As the college basketball season reaches a crescendo after a slew of televised tournament games in March, it's easy to watch players have their one shining moment. But as Luther Vandross croons each April, "in the blinking of an eye, that moment's gone."
Dee Brown had his in 2005 as Illinois marched to the NCAA title game. James Gist had his in 2007 as Maryland beat Stephen Curry-led Davidson to advance to the tournament's second round. Joe Krabbenhoft's came in 2008 as Wisconsin made the Sweet 16 before being bounced by Curry's Wildcats. Patrick Baldwin and Alex Olah never experienced that moment at Northwestern but helped build the foundation for a program that made the CBS montage for the first time this year.
Most of these players we follow so closely in college soon disappear from our radar. They get drafted but have short NBA careers (Brown) or fall just short of making an opening night roster (Gist). They go undrafted and play in NBA Summer League without a realistic expectation of making a team (Olah, Krabbenhoft). They take a break from basketball and try out a different career (Baldwin).
Years later, they are honored with former teammates at halftime, featured in where-are-they-now articles, and are the subjects of bar conversations and Wikipedia entries. They may return to their alma maters as coaches or athletic administrators.
In the years between leaving college and coming home, when we aren't watching closely unless we pay for obscure streaming services, many players have productive – and often quite lucrative – professional basketball careers overseas. Along the way, they face decisions about whom to trust, where to sign, how to fit in, whether to keep chasing their NBA dream and when to hang it up.
Their experiences vary greatly.
"Some will get an NBA look, some will get a D-League look, some will play at a high level in Europe and some guys will just play for three grand in Iceland and five years from now be able to say I played pro ball," said Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN college basketball analyst who provides commentary for the NBA Draft and the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
This is a story about how players go from playing in a tournament game in Tulsa to a league game in Turkey – a transition that many March Madness stars will face in the coming months.
Like many college seniors, Olah began thinking about his professional future as his Northwestern career wound down last spring. Once the Wildcats lost in the Big Ten Tournament in March, the starting center's focus soon turned to choosing an agency.
He signed with Edge Sports International, a management and marketing group that represents players in the NBA and overseas, in late spring – a time when many players who have exhausted their NCAA eligibility get representation to help manage the start of their professional careers.
Phillip Parun, a regional director for Octagon Basketball Europe, an agency that places American players in Europe and brings European players to the NBA, said he scouts college basketball players primarily through television during the season and relies on in-person reports from partners in the United States. Parun said he looks for players whose skillsets likely translate to the European game.
"We are looking at how they played in college, whether their style of play fits the league and finding a team that could lead to a team in a more competitive situation," Parun said. "That's the biggest place where a lot of things go wrong – players did really well for four years in college and end up in markets that are difficult to get out of or are misplaced."
For players to end up in overseas markets, they often need to get noticed in person at summer basketball showcases.
International teams typically keep tabs on high-level college players during the season, but few if any send coaches and general managers to regular-season or postseason tournament games, said Fraschilla, a longtime college basketball coach.
Instead, teams likely wait until events such as The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in April and the NBA Draft Combine in May to send representatives. The post-draft Summer League in July is when the scouting and recruiting season begins in earnest for international teams.
Before making offers, they typically have to wait for NBA teams to act.
"There's really nothing international teams can do until the NBA teams decide which of these guys are ultimately good enough to play in the NBA," Fraschilla said. "It all trickles down in some small way – it's a like melting snow on a mountain. ... The international teams are trying to get the very best players, and they don't know who they are going to get until they know [who signs with NBA teams]."
Brown was one of the fortunate few. The standout Illinois point guard and second-round NBA Draft pick played 49 games off the bench for the Utah Jazz during his rookie season. During Summer League the next year, Brown had to audition again for a roster spot. Utah was stacked with point guards, so Brown instead signed with a top-tier Turkish team that was impressed with his play in Las Vegas that summer.
"When you play summer league you're auditioning for the world," Brown said.
Top international teams, many of which play in the highly competitive EuroLeague, target former college players like Brown who have professional experience.
"They're going to be going after someone who has European experience or time spent in the NBA," said Keith Kreiter, founder and CEO of Edge Sports International. "It's very hard for rookies to be placed there, and if you are it's likely because you were drafted. That's a differentiator."
For many former college players who aren't potential NBA prospects, the Summer League is a springboard to play professionally overseas.
"You find that a lot of international scouts from teams around the world are at Summer League eyeing those college players who aren't quite good enough to be in the NBA but are good enough to be in Summer League, and that is a big market for international teams to sign players," Fraschilla said.
Players like Olah, who got noticed by a Belgian team while playing Summer League for the New Orleans Pelicans.
"I knew I was not going to make it to the NBA, but I wanted to play as good as I could in Summer League," Olah said. "I knew just being there would help me get a good contract in Europe."
Krabbenhoft, a Wisconsin forward who graduated in 2009, turned his Summer League performance with the Portland Trail Blazers into a contract with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, his hometown NBA Development League (soon to be renamed the NBA Gatorade League or G-League) team.
Players who aren't invited to Summer League or other basketball showcases still typically wait until late summer – when NBA, D-League and top international team rosters are filled – to find a landing spot overseas.
"There is a professional league for most college players who play at a reasonably high level," Fraschilla said. "These leagues may not be at the highest level but a player can still make a decent living and see the world."
Getting a Contract
Where players sign overseas depends on several factors. NBA teams seeking to develop young players whose rights they own may set them up with a specific team, as was the case with the Spurs and their 2008 second-round draft pick Gist, who played his first professional season in Italy's top professional league.
The former Maryland forward played Summer League with San Antonio. Gregg Popovich advised him to go elsewhere during the season because he wouldn't get playing time on the Spurs. Rather than play in the D-League along with many young former college players, he opted to play internationally, where he could earn a greater salary and stay on the Spurs' radar.
"I didn't know much about European basketball," Gist said. "[The Spurs] had everything set up – I just had to say OK."
Far more common, however, is that a player's agent takes the lead in finding him an international roster spot. American agencies often have partnerships in Europe. The American agent may offer the player to the European partner, who offers that player to a European team. Larger agencies often have their own representatives in European countries and may deal directly with teams because they have developed a relationship, said Parun, the Octagon Basketball Europe regional director.
"This entire basketball network is interconnected," Fraschilla said. "It's interconnected by agents, NBA scouts and front office people, European front office people and scouts – in many cases these are all ongoing relationships forged over 30 years."
Kreiter said in negotiations with international teams he mostly deals directly with coaches, some of whom make requests for a specific type of player. Agents have to determine whether the player is a good fit with the coach and the team.
Relationships between agents and coaches matter, but players are ultimately judged on their performance.
"You better have stats, you better be a good kid and you better have something they like," Kreiter said. "For every opening I see now in Europe, there are probably 100-200 players at least vying for that spot – it's incredibly competitive so you have to have something that separates you."
Brown, like many other players, said he was initially unfamiliar with international basketball and relied on his agent to find him a roster spot in Europe. He had more informed opinions in subsequent years.
"You base [your decision on where to play] on situation – style of play, fan base, compensation," Brown said. "All of those things come into play."
Contracts with top-tier European teams typically are more lucrative than D-League contracts, although the NBA is increasing compensation for D-League players in an effort to keep them playing domestically, Fraschilla said.
For lower-level international teams, however, first-year salaries can be as little as $1,500 a month, Fraschilla said. One of the agent's responsibilities is tracking which teams pay salaries on time and which are known to go several months without paying players.
Krabbenhoft, a Wisconsin assistant coach who played three years of international basketball in South Korea, Spain and Greece, said he advises players to consider more than just contract amount when making decisions about where to sign.
"I wasn't worried about money or anything like that," Krabbenhoft said. "I enjoyed playing the game professionally at a high level and experiencing traveling and living in Europe."
Kreiter said he advises players that "if the dollars aren't that much different go for the situation – create a platform for yourself and gain notoriety."
Olah, one of Kreiter's clients, thought the best fit for him was playing internationally. Less than one week after the end of Summer League last year, he committed to play for the Belgian team that scouted him in Las Vegas and offered him playing time.
"I didn't want to take a huge step and then take two smaller steps back," Olah said. "This style of play fits me well."
Olah's transition was smoother than most. He grew up in Romania, a two-hour plane ride from Belgium, watching European basketball. And he took a piece of college with him when he returned overseas: his point guard from Northwestern.
Tre Demps, a fellow 2016 graduate, signed with the same Belgian team just days before Olah, although the coach curiously hadn't used the potential reunion as a recruiting pitch.
"When you go to Europe, coming from the states, it's a lonely existence," said Baldwin, a former Northwestern point guard who graduated in 1994, played briefly in a basketball league that folded, worked as a business analyst and played internationally in Croatia and Bosnia. "To have a teammate or someone you know is a bonus."
Most rookies don't have that luxury. They adjust to a different brand of basketball and life overseas largely on their own.
Gist said one of the most difficult transitions from playing at Maryland to Italy in his first year was the style of play.
"There's more of a team dynamic here," Gist said. "Players don't take 15 to 20 shots per game. The ball is moving all the time. A lot of players come over here and struggle because they think I have to score, score, score. That was my mentality. When I came over I thought that I should be in the NBA."
Former college players also have to adjust to playing with teammates and guarding players who have been playing professionally in Europe since they were 16.
Brown said after he got acclimated to the different style of play, he felt comfortable with his choice to play overseas.
"Once you get over there and are competing in those leagues, you start to realize that you're playing great completion and still doing what you love," Brown said. "Traveling around the world, playing in different leagues and seeing different cultures was a great experience for me."
While many of the top EuroLeague teams are in major metropolitan areas and have several former college players on the roster, lower-level teams often have fewer American players and are in less cosmopolitan areas, making for a tougher transition.
"If they've never traveled internationally it's a big hurdle for them," Parun said. "Our job is to make the adjustment as smooth as possible. European teams are not American colleges – they don't have budgets of millions of dollars."
Added Baldwin: "Once you know you are moving on to Europe to play, the biggest thing is immersing yourself into the country and not be that American who stands out."
Gist, who spent his early childhood in Europe while his father was in the Air Force, said his transition back overseas was tough.
"It's a whole lot different when you are over here by yourself," Gist said. "You don't really know the language. You don't really know how to get around. You have to do everything on your own in the beginning. The team will help you but at the end of the day you're an adult and on your own. It's not like getting out of college and living in America.
"The first thing you have to do is embrace the fact that you're in Europe," Gist said. "You can't expect things to be as easy or accessible as they are in America ... It's a long season, and if you start hating the place you're in by September, you have a long way to go."
Gist said when he lived in Russia, it took him 15 minutes to order a cheese pizza. "You have to be the king of charades," he said. "When you don't have hot water or the power goes off, those things can start to bother you off the court, and they can impact how you play on the court. After 10 months you can hit a breaking point."
Getting Noticed (Again)
After those 10 months overseas are over, typically by May or June, players often return home to the U.S. to plot their next move. One-year contracts are the norm for young players abroad, and it's common for them not to sign again with the same team.
"There's more of an unknown [with young players overseas]," Fraschilla said. "It's like an arranged marriage between the agent and the team. If you put your client in a bad spot or the team doesn't like the player, the one-year contract means both sides can extricate themselves quickly."
Players typically return home without knowing where they will play that fall. The cycle of getting noticed begins anew. And now they are competing with a new crop of NBA draft picks and top European players, among others, for roster spots across the world.
"It's all about players' year-to-year performance and potential," Fraschilla said. "There's a floating market of supply and demand."
That's the reality Olah will face in several months. "I'm still trying to aim for the NBA, but it's a process," he said.
Brown said he never committed to a European team for more than one year. After playing his first year in Turkey, he played 19 games during the 2008-09 season for the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards before returning overseas for the rest of his playing career.
After returning from Italy and playing in his second Summer League for San Antonio, Gist tore his quadriceps several days before training camp, sidelining him for three months and ending any chance of joining the Spurs that season. He once again chose playing internationally (in Russia) over the D-League. During his third and final summer with the Spurs in 2010, he made it to training camp but was waived just before opening night.
Gist's recent opportunities have been overseas. After cutting ties with the Spurs, he signed with a EuroLeague team in Serbia. He considered another run at making an NBA roster, but he feared the entire 2011-12 NBA season would be cancelled because of the lockout and instead signed with a team in Turkey. He signed with yet another team in Spain before being traded in December 2012 to Greece, where he's played ever since.
For players like Gist who come close but never make an NBA roster, coming to terms with their career arc can be difficult.
"At some point the player's agent has to say, 'I can get you more [money] in Europe,'" Fraschilla said. "It's a market like any other market and at a certain point you have to say, 'Look, I can make a career out of this overseas rather than chasing the NBA dream.'"
Gist, one of the top big men in Europe, said he feels settled in Greece and is at peace with his career choices. Brown, too.
"I let faith take me around the world," said Brown, who retired from basketball in 2015 after more than seven years playing overseas and returned to Illinois for a short stint in athletic administration. "I didn't see it playing out like it did, with me playing in eight different countries, but it was an awesome experience."
Brown's advice to young players: "The people who enjoy it and actually get something out of it have long careers."