Photo: Flickr/Klearchos Kapoutsis
You may not have heard, but right now, NBA players are locked out. Sorry for just blurting it out like that, but I thought you should know. For a fan, if this lockout were to continue, it would mean missing something that we love — NBA basketball — and that’s really unfortunate. For the players, though, it means a whole lot moreAmong other things, it means no contact with team personnel, no using team facilities, and, most importantly, no checks in the mail. Guys who used to make it rain might be forced to make it drizzle, because if this less-than-ideal labour situation stretches on, a lot of players won’t be receiving some of the money that is contractually owed to them. I know NBA ballers make ridiculous amounts of cash, but still, it must be frustrating to sign a lucrative NBA contract without getting to see, touch, or (if you’re into this kind of thing) smell all the money that is rightfully yours.
All I can say is that I know how it feels (minus the ridiculous amounts of cash part). I play professional basketball overseas, and I too have been locked out. And no, I’m not talking about that frigid winter night during high school when I got locked out of the house. (Hypothermia’s really no big deal anyway.) When I say locked out, I mean the European basketball version of the term: simply not getting paid.
This concept is very foreign to people who are used to order and efficiency, but anyone who plays ball overseas knows that not receiving the money owed to you is commonplace. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory, and it’s just one example of the vast differences that exist between playing basketball in the NBA and playing basketball abroad. In a lockout-free NBA, there’s no need to use currency converters to make sure your checks are for the right amount — like I’ve grown accustomed to doing — because they always will be. And when the lockout is over, NBA guys will continue to have their hard work and success rewarded, with punctuality guaranteed. But for a lot of guys like me who are ballin’ overseas, there still won’t be any guarantees about getting our money, on-time or sometimes at all.
Not getting paid as a professional ballplayer outside of the States is a regular occurrence, but obviously, there are no blanket statements that apply to every player. Some guys may be owed a lot of money from various teams, while others may never have had this problem at all. As for me, I’ve definitely been down that road, and it was truly an unpleasant journey. I’m not happy about it, but I can safely say that I’m the only one of my childhood friends who has gone to work every day over a three-month stretch without receiving a single cent. Literally, not a penny. Like people everywhere, basketball players have bills to pay and mouths to feed, so having my pockets on lint-mode for three months was not a comforting feeling. It may be all about the Benjamins, like Diddy said, but during that stretch of time for me, it was all about the Ramen Noodles.
As a self-sufficient adult who takes pride in earning a living, not getting paid for that long did strange things to my head. I have to be honest, my life got kind of weird over those few months. I can’t say that I turned into a stalker, but I definitely became a disgruntled loiterer. I hung around the team office almost every day, trying to get some explanation, or better yet, some compensation. Every day, I came home empty-handed, usually without even being able to speak with anyone. This threw me into a minor depression (and I didn’t even have a mortgage to pay or kids to support like a lot of my teammates). Thankfully, I was nowhere close to going hungry, and that is the most important thing. But still, putting your heart into your job and not being paid for it takes its toll on you, no matter what you do.
I became so baffled and befuddled by what was happening that, in order to improve my condition, I took strange refuge in one of my greatest childhood passions: professional wrestling. As a 20-something-year-old pro basketball player, I literally spent hours lying on the couch and watching old WWF (now WWE) Royal Rumbles on YouTube. Oh yeah, I’m not kidding. The husky voice of “Mean Gene” Okerlund consistently filled my apartment, introducing such legends as The Bushwhackers, Razor Ramon, Koko B. Ware, and the rest of the gang. At first, my fiancé thought this was mildly cute (especially when I did my awesome Macho Man impression, R.I.P.). Then, she thought it was kind of pathetic. Then, when it didn’t stop, it became downright concerning. Months into this stupor, I really hit a low point when — even as a self-professed health nut — I planned an evening of healing where I sat on that same couch and ate half a tub of cookie-dough ice cream. I never eat ice-cream, but desperate times call for desperate measures. No joke, I was minutes away from throwing a rom-com into the DVD player. A box of tissues might very well have followed.
As you can see, it was a rough time, and just to clarify, it wasn’t a Rod Tidwell “show me the money” type of thing that was going on. The money that my teammates and I were owed had nothing to do with hope, or want, or aspiration. To the contrary, it had already been guaranteed, in writing, in a contractual agreement between two willing parties. The problem was that one party was not holding up their end of the bargain.
Of course, I’m not the only one to have been through stuff like this. I had a friend in Greece who received 10 per cent of his salary from his team before they flat-out stopped paying him. When he eventually took them to court to get the rest, the team said that, since they were now playing in a lower division, the original team that owed him the money no longer existed. Therefore, they weren’t responsible for the debt. The owner of the team had a lot of political influence in the region, and not surprisingly, the courts ruled in favour of the team. My friend never saw a euro of that money. He had worked hard to secure a nice contract, but it was never honored. This is obviously an extreme example, but it actually happens. Before signing contracts, I’m sure that most players and agents do their homework on teams to find out about their reputations and financial situations, but jobs overseas are hard to get, so sometimes, you just have to go for it.
I know, because watching wrestling and eating ice cream were the direct results of a chance I took. I had an opportunity to play for a well-known organisation with a history of money problems, but it was a great playing situation for me, so I rolled the dice. As I’ve clearly shown, when it comes to getting paid appropriately, I came up snake eyes. I can’t say that my team outwardly did not want to pay us, it was more that they physically did not have the money to do so. I’m not exactly sure why this type of thing happens so much overseas, but I think it’s because many teams get the majority of their money from corporate sponsorships. If a team signs players to contracts before securing these partnerships, they run into a real problem if they can’t actually attract the sponsorship dollars that they were banking on. In the case of my team, it looked like that was what had happened.
When I tell people that my teammates and I didn’t get paid for so long, their first question is usually if I need a loan. Then, they ask a few other questions: why did you stay there? Why didn’t you just leave? If everyone’s contracts had provisions saying they could go somewhere else if payments were late, why didn’t we do it? The simple answer to all these questions is that, in Europe, leaving is not as easy as it sounds. Not many teams want to make big moves in terms of acquiring new players late in the season, and not many players want to disrupt an established playing situation by moving somewhere new. It’s possible, and some guys do it, but on my team that year, not a single player left. We were plenty pissed, and we did try to put pressure on the management by holding meetings and occasionally sitting out of practice in protest, but none of it really helped. And we didn’t sit out any games because in the grand scheme of things, that would only have hurt us, as players and as competitors in the league. Overseas, there’s a real team mentality, so no one wanted to jeopardize our chances to be part of a winning situation, even if we weren’t getting paid to do it.
We might have made some little kiddie-pool waves and thrown some toddler-sized tantrums with our protests, but ultimately, the team just didn’t have the funds. By the end of the season, we all returned to our respective homes, with most of us still owed about half of our salaries for that year. As a player with a European passport (from Romania — shout out to Transylvania!), I was eventually able to recuperate my money through the league about eight months after the season ended. Unfortunately for the other Americans on my team, I’m pretty sure they still haven’t received all of their money. They can get it, but they first have to complete a long and costly FIBA arbitration process with lawyers, claims, and all that ugly stuff. Many guys overseas have had to do that — with varying levels of success — and it’s rough, but I guess it’s just all in the game, as they say.
I’m currently in my sixth season playing abroad, and for the most part, I’m happy to say that my money has been on time. But not always. That’s the thing that’s so different between the NBA and abroad: when you’re on the side of the water that I’m on, it’s hard to be 100 per cent sure that you’ll receive what you’re owed (especially in countries like Spain, Greece, and Russia). Don’t get me wrong, a lot of teams are amazing and do things in the most professional of ways, but some don’t. Despite the occasional financial uncertainty of playing overseas, I still love it. It’s a great lifestyle, a wonderful experience and an amazing opportunity. Because of the lockout, NBA guys are now in the position of not getting paid, and at this point in time, they don’t even need to think twice: there will be no checks in their mailboxes. The second the work stoppage ends, however, they will be able to rest assured that if they signed for it, they will get their money. And as a bonus, those numbers are usually pretty nice to look at, too. They’ll be able to make it rain again, and deservedly so. They’ve earned it. As for me, I’ll just cross my fingers and hope I don’t get rained on like before. I’ll also have my old Royal Rumbles ready for the future, just in case.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.