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  Fri, August 29, 2003


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Globetrotters
By STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- They're mercenaries who invade foreign lands, seeking riches and a new life.

Sort of like Vikings, or Conquistadors, except the weapons of their trade are basketballs, not swords or mulletts.

Canada is one of the few major basketball nations in the world without a domestic league, so the top Canadian players -- with the exception of the few NBAers such as Steve Nash -- ply their trade in professional teams in Europe and South America.

It can be exciting playing and living overseas but it can also be a grind -- getting used to new customs, food, people.

"I have tremendous respect for those guys," said Nash, who plays for the Dallas Mavericks. "It's not always easy some of the places they end up, but they love the game and they get to keep playing for a living, and that's pretty cool."

Most of the guys representing Canada this month at the Americas Olympic qualifying tournament play in Europe and while they say that, by and large, their experiences are positive, they all have tales of woe.

"It's not as easy as it looks," said guard Shawn Swords of Ottawa. "A lot of people think it's (always) fun. But it's trying at times."

One of the common problems are team owners. Pros overseas don't have the same protection that NBAers get from their unions, and agents and team owners in Europe are notorious for trying to stiff their foreign players.

Almost every Canadian who has played in Europe has had at least one experience of an owner who tried to steal or withhold money from him. Often, if the owner feels the player isn't playing to expectations, he'll hold back money.

"Our team vice-president was a real piece of work," said Canadian team centre Greg Newton, who played last season for Cherno More Varna of the Bulgarian League.

"You give him 31 points and 15 rebounds and win the game on a dunk and he still says you should have played better," Newton, 28, said. "In my first or second year as a pro, I would have flown off the handle when he said that. But now I just say, 'whatever' and move on."

With the exception of a few stars who make as much as $2 million a season in the biggest European leagues such as Spain and Italy, most players make low six figures or less.

Toronto's Greg Francis, who played college ball at Fairfield University in Connecticut, began his pro career in 1997 with the Worthing Bears of the British League.

Since then, the Canadian team guard has played for the Chester Jets in Great Britain and Macabi Hadera in Israel, with one interesting stop in between. During the 1998-99 season, he played in strife-torn Lebanon.

"When I was flying into Lebanon, I thought, 'what am I doing here?' " Francis said. "You watch CNN and you see the violence and it looks crazy. But your day to day life is nice.

"You think people are going to be a lot different, but when you get down to it, everywhere I travel, the people are much the same. People worry about their families and making a living, and they get excited about basketball."

He said what the fans lacked in basketball knowledge, they made up in enthusiasm.

"You know who had won the game by the way people honk their horns at night," he said. "The team that won, their fans would have their horns going all night long."

Like Francis, Canadian team scoring sensation Rowan Barrett has played in the Israeli Pro League. The former St. John's University standout could write a travel book of his destinations, having also hung his hat in Greece, Venezuela, Cyprus, Argentina and Spain.

Barrett, 30, said this past season with Hapoel Haifa of the Israeli Premier League was one of the best experiences of his professional life, although he has signed to play for Dijon in the French Premier League for the coming season.

"I totally loved it," he said of his time in Israel. "I had every single thing I could possibly need for myself and my family."

The Barretts had a beautiful apartment overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, close to shops and restaurants, in a good neighbourhood. And having played in Israel before, they knew what to expect and had forged friendships.

Playing overseas can be, for obvious reasons, tougher on family guys. But in Barrett's case, he can afford to bring his wife, Kesha, and three-year old son, R.J., with him. The Barretts even found an American pre-school for R.J. in Haifa.

"Israel is not one of the bigger leagues I've played in," Barrett said, "but as far as quality of life, it was great.

"And most road games are an hour drive away, so I'm never away from my family."

Like Francis, Barrett initially was concerned about living in the Middle East, where scenes of violence are broadcast on North American TV almost every night.

"But I did a lot of research, and called a lot of American players to find out what is going on," he said. "You stay out of hot spots and you're okay, that has been my experience."

On the flip side, Barrett has gone through some equally tough experiences. In 2001, he went to Cyprus to play for Keravnos. The minute he got off the plane, after travelling all night, the club drove him to the gym, worked him out, and, in the process, he injured his foot.

"By mid-week my foot had blown up and I wanted to go, but they were like, 'No you stay, you take drugs, you play.' And they were going to shoot me in the foot with all kinds of drugs," he said. "I kind of had to sneak out."

For Swords, playing in Europe became a whole lot easier when he got married four years ago and his wife, Shelley, began to join him. Before that, he was never comfortable living overseas. His best experience was playing in Switzerland. The toughest, when he played for the Besancon Basket Comte Club in France in 2000-01.

"The team was put in the first division, so there were big expectations," he said. "But we went through 15 Americans during the year, and you're allowed only two at a time, so that just killed team morale. The coach got fired halfway through the year, we dropped down. It was ugly."

At the end of the day, most of the players enjoy playing overseas. The money is decent and the teams provide the players with a nice apartment and a car.

"The only thing that's tough is you really miss home," Francis said. "That's the hard part, but you get used to it."




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