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Nikki Teasley, Alana Beard, Kedra Holland-Corn, Tina Thompson, Ticha Penicheiro and Yolanda Griffith.
ESPN.com caught up with four of those players (Catchings, Leslie, Bird and Swoopes) to talk about what prompted their decision to play overseas and to ask about the disadvantages -- such as the cultural hurdles players face in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Australia and South America -- and advantages (like playing in front of fans who truly appreciate and respect their talents).
Oh, and there's no denying that it pays to play overseas.
"The money is a factor," said Leslie, who is playing in Russia for Spartak. "It's kind of hard to turn down the opportunity if you're getting paid well. That's definitely compelling for a lot of players."
The appeal for Swoopes, the league's MVP, is both financial and physical.
"For me, I like to work on my game, and if I weren't playing overseas I'd probably take a couple of months off and then I'd have to find somewhere to go and play around [home] and stay in shape anyway," said Swoopes, who is playing in Italy for Taranto. "So why not go overseas and work on my game and stay in shape and then be able to make some money at the same time?"
And for others, like Indiana's Catchings and Seattle's Bird, the money is as appealing as the opportunity to experience a new culture.
"I think the money is great," said Catchings, who plays for Woori Bank in Korea. "But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don't know if I would have ever had the opportunity to just up and come to Korea or Russia -- not on my own, at least. Now I have a chance to see a different country while doing what I love to do: play basketball."
Adds Bird, who is playing for Dynamo Moscow in Russia alongside her old UConn teammate, Taurasi: "The best part is having to live in a new country. It can be hard at times with the language barrier, but it also forces you to learn new things. You also get to see other countries besides the one you are playing in, so I'm going to places that people dream of visiting."
L.A.'s Leslie concurs -- somewhat.
"It's been awesome, but living in Russia it's freezing," Leslie said. "It's minus-11 degrees or it's minus-19. I describe it like Groundhog Day. Every day I wake up and it's like Christmas. And with me being a California girl, I've never really experienced Christmas this way. But now every day I get up and there's snow all over the ground and in the trees and it's cold.
"But despite the cold snow, I've been really happy about the whole experience. The people have been great, too. So that's made the whole experience even better."
It also didn't hurt that Leslie brought along her new husband, Michael Lockwood, to keep her warm during her first month in Russia. Her mother, Christine Leslie-Espinoza, is with her now. Houston's Swoopes also has loved ones in tow in Italy, including her son, Jordan, and her partner, Alisa Scott.
"[Jordan] absolutely loves it," Swoopes said. "What kind of sold him on it was he heard or found out that this is where Kobe Bryant started playing basketball. He said, 'Mom I want to go to Italy because I want to be just like Kobe. I want to speak Italian. I want to be able to speak more than one language and I want to be a great basketball player.' So I probably have Kobe to thank for that."
But even after they adjust to the weather, food and language barriers, the WNBA's overseas players also have to contend with a different style of play. The rules are slightly different in some leagues, and some players feel that the international game is more physically challenging than the one they play at home.
"It's hard to pinpoint [the differences], but everything from how the refs call the game to how teams prepare is different," Bird said. "Even some of the rules are interpreted differently."
Swoopes, whose team plays only on Sundays, says the schedule suits her game at this stage in her career.
"That gives me plenty of time to rest and recover before we play our next game as opposed to playing [in the WNBA] where we play two or three games a week and then we play back-to-back games," she said. "I don't care how old you are. That starts to wear on your body. Not to say I can't handle that, not to say I can't do it. But my body's getting a chance to rest, but at the same time still play and stay in shape.
"I'm, right now, probably doing exactly what I want to do and probably doing what's the best thing for my body right now."
One of the other reasons Leslie wanted to play overseas for the first time in 10 years was because of the nagging groin injury that slowed her down last season. She wanted to make sure she would return in top form and felt that going up against international competition would help her achieve that goal.
"It's definitely more physical," Leslie said. "I mean, when you're away from the ball, when I'm in the paint, they're just beating me up in there. It's a challenge, but it's making me better and I like it a lot."
There is, however, a downside to being away from home for such a lengthy period, something that extra coins can't buy overseas.
"As much as I like being in Italy right now -- and I love the shopping and the food -- there's just something about home that you can't find anywhere else," Swoopes said. "Being able to go where I want to go, knowing where everything is and being able to communicate. I really miss going to the movie theater, going to the Galleria Mall -- I really miss that! Sleeping in my water bed at home, I miss that."
Bird would do anything for a burrito: "I have yet to find a Mexican restaurant in Moscow, but I've heard there are some."
And it's not hard to guess what the L.A. girl misses most.
"Definitely the warm weather and the sun," said Leslie, who spends much of her spare time indoors watching DVDs of "Desperate Housewives," "24" and "Lost," or studying Russian. "In L.A., even if it's not real warm, you see the sun most all the time. In Russia, not seeing the sun on a number of days -- it can be gloomy. So I wear a lot of bright colors."Miki Turner is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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