Globetrotters

March 26, 2008

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

Awestruck, Torey Thomas '07 espies this giant phantom of a man running up court, right at him. Who is this Viking vision wearing the golden uniform of the Sundvald Dragons? Is it really Scottie Pippen, an American sports icon?

"I had to pinch myself ... this can't be real," the rugged little guard tells himself.

Yet it is.

On this frigid Friday night of Jan. 11, Thomas, a rookie American import, is performing professionally for Akropol BBK in the Swedish Basketball League. Pippen, once a superstar with the dynastic NBA Champion Chicago Bulls, is making a one-game paid appearance in Stockholm during a brief Scandinavian tour.

Thomas showcases his talents, hustling all over the court. He leaps to steal a lob pass intended for Pippen. He scores 22 points, dishes out 15 assists, collects seven rebounds and seven assists. Thomas is voted the game's co-MVP along with the immortal Pippen, who scores 21.

Ten months earlier, Thomas and his feisty Crusaders had been ousted by Southern Illinois from the NCAA tournament. Since then, Thomas had auditions with the Knicks, Nets, Jazz and Celtics, but was not selected in the NBA draft.

To keep his dream alive, Thomas traipses off to foreign climes to work on his game. After only two days in Kormend, Hungary, he bolts for a better deal with Kepez Belediye, joining his Crusader co-Captain and roomie, Keith Simmons '07, in Antalya, Turkey. Unhappy with import rules that limit his playing time, Thomas jumps to Akropol BBK where he becomes a minor celebrity.

On Feb. 6, Thomas pours in 37 points, hands out 11 assists and pulls down 15 rebounds--a triple double that he hopes some NBA scout will notice.

*****

It is difficult to know exactly how many Crusader alums have splashed about in the international bouillabaisse of basketball.

A half dozen grads played professional ball abroad just this past year. There have been perhaps another 40 who have played-for-pay in foreign climes during the last 40 years.

A handful thought that international competition would be a steppingstone to the National Basketball Association. For most, they went on a lark and for a chance to experience different cultures. And they returned wiser, some a bit richer, but all with a backpack stuffed full of entertaining tales of derring-do, culture shock, homesickness, faux celebrity and strange games.

*****

Bobby Kissane and Joe Phelan were teammates, classmates and close friends. They still are. As they strolled toward graduation in 1971, American campuses were being churned by cultural upheaval and a national discord over the Vietnam War.

Phelan, a swingman and sixth man, had concerns about what lottery number he might draw in the military draft. Kissane, a Hall of Fame scoring machine, seemed more worried about the NBA draft.

Peaceniks at heart, both had a penchant for a little personal hell-raising and a consuming desire to play basketball ad infinitum. They remember fondly playing in Holy Cross' record (largest margin of victory--70 points) thrashing of St. Michael's, 138-68, at the Worcester Auditorium on Dec. 3, 1970. That night Phelan's draft lottery number was selected.

"It was low," he recalls, "in the 30s."

Kissane is drafted--by the NBA Suns and ABA Nets. After an unsuccessful tryout in Phoenix, Bobby K heads for Paris, hooking up with the Racing Club of France.

Phelan takes off for Germany to play basketball.

"I figured the Army would not bother to extradite me," he says with a laugh. Fortunately, Phelan never is called to arms. He joins the basketball branch of the SGN Ski Club in Essen, Germany. "I didn't even know how to ski," he says.

"We were basketball vagabonds. Like wandering Australian tennis pros," says Phelan. "They really didn't have to pay us. We were loving what we were doing and living large. Here we were making decent money, getting free food and the use of a car. I would meet up with Bob in Paris and we'd go for beers."

Phelan would go to Munich to watch the 1972 Olympics, being promoted as "The Happy Games." He is there when the Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September kills 11 Israeli hostages. He would bear witness to the shock and horror. He would also see all the USA basketball games, including the controversial one-point loss to the Soviet Union--an infamous game stolen from the Americans who refused to accept their silver medals.

Kissane is a natural raconteur. Upon his arrival in France, team managers inquire about his ethnicity. Perplexed by the question, Kissane tells them that he is "an American Indian." His quip backfires, he says, when the team promotes him as an American Indian: "They were insisting I wear a headdress, but I refused--I had long hair, so I did agree to wear a headband and do a few war-whoops for the crowd." Kissane gains Parisian celebrity as a 6-foot-8-inch Indian who could really shoot from the outside. Payday, Kissane says, would be an adventure. He would enter a café owned by the team's owners in the red-light Pigalle section of Paris.

"I would go into some sleazy backroom, and they would stuff my pockets with cash," he says.

Kissane spins yarns about his time with the Racing Mechelen Club in Belgium. The team arrives in Barcelona for European Cup play. The headlines catch Kissane's attention. The day before, soccer fans killed a referee after a match.

"Back then," he recalls, "the basketball refs usually made sure the visiting teams did not win. But that night we were beating the hell out of the Spanish team. With two minutes left, the crowd begins ringing the court, five deep. The next thing we know, the Spanish Marines are storming the court with rifles at the ready. They escort us to our bus, which the mob starts rocking. A very scary moment."

By the end of 1973, Kissane and Phelan are back in Worcester where they play park-league, semipro and pick-up basketball together for several years. Kissane develops into a superb designer and handcrafter of fine furniture and operates his own shop today. Phelan earns a Ph.D. in adolescent emotional disturbance at the University of Connecticut. For many years, Phelan has spearheaded the Alternative Education program at Auburn (Mass.) High.

*****

Chris Rojik '97 sits in his airport hotel room, very much depressed. He had washed out in Germany again, without ever getting a chance to prove he could play pro ball.

After graduation, he signed up for a summer tour for American hoopsters hoping to land a contract with a German pro team. The tour is badly run. The guys are not very serious about their mission. The 6-foot-7-inch Rojik cannot land a job. He comes home, finding work at an investment company.

The next summer, he goes back for another shot. This time, he signs a contract for a $30,000 net salary along with free room, board and a team car. A week before the season's opener, Rojik gets cut. His inexperienced agent screwed up. The lawsuit he files is going nowhere.

So he is heading home.

The phone rings in his hotel room the night before his scheduled 7 a.m. flight.

"It was my agent," recalls Rojik. "He had arranged a tryout for me with the Rounder Dragons." Rojik had his paid-for airplane ticket in hand.

"But I was there, so I figured I should at least go to the tryout,'' he explains.

The plane takes off without him.

Rojik makes the Dragons, a second division team, and plays well. In his third season, Rojik signs a better deal with a club in Iserlohn. That's where he meets his wife, Sonia Badas de Oliveira--a shooting guard for the Iserlohn women's team.

After three seasons there, he returns to the Dragons where he has been a mainstay for the past five seasons. He averaged 17 points and seven rebounds this season. The Rojiks have a daughter, Emilia, age 3. For six-to-eight weeks every summer, they come back to Wareham, Mass., where Chris' dad still coaches the high school girls.

"It has been the best time of my life," says Rojik. He has already signed for next season. At 33, Rojik is living happily in the town of Bad Honnef, not far from Bonn. He plans to coach there after his playing days are done. "Great town, good schools for Emilia. We will probably be here for a long time.''

*****

Two Lady Crusaders chat during a chance meeting at the Hart Center in January. Gleefully, Amy O'Brien '99 and Kaitlin Foley '07 swap horror stories about playing pro basketball abroad.

Despite their grief during brief stays, O'Brien and Foley find relief in humor. And the two stellar centers agree on one thing--they are glad they gave it a shot.

O'Brien, a Varsity Club Hall of Famer, had her fling in Germany. Her connection was ex-Crusader standout Pat Elzie '84, still coaching in Germany. With his help, she lands a job with a second-division club in Cochem near Bonn.

Foley signs with a Spanish league second-level team in the Canary Islands.

O'Brien and Foley share experiences that are typical on the international circuit. They are misled by false promises. They do not speak their team's native language. They cannot understand their coaches and teammates. They feel isolated. They have no job security.

"I realized that the missing element was teamwork," says Foley. "I really missed playing at Holy Cross where teamwork was everything. I was averaging 10 points, and 11 rebounds, but that joy of playing the game together was not there. I was the only American. My teammates ranged from 18-to-27 years old. Some were students, some were mothers, some worked all day--so we practiced at night."

Although she takes Spanish classes there, Foley doesn't understand much of her coach's pep talks. Her teammates call her "Kate," which confuses her because that sounds as if they are saying "que," the Spanish interrogative for "what."

"The coach spouted all these team rules in Spanish," she recalls. "Detailed things like what we could or could not wear on the plane. I didn't understand a word she was saying and got fined constantly." Her teammates do not warm up to her until near the end of her stay when she starts baking them brownies and cookies.

"I learned a life lesson about how to treat outsiders," says the sociology major. After nearly four months and 13 games with Caja Canarias, Foley returns home, two days before Christmas. She is now exploring other career options.

O'Brien had similar communication problems. The psychology/Spanish double major could not understand German.

"Our Polish coach spoke only Polish, and everything he said was translated into German," she explains. "The level of competition was awful. Players smoked and came in all shapes and sizes. We only played once a week and practiced at night. The part-time job I was promised never happened. Though we were sponsored by an automobile company, the car they promised never arrived. I felt isolated, alone in my tiny apartment all day. I couldn't watch TV and didn't have enough money to travel the country.

"As a 6-foot-1 center, I thought I'd be able to work on my guard skills and maybe get a shot at the WNBA. But they ran practices backward--had us running laps instead of wind sprints. We could not have beaten my Holy Name High School team."

After a half dozen games over two months' time, O'Brien decides to refocus. She comes home, teaches Spanish and coaches at a prep school for two years, runs the Boston Marathon for kicks, gets a master's degree in education and teaches middle school. She marries John Davagian, a Lehigh grad who is a vice president of a software company. She is now a stay-at-home mom, who does basketball commentary for local cable TV, referees basketball and juggles two daughters, Katie, 3, and Alison, who will be 2 in September.

"I was 21 and went to have a little fun," says O'Brien. "It was nice to walk away on my own terms."

*****

Kevin Hamilton '06 is making a pit stop during his international travels, returning to Worcester to close a deal on a condo, which, he says, will be his home base of operations when his playing days are done.

On this Jan. 18, he would get his business done, take in the Holy Cross-Bucknell game that night and catch a Saturday flight to Puerto Rico where he plays in the Baloncesto Superior National (BSN).

Hamilton bounced from Puerto Rico to Grundianz, Poland, to Besancon, France, and back to Puerto Rico.

In Poland, the locals would surround Hamilton and his Polpak Swiece teammates in pubs and serenade them with Polish fight songs. "We would get used to the melodies, and we would end up singing along," Hamilton recalls.

In France, the hardest adjustment is double kissing.

"They kiss both sides of your cheeks every time they see you...neighbors, team assistants, everyone," he says. "I kissed my next-door neighbors more than I kissed the women in my own family."

Puerto Rico is much more laid back, Hamilton says, while European basketball seems like a matter of life and death to fans. The atmosphere can be cutthroat.

"If they find someone as good, but cheaper," he says, "you lose your job."

Hamilton goes where the pay is best and spotlight is brightest. This summer he will try to get a spot in the Lakers summer league. He hopes he will be noticed and, just maybe, land an NBA contract as a role player.

*****

He is sitting in his living room in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when his agent calls. The next thing Patrick Whearty '03 knows, he is being transported in time to San Nicholas, Argentina, and is surrounded by a very angry mob.

"I'm at home and then, 24 hours later, I'm wearing a Boca Juniors (Buenos Aires) uniform and being attacked by a bunch of crazies," Whearty recalls.

Such is the life of an itinerant international hoopster. Out of work one moment and plopped into some strange place the next. During the five years since graduation, Whearty has played in Brazil, Argentina, the Ukraine, France and, currently, in Japan. He has played in camps and tournaments in Switzerland, Belarus, Italy and Uruguay.

The rabid fans in Argentina apparently do not appreciate being thumped by Whearty and his brand new teammates.

"The police barged onto the court with riot-control shields and escorted us to the team bus," he recalls.

This season, in Japan, things are much more cordial. Whearty and his '89er teammates in Sendai can relax in natural hot spring tubs and enjoy sushi. Companionship is good. Four Americans are allowed to play on each of the 10 Basketball Japan League (BJL) teams. Whearty is a prized 6-foot-10 center. "I never guard a Japanese player," he notes. "All the forwards and centers are Americans."

His season is long, beginning in October and ending in May. In January, Whearty, averaging 12 points and nine rebounds, is voted by fans to the BJL All-Star team--and plays in an exhibition in Okinawa.

"The league is well run and we are paid on time, which is not the case in some countries," he says.

Whearty recalls going into a shabby office in the Ukraine, and a guy asking how much he is owed. He tells him he has $35,000 coming--his signing bonus and a month's pay.

The guy takes out a wad of bills, peels off $35 grand, puts the money in a plastic bag and hands it to me," Whearty says.

At midseason, he is talking about giving up pro ball. His girlfriend of four years, Dr. Selma Mizouni, practices medicine in Orlando, Fla.

"My back and knees are bothering me from so much playing," he explains. "The pain has taken some of the joy away. It may be time to come home. I'll decide after the season."

*****

There are others still in the international game. Keith Simmons '07 averaged 15 points this season in Turkey's top league. Nate Lufkin '05 performed as a solid center for Zwolle in the Netherlands.

Rob Feaster '95, ranked second on the Crusaders all-time scoring list, ended a fine 10-year pro career in 2006 after playing in Australia, France and Germany and, also, for the Connecticut Pride in the Continental Basketball Association (see Holy Cross Magazine, winter/spring 2005 issue). Married and the father of four, Feaster works as an employment recruiter in Chicago.

Some stayed. After playing for years, Pat Elzie '83 remains in Germany, now coaching in Kirchheim. Dual-citizen Eileen Bradley '97 played pro-level ball in Ireland; now she works as a Price Waterhouse actuary in Dublin while keeping fit in a semipro league there.

*****

It's clear that the wild and wooly world of international hoops is not for the faint of heart, but every Crusader we talked to emphasized that playing abroad is a gift they would never return.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.