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Aces abroad: Players prepare for second seasons overseas

Updated August 26, 2018 - 6:26 pm

Kayla McBride is finally taking a break from basketball.

The games. The practices. The travel. The training.

And most important, the 12-month schedule that encompasses all of the above.

“It’s been four years,” she said. “Four years of consistent grinding.”

That never-ending grind is the norm for professional women’s basketball players, and it will continue for nine Aces members, who will spend their WNBA offseason playing in leagues around the world for storied franchises, rabid fan bases and superior pay.

WNBA salaries top out at $110,000, while EuroLeague salaries start around $100,000. Star players can earn perhaps hundreds of thousands more.

The trade-off is several months in a foreign country, away from friends, family and the comfort of American culture.

“It’s this whole other world. New language. New people,” said McBride, who played in Turkey before joining the Aces in May. “(But) it doesn’t matter what country you’re in; basketball is still the same.”

The games. The practices. The travel. The training.

The basketball

Aces point guard Moriah Jefferson was nervous about playing in Turkey.

She admits that now as she reflects on her first season there while preparing for her second.

But “my teammates, my coaches and extra security, they made me feel like I was at home,” she said. “The culture there is amazing. The fans, they really grabbed ahold of me and they were incredible. It’s something you really have to see to embrace, how into women’s basketball they are overseas.”

Women’s athletics in Turkey have rich traditions and passionate followings that have evolved into big business. Galatasaray SK, the sports club whose basketball team Jefferson is set to rejoin, was founded in 1905, is based in Istanbul and includes several sports divisions — most notably soccer.

She was recovering from knee surgery last season and did not play overseas. In 2016-17 for Galatasaray she averaged 18.5 points, 4.9 assists and 3.2 rebounds a game in the Turkish Women’s Basketball League and earned respect and admiration from club loyalists.

“Packed stands. Standing up the whole time. Screaming our names. Yelling the whole entire game. It’s huge,” she said of her first international experience. “They love women’s basketball. They love women’s sports in general. … I’m very appreciative of it.”

Jefferson found it difficult at times to navigate the language barrier during that first season. She had a translator and her coach spoke English, but many of her teammates didn’t. Fellow Aces point guard Kelsey Plum also plays in Turkey and said there were times she was lost in translation.

“During certain timeouts, I had no idea what was going on, but pretty much you can figure it out,” Plum said. “Sometimes when it gets heated, and it’s a tight timeout that lasts 20 seconds, it gets difficult to understand because Turkish players just go to Turkish. It was pretty solid, though.”

The lifestyle

McBride had a lot of fun playing internationally. At first.

“But there’s a certain point where it’s just like, ‘There’s nothing else I can really do,’” said McBride, who also spent last season in Turkey.

Basketball is the primary focus in European leagues that last several grueling months.

“You have two practices a day. You have two games a week,” Plum said. “A lot of times you’re traveling a lot. There’s really not a lot of time. … It’s a job. You’re over there to play ball. And most of the time you’re tired.”

Players are provided lodging and transportation , and Jefferson had a personal driver. Endorsement opportunities are available for women and men.

The clubs take care of their players, who are recognized as celebrities off the court and command the type of money not yet available in the WNBA.

“You’re a star out there,” Plum said. “I walk around and people are like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It’s pretty crazy.”

Crazy, yet tame at the same time.

“I got a lot tougher over there. I know what to expect going in,” Plum said. “I’m kind of, I don’t want to say excited, because I don’t think anyone is ever excited to go back, but I know what to expect and I’m ready for it.”

More Aces: Follow all of our Aces coverage online at reviewjournal.com/aces and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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