Overseas offseasons supplement WNBA paychecks

Updated: March 15, 2006, 3:56 PM ET
Associated Press

Taj McWilliams-Franklin has played in paradise on an island off Spain. She's also played in the pits, shivering in a cold Greek gym while sweating out her next paycheck.

In her 13 years as a professional, McWilliams-Franklin has played in eight different countries. She wraps up a season in South Korea this month before reporting to the WNBA's Connecticut Sun in six weeks for training camp.

It's all part of the offseason experience for WNBA players, who often hold down two or more basketball jobs.

The WNBA, celebrating its 10th anniversary this season, has lasted longer and been more successful than any previous U.S. women's pro league. But salaries range from about $31,000 to almost $90,000, with the bulk falling somewhere in the middle.

So during the winter, McWilliams-Franklin and other players troop like mercenaries to Europe, Asia, South America, where a $150,000 salary for a short season is not uncommon.

"In general, living in a foreign country has been amazing," said Sue Bird, the Seattle Storm guard, who played in Russia this winter. "To experience a new culture, attempt to learn a new language, try new foods. It's something I'll always be grateful for."

Bird and McWilliams-Franklin are among about 100 players from the 14 WNBA clubs who are scattered around the globe on other professional teams.

Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, entering her third year in the WNBA, is in Moscow where she and Bird play for a team that competes in the Russian League and the Euroleague.

One of the best known faces in U.S. basketball, Taurasi enjoys a certain amount of anonymity in Russia.

"Very seldom do people recognize me," she said. "Most of my downtime is spent watching TV series like "The Wire," "Desperate Housewives" and plenty of movies and listening to music."

She and Bird weathered one of the coldest spells in Russian history with temperatures of minus-30 degrees during a seven-day stretch in January.

They recently joined up with the USA national team to lead a 3-0 sweep of exhibition games in Hungary and Poland. They played against European teams that included WNBA players such as Nikki Teasley (Washington), Temeka Johnson (Los Angeles) and Chelsea Newton (Chicago).

Bird is winding down her second overseas stint. She didn't join her Russian team until January, an effort to give herself time to recharge after the WNBA season ended in September.

"I get to catch up with family and friends, so it's the perfect amount of time," she said.

It's tougher on women who have children, said McWilliams-Franklin, a mother of two.

Her husband, Reggie, is serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq. So she's been relying on the support of best friend and nanny Tangela Montgomery to help with 17-year-old Michele and 3-year-old Maia.

"She is the reason I can parent and play overseas," McWilliams-Franklin said. "Now that my husband is gone to Iraq, playing and being able to parent will be much tougher."

It got really tough during one season in Greece, she said. She had enrolled Michele in an American school there, before things fell apart.

"They kicked us out because the team didn't pay for it," she said. "The apartment we lived in was always cold, without any space heaters for us. I had to send her home, halfway through because I was getting a third of the money they owed me. It was so bad in the gyms that we practiced in gloves, and when you were on the bench you had to wear your coat and gloves."

She also remembers a more pleasant offseason on the idyllic Spanish island of Ibiza.

"The island was beautiful and peaceful," McWilliams-Franklin said. "The people on the island were loving and accepting toward me and my family. The team, even though were low budget, were very professional in all that they did. They paid on time and tried to have everything done for me that they could possibly do. It was wonderful."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press