For WNBA stars who play overseas, positives outweigh negatives

January 25, 2017, 8:31 AM

— -- When WNBA veteran Lindsey Harding first started playing basketball overseas in 2008, the Duke alum's residence was roughly a block away from the Mediterranean Sea in Mersin, Turkey, where she says it was beautiful and warm.

Some of her subsequent international teams were based in cities with climates that weren't quite so pleasant -- the Houston-raised Harding describes playing in Kursk, Russia, as "cold, that's all I can say" -- but playing overseas over the past nine years has been a joyous and enlightening experience, regardless of the weather.

"I think the whole thing overall is not just the opportunity to play in these countries, but to live," said Harding, a guard who currently plays for Besiktas J.K. in Istanbul and also has played professionally in Lithuania and Russia. "We're not in resorts. We get a car, we get an apartment and we have to live in these countries. So it's helped me have a different perspective on the world and on life."

Harding, who also has played with the Belarus national team, is one of many WNBA players who have spent almost as much time overseas as travel guru Rick Steves. According to the league, more than 60 of its players are competing professionally around the world this offseason, from Russia to Israel, Turkey to China, South Korea to Australia and many other countries.

New York Liberty center Carolyn Swords is currently playing with Basket 90 Gdynia in northern Poland. She has previous experience in Spain, Turkey, Italy and Australia.

"For me, being overseas each time has been this wonderful, unique little adventure, with ups and downs," said Swords, a Boston College product. "But I've learned a lot from living and being abroad. It keeps me on edge -- I'm always stretching the limits of my comfort zone. And I think that's a good thing. And it helps us bring back valuable experience to the league."

In addition to the experience, money is a major reason so many WNBA players compete abroad during the league's offseason. Foreign teams often pay more than WNBA teams. Some top players can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars abroad -- Diana Taurasi agreed to sit out the 2015 WNBA season to earn around $1.5 million during Russia's 2015-16 season -- but the WNBA maximum salary was $111,500 in 2016 and the average was around $75,000.

"It used to be that the money was in Italy, Spain, Russia -- it used to be everywhere," Harding said. "But now Russia and Turkey and China are the three places that have a lot of money for women's basketball. Korea is pretty decent, but Russia and Turkey is where a lot of the money is. A lot of Americans, a lot of WNBA players especially, are in Turkey. Not just first division but also in second division, where they have a lot of money."

Why the high salaries? It's not because the teams always make a lot of money, but often because the wealthy owners simply want a talented roster. As Taurasi said about Russian oligarch team owners back in 2007: "They're hotheads who want the best women's basketball team, and that's their hobby, so they don't care how much they pay."

Seattle Storm and former University of Connecticut star Breanna Stewart, who is playing in the Chinese league with the Shanghai Baoshan Dahua this year, says the financial environment is completely different overseas.

"Obviously, these clubs have more money than what the WNBA team's cap space is," said Stewart, adding that her team has mostly played to sellout crowds. "The WNBA salary is not moving, at all. When you are overseas you have the ability to negotiate with what you want, what the team wants and that kind of thing."

There are limits to the largesse, though. Swords' first overseas team was Joventut Mariana on the Spanish island of Majorca in 2011. Because of Spain's economic crisis, she says, funding for the team ran out, leading her to move to a team in Istanbul after Christmas that year.

"I was getting paid," she said, "but then the team was going to have trouble paying us in the future, and they were very open about that and very understanding that this was our livelihood."

Low payroll funds aren't the only potential drawback to playing overseas during the WNBA's offseason. The nearly year-round grind can take a toll on players' bodies.

Look at Stewart's year. She joined the Storm shortly after completing her college career with a fourth consecutive NCAA championship. After the first part of the WNBA season, she went to Rio with the U.S. Olympic team and won a gold medal, and then finished the Storm's season, which ended with a playoff loss in September. Two weeks later she headed to Shanghai. Earlier this month, she sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in her right knee and returned to the States for rehab. She hopes to go back in February for the Chinese league playoffs when her knee has healed, and then she will return to get ready for training camp with the Storm, which starts in April.

Stewart is fortunate that China's schedule is shorter than in most overseas leagues. The Turkish league regular season, for example, runs until April 8.

"You look at the NBA; they play 82 games," Harding said. "We may play that amount of games, but we don't get time off. If you're lucky, you get a week off after playing overseas to start in the WNBA and maybe a week off to go back overseas."

Dealing with foreign languages can be an issue as well -- though not always. Swords says her coach in Majorca spoke Spanish, but her current Polish coach usually speaks English.

"Sometime your coach makes a speech in their native language, and then you might have someone who can translate it," Swords said. "Most everywhere I've been, a number of the girls have been in fluent or nearly fluent in English. It's incredible and really helps us a lot."

Harding says English is fairly common in Istanbul.

"Most people, even my teammates, English is a language they took in school," she said. "It's great to walk in somewhere and ask, 'Do you speak English?' and most of the time they say, 'A little bit.' My little Turkish and their little English, we can work it out."

Stewart, who has an intepreter with her much of the time in China, says language is more of a factor there. Her coach is Korean, and all her teammates are Chinese because only one foreign player is allowed per team.

"So we have to have a Korean-to-Chinese translator and then a Korean-to-English translator and then a Chinese-to-English translator," she said. "If you need something done quickly, it's not going to happen."

Being overseas can also mean it's not easy to stay in touch with loved ones back home. In Harding's case, Istanbul is nine hours ahead of Houston.

"I don't do well with time change here because a lot of my family and friends in the United States are awake at a certain time, and I'm always up late talking to them," she said. "So I go to bed very late here."

There also are serious security concerns in some parts of the world. The Associated Press recently reported that several American women playing in Turkey this season, frightened by terrorist attacks and unrest in the region, are rethinking their decisions to play there. While Harding has some safety concerns -- the WNBA provides a security app for players, and she says her friends keep each other informed of anything that might be going on -- she was mostly positive when asked about the environment in Turkey.

"I can tell you that since I've been here ... everyone loves Americans, everyone is so happy about it," she said. "I'm sure there are some [negative] things that are written, but everyone has been great to me. I can say in my years playing in Turkey, everyone has been amazing. ... That's why I've always come back.

"The only issue is that recently, and I mean in the past couple years, is the frequency of the [terrorist] attacks that have happened here and are very unfortunate."

Swords says that in addition to what she has learned about language, people and culture, playing abroad has made her a better basketball player.

"At the beginning of my WNBA career I wasn't getting very many minutes. My teams overseas and games over here have given me a lot of valuable experience," she said. "The ability to play and play different styles of the game and play with teammates from all over the world, and adjust to the different levels of physicality and the coaching -- and even being coached in a different language sometimes -- all adds valuable experience and knowledge to my game."

Harding is 32 and says she will be retiring from basketball after the current Turkish season to pursue other interests, including in business. But that doesn't mean she's done roaming.

"I know now that I am a world traveler," she said. "I will be a world traveler. I will always live in America -- that's my home -- but I will always travel. I'm kind of addicted now. I always want to learn and always grow and I want to always see something new and see how the world lives."