U.S. Players Were Basketball Slaves -- NBA Rejects Find Europe Friendlier Now
OSTEND, Belgium - Years ago, on a team where no one spoke his language, one American journeyman was told to "make breakfast" along with jump shots and rebounds. Another got a room so smelly he couldn't sleep.
And if they failed to meet bloated expectations, European owners could give American ballplayers a one-way ticket home on a whim, or make sure they were locked out of their apartment.
"You were treated as their American slave," said Bill Drozdiak, once a star in Belgian basketball.
Two decades later, scores of NBA rejects still flock to a far more hospitable Europe to liven up the many humdrum leagues and hone their bodies and minds to keep alive their dreams of stardom at home.
STILL HAS DREAM
"I haven't given up on the NBA dream," said Barry Mitchell, a new addition to Sunair Ostend. After some thought, the 29-year-old who played for Norfolk State added wistfully, "A farfetched dream."
Some gave up that dream altogether and settled, changed nationality and represented their new country in international competition.
This year again hundreds of Americans are descending - the best to Italy and Spain, others anywhere from Great Britain to Sweden.
In Belgium, it took Mitchell only 6 minutes in a recent game to show why U.S. players continue to be the main draw in many European leagues.
By then, he had hit a seven of seven shots, setting Ostend up for an easy 100-75 victory over Avenir Namur in the season opener.
BRINGING IN THE CROWDS
Scoring used to be the be-all, end-all for Americans, and Drozdiak's trademark double-reverse dribble followed by his long-range jump shot made sure his team Mechelen dominated the 1970s.
"They threatened with fines if we didn't score 30 points a game," he reminisced.
Local players basically had to defend and feed the ball to the Americans once back on offense.
"Americans had to bring in the crowds and people hoped their game would rub off. They generally succeeded," said Drozdiak, now Paris bureau chief for the Washington Post.
"Those days are definitely past tense," said Pol Rowe, assistant coach at ABB Leuven and author of a doctoral thesis on talent detection in basketball.
Four years ago, Leuven had the league's top scorer in Tony White, but was relegated nevertheless because the team had no cohesion.
Now, top-level teams first seek a hard core of good national players - a rare commodity - and only add two Americans to complement them.
EVOLUTION OF THE GAME
"There has been an evolution from dominant center, who had to score, rebound and block, to more role-specific players," Rowe said.
"There is no pressure anymore to score 35 points and take down 15 rebounds," said Mitchell, a versatile team player, who was 1992 MVP and defender of the year in the CBA.
For their work, Americans now get an average of $50,000 to $75,000 a season. Aging NBA players like Bob McAdoo used to reap a lot more in Italy, where their star status pulled the crowds in during the 1980s.
A recession has sapped the generosity of sponsors, and lesser-known Americans now vie with players from the former Yugoslavia for the foreign slots.
The trailblazers faced no such competition, but had to overcome other hurdles.
When Drozdiak arrived after missing out with the NBA's Golden State Warriors in 1972, the Mechelen team "found a one-room studio next to the most stinking canal in Mechelen. I couldn't even sleep it was so bad," he said.
He found another place on his own and stuck with the team nevertheless. The European Cup games gave him an opportunity to travel.
In Portugal's Coimbra, he found an exasperated fellow American. Because no one on the team knew English, a literature professor was brought in to translate the essentials.
"The professor told him to take rebounds, throw passes and make breakfast. It took a while before it dawned on him they meant fast break," said a chuckling Drozdiak.
Life wasn't always funny. With only three training sessions and one game a week, many Americans were bored in a foreign country, driving some into bars, discos and trouble.
Now Mitchell has two sessions a day, watches videos of the opposition afterward and sometimes has three games a week. "It has really changed," he said.
And by now, everybody on a team speaks English, making life a lot easier.
So good, some want to stay forever.
Last year, four Americans were naturalized in Belgium, and the season ahead of that another three. Four in all have already played on Belgium's national team.
This season Bill Varner, who played at Notre Dame until 1983, has similar thoughts.
At 34, his NBA dreams have already dimmed. And being part of Mechelen's championship team over the past six years, has made him somewhat of a national hero here.
"I want to play here till I'm 40," he said.
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