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Foreign concept an experience

For Bouchard, stay was no vacation

By Cal Bouchard, Globe Correspondent, 4/24/2002

This year's women's NCAA Final Four proved to be another showcase for many young basketball stars. Even though the undefeated University of Connecticut Huskies were led by four outstanding seniors, these women have just begun their basketball careers.

There is, of course, the WNBA, where the cream of the senior crop will play this summer, but there are also less lucrative leagues in Asia, South America, and Australia. Then there are the notorious and ubiquitous leagues of Europe, which run September through April.

Some women play for years in Europe, learning new languages as they switch teams and countries. Others go just to keep in shape and stay competitive between WNBA seasons. But inevitably, every woman who aspires to play basketball beyond college makes a stop in Europe.

My adventure - or misadventure - in Europe didn't start immediately after graduation from Boston College. It was put on hold for a year partly due to my indecision and post-Olympic burnout (playing for Team Canada), and partly because of an agent who wanted to place me in Israel. I reminded him that although there is a great league with generous pay in that country (which would mean a generous percentage for him), there is also military conflict. He reassured me by saying, ''Don't leave the apartment or watch CNN and you won't even notice!''

Thus, my first lesson upon leaving the cozy confines of college basketball: Don't ever trust your agent.

I chose a different representative, one based in Spain, and after much hemming and hawing, signed a contract to join a Spanish Division 1 team that finished in the middle of the pack last season. The small Andalucia province town, I was assured, was only two hours south of Madrid and one hour north of the beach, perfect for an adventurous traveler. Once again I was disappointed, when my train from Madrid took four hours, the coast was a three-hour drive, and most importantly, the team had tied for last place in the league the year before.

Nevertheless, I was greeted warmly by the coach and manager upon arrival and taken to the apartment I was to share with another teammate. Another foreigner, as we are called.

Depending on the league, European teams are allowed one to three foreigners, or players without passports from European Union countries. Why so strict? Because the pro leagues over there are actually club teams that substitute for high school and college sports systems. My team consisted of Spanish players from 17 to 30, who got paid for playing while they attended school or worked part time. Being foreign means you are typically the best and highest-paid players on the team, often the only ones for whom basketball is a full-time job, and they always are the ones depended upon to carry the team.

A learning curve

Thankfully, our apartment was clean and safe, although the phone line that was promised in my contract took months to be installed, and lighting the huge butane gas containers for hot water every morning not only tried my patience but also tested my courage.

My teammates were great: very welcoming and as interested in teaching me Spanish as they were in learning English, which was ideal considering I was the point guard. You never realize how much you rely on communicating to teammates during timeouts and in huddles until you can't. My constant hand signals, facial expressions, and vigorous body language allowed me to fit right into the expressive Spanish culture.

I was lucky to have a coach who speaks English, but I would have preferred he had known a little about basketball. He was an ex-military general who coached in his retirement ''for the fun.''

He had never played a game in his life, which became obvious when he came up with only one inbound play the entire season, and had us playing a sagging zone against the best 3-point shooting team in the league. His temper tantrums during practice would have been comical, except that a teammate would inevitably burst into tears, leaving me helpless to understand why, or how, to avoid such personal attacks. But lack of good coaching proved to be only one feature of my Spanish basketball experience.

Whether playing for a Division 1 collegiate program, the Canadian Olympic Team, or at WNBA training camp, each situation provided me with knowledgeable and dedicated coaches, terrific facilities, and the infrastructure to allow athletes the utmost support. Naively, I thought this would be true in Europe, but some veteran teammates tried to warn me that you can't take anything for granted across the Atlantic. There are elite teams in each country that can't get away with treating their players unprofessionally, and there are a lot of big-name players who would never be caught in the situation I found myself in. However, compared to the experiences of the majority of female players in Europe, the struggle to keep my career alive while keeping my sanity was not at all unique.

There were 16-hour bus rides, pregame meals of a croissant and hot chocolate, and fans and coaches who smoked during practices and games. We learned to tape our own ankles and fingers, wait as our coaches showed up to practice 15 minutes late every day (and then proceeded to talk on their cellphones or read magazines instead of watching our workouts), and practice and play games in gyms that were 37 degrees. Not only did we lack central heating, but we had a rubber floor instead of hardwood and during the first 15 minutes of Saturday night home games we'd have to contend with the sun in our eyes while shooting 3-pointers from the corner. Our locker rooms, which we shared with community soccer and volleyball teams in town, were not nearly as nice as the high school locker rooms I've seen in America, but you'd be OK as long as you remembered to bring toilet paper.

Paying a price

Players learn to adapt to these unfamiliar conditions - sometimes reluctantly, sometimes with a laugh - knowing they will make great stories down the road.

But the untenable aspect of playing in Spain was how we were treated by management. Our team was owned by a woman of high society who sported fur coats, garish hats, and high expectations. Winning (which, remember, was a new thing for this club) meant she might join us on the floor to celebrate, or pay for tapas that night. But losing meant trashing us on the radio and withholding our pay. I never once was paid on time, and the team still owes me two months pay. When she announced she was ready to pony up, we would all have to line up outside her office marked ''La Presidente,'' and enter one at a time. She sat at her desk, warming her feet by a space heater and smoking a cigarette, handing over our envelopes. I didn't enjoy groveling for my money, calling my agent every day it was late, or threatening litigation.

There are better situations in Europe than mine and there are worse, but it is unfortunate that female athletes have to put up with such treatment to play during the WNBA offseason. Being a professional in some countries doesn't have the allure it has in North America. I'm hoping that a developmental league, perhaps an expansion of the new National Women's Basketball League, will be formed to allow future college players to avoid the pitfalls of European basketball, and stay at home near family, friends, and fans to enjoy training and playing in more favorable surroundings.

Cal Bouchard was a four-year starter and two-time captain of the Boston College women's basketball team from 1996-2000. She was a member of the Canadian Olympic team at the 2000 Sydney Games. Bouchard p layed pro basketball in Spain in 2001.

This story ran on page D11 of the Boston Globe on 4/24/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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