When Golden Eagles migrate
By Jay Sanders
Marquette University basketball players are rare birds. Plucked from their high schools as fledgling players, the swooping, driving Golden Eagles find their wings at Marquette. And after the thrill of a college career comes a new challenge: migration.
Fewer than 1 percent of college basketball athletes land in the NBA. That figure includes strong players from top-notch programs like the one at Marquette. So rather than alighting in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, the majority of Marquette players who continue on to pro ball find themselves in more exotic ports of call — from England, France, Holland and Italy to the Czech Republic, Japan and beyond.
“We have Golden Eagles all over the globe playing high-level basketball,” says Dan Fitzgerald, Bus Ad ’08, who plays in Japan.
An overseas pro basketball career and an NBA career are birds of a very different feather. NBA stars are pampered with chartered planes and luxury hotels, while their foreign-league equivalents are more likely to be found “schlepping bags from an underheated bus to a shared room in a mid-level hotel,” writes Paul Shirley, an Iowa State grad who spent eight years as a pro dribbling from team to team across Europe. According to Shirley, the payoff is the “treasure trove” of stories players accumulate during their years on foreign courts.
Stories like these.
Fitzgerald was a long-distance specialist on the court at Marquette. With professional stops in Switzerland and Germany and now a leading scorer for the Sendai 89ers in Japan, he’s proving to be one off the court as well. Fitzgerald continues to enjoy playing the game, albeit with a few new twists.
“In Japan, only three Americans can be on the court at once, but you can have up to five on the team,” he says. “Obviously, the language barrier is challenging with refs and teammates.”
Having an American coach is a big help for Fitzgerald. (Interestingly, his Japanese teammates have to rely on a translator.) Getting married last July to Dominika Dabrowski, Comm ’07, who played women’s tennis, helps keep potential homesickness at bay.
“We love traveling the world and having a new adventure every year,” he says.
Fitzgerald faithfully follows current Marquette basketball, despite the handicap of a 14-hour time difference. And he keeps in touch with former teammates, particularly Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge, Arts ’09, of Japan’s Hamamatsu Phoenix, whom he played several times this past season.
Best of all, though, are the fans.
“The Japanese fans are great, maybe more passionate than back home,” Fitzgerald says.
Christopher Grimm, Arts ’06, has had a much, well, grimmer time of it. He’s back in Milwaukee now, after spending the past season playing in Skopje, Macedonia, and Zalaegerszeg, Hungary.
“The fans this year in Skopje were crazy,” Grimm says. “Literally. Games stopped for racist songs and stuff being thrown on the floor. I was spit at. Our bus was attacked. We had police escorts and there were even reports of fans waving guns around at games.”
Winning didn’t make things any easier.
“After we beat our city rival, the fans broke down the door to our locker room to celebrate with us,” he says.
Grimm’s first overseas posting was in Switzerland, where his teammates included American, Italian, Swiss, French, Brazilian and Serbian players.
“Not only was I adjusting to being a professional player, but I had to adjust to all of their cultures blended together, as well as their basketball styles,” he says. “There are also rule changes that took some getting used to.”
Helping to bridge the language and culture gap was the spirit of “intense dedication” to the game that Grimm shared with teammates, many of whom he managed to convert into Marquette fans.
Watching Marquette from afar last year, he says: “A favorite moment was when we stayed up late to watch MU go to the Sweet 16. We were screaming in our apartment, and our neighbors must have thought we were crazy.”
Grimm recently returned to the United States with his wife, Elizabeth Schuelke, whom he met freshman year at Marquette. The couple had their first child in April. “He is taking up all of our time right now, and he is great,” Grimm says.
Another Golden Eagle learning to roll with the changes is Maurice Acker, Comm ’10, of the Dutch team Magixx KidsRights Nijmegen.
“Overseas basketball is tougher because the referees don’t call as many fouls and they allow aggressive play from both teams,” Acker says. “The fans get away with more taunting of the players, so it gets really wild sometimes.”
The differences extend to game preparation, which Acker says is not as intense or unified as it was at Marquette.
Though these Marquette expatriate basketball players are scattered in disparate locations, they have in common a surprising number of experiences. They talk about adapting to the variations the game serves up when it’s transplanted into a different culture.
“The coaching styles, tactics and overall way the game is played is an adjustment for any player coming from the United States,” says Dwight Burke, Comm ’09, who plays in the Czech Republic.
Jerel McNeal, Comm ’09, the university’s all-time leading scorer, now in Italy, adds: “The play is a lot more physical, which can make or break some players. Also a few rules take time to adjust to. The biggest one for Americans is usually the traveling call.”
In France, the game is largely a half-court affair with a 24-second shot clock, according to Ousmane Barro, Arts ’08. And in Japan, Blackledge encounters Japanese teammates who are simultaneously hard-driving and surprisingly laid back.
“The Japanese work ethic is second to none. They work on their game all the time, trying to get better,” Blackledge says. At the same time, though, “Americans are a lot more competitive than Japanese players. We play with more emotion than they do. They play kind of friendly ball.”
Joe Chapman, Comm ’06, finds the workload more intense than in the States.
“Here in England we have two-a-days for eight months,” he says. “First practice, always shooting drills and going over scouting reports and working on individual drills. Second practice, we play.”
Equally intense, players agree, are the fans.
“Most of the venues where you play are nothing compared to arenas in the States,” says Burke. “Yet the fans come, usually pack the gym and yell to the top of their lungs, beat on drums, chant, yell expletives at referees in large numbers and give their all to the team.”
McNeal adds that what the audience sometimes lacks in size it makes up for in emotion. “The fans are really intense here. They remind me of college crowds.”
An overseas career serves up a different challenge off the court: separation from friends, family and familiar places back home. Loneliness hits different players in different ways.
“When you are over here, you have a lot of down time, reflecting on your life and dealing with your own personal demons, which can be challenging for any young man,” Chapman says. “But it’s a process where you come out more independent and knowledgeable about your own personality.”
For Burke, sheer enjoyment of the game serves as a powerful coping mechanism. “I love what I do,” he says, “and even though being away from home most of the year isn’t always easy, I still wouldn’t change it right now.”
Barro left his home in Senegal to play college ball at Marquette, so moving from Milwaukee to France as a pro wasn’t much of a challenge. Of his current situation, he says: “The great thing about this place is the living conditions are very good. You don’t need to worry about anything but playing.”
Wherever Marquette players find themselves, a tie binding them to their new teammates is the common language of basketball.
McNeal sums it up this way: “For me competing anywhere is always the same — just a different country and different players.”
Keeping tabs on their home team and in touch with each other also unites the far-flung network of Marquette players overseas.
“I’ve watched many Marquette games while being abroad,” Burke says. “The most difficult factor is the time difference. I end up losing sleep sometimes to support Marquette, but it’s a sacrifice I gladly make.”
“I try to watch every MU basketball game that comes on at a decent hour,” Blackledge says. “I love seeing the young guys out there. They won’t realize until they are gone how lucky they are and how that will be some of the best times of their lives.”
For Chapman, maintaining Marquette connections is key.
“Dan in Japan, Chris in France, Marcus in Mexico, Maurice in Holland, Travis Diener and Jerel in Italy, Dwight Burke in the Czech Republic, Dwight Buycks in the D league and Belgium, Trend in Japan ... I talk to all those guys,” he says. “We are one big family, and that’s why WE ARE MARQUETTE.”