It’s all about chasing the dream.
Athletes come to UC Davis hoping that they will be part of the miniscule percent of competitors to ultimately break into the professional level of their respective sport.
But when these athletes fail to sign with a domestic team, they are faced with a choice: let the dream die or find a new place to practice their trade.
Over the last several seasons the choice has become increasingly clear: UC Davis athletes are willing to give their careers a second life overseas.
Of late, this trend has been more prevalent in one sport than in any other: basketball.
In 2010, Dominic Calegari gave up the familiar confines of the United States in favor of the less comfortable grounds of a playing career in Poland and then Ukraine. Calegari was followed the next season by former teammates Mark Payne and Todd Lowenthal, who are currently continuing their careers in Spain and Israel, respectively.
On the women’s side, former Aggies Paige Mintun and Heidi Heintz have made their way across the Atlantic to begin careers in Germany and Finland.
Mintun graduated from UC Davis as one of the most accomplished players in Aggie women’s basketball history. In her final season, the Valley Center, Calif. native led the UC Davis to a Big West Conference title and to its first ever NCAA Basketball Tournament appearance.
It was at UC Davis’ NCAA Tournament game that head coach Sandy Simpson set Mintun up with an agent.
When it comes to European basketball, the players rarely interact with teams until it is time to sign a contract — most of the leg-work is done by the agent.
According to Mintun, European teams are more interested in watching entire games of American players than the highlight tapes that are more prevalent in the United States because “everyone looks good in a highlight tape.”
As her agent searched out potential locations for her career, Mintun had some specific goals in mind.
“I wanted to play somewhere where I could make some money,” she said. “But I was also willing to compromise because I wanted to play in a cool place. I didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, not getting to have a good experience.”
She got her wish when she ultimately signed with Saarlouis — a team located in the West of Germany.
Mintun’s contract, and the contract of many foreign players, functioned very differently from those of most American athletes.
Instead of being paid in dollars alone, Mintun had a myriad of living expenses taken care of. She was placed in a team apartment with another American teammate in order to make her more comfortable. She was also offered a team sponsored car, and a meal plan that allowed her to attend a local restaurant — which she compared to the UC Davis dining commons — twice a day.
Still, transitioning to the German way of eating was not a simple task.
“I liked eating there because it was free food,” she said. “But in Germany they love their sausage and they love their meat. It was just all the time deep-fried everything. I’m a pretty healthy eater so it was hard for me to find things I would like there.”
But the transition to new foods was the least of Mintun’s challenge in moving to a new country.
While her team offered American players classes in rudimentary German, Mintun did not know much German by the time she started playing for the Saarlouis. Still, she was fortunate to have a Dutch coach who spoke English, as well as Dutch and German.
“If he ever started yelling at us in Dutch or in German I just assumed ‘well, he’s not talking to me,’” she said.
Mintun also said the fan atmosphere at the games was very different from games held in the states.
German basketball fans are allowed to bring a variety of noisemakers into games that are often discouraged by American sports teams. Mintun said she could not tell what the Saarlouis fans were saying as they cheered, but as long as they looked happy she felt encouraged.
Unfortunately for Mintun, her career in Germany was short-lived.
After just half a season in Europe, she sustained a career-ending injury. After having surgery in Germany — an experience she says she would not recommend — Mintun returned to California to get the attention of American doctors.
The Spanish connection
Payne was a fan-favorite during his time as an Aggie. Although UC Davis men’s basketball struggled through much of his career, Payne was one of the team’s best players.
After graduation Payne had tryouts with several NBA teams, including the Sacramento Kings, but was unable to make it in the world’s top basketball league.
During the summer of 2011, Payne signed with Unijas, a team in Spain’s top Division.
Payne says many of his teammates are former NBA players and he considers his league to be the second best league in the world, behind the NBA.
While Payne was happy with his playing situation, the transition for him, like Mintun, to a new country wasn’t always easy. Payne said it was a bit rough at first, but improved once he got used to “the language, shopping, eating out and practices.”
Payne also had to adjust to his new level of celebrity status.
“It wasn’t quite like the NBA,” he said “We never had people follow us or anything. But probably like a big time college team like UCLA or Duke.”
Payne recently finished his first season and is now waiting to see which teams will be interested in him for the 2012-13 season. Payne is hopeful that he will be able to remain in Spain’s top league and he expects to know within a few weeks.
Off to Israel
While the number of UC Davis athletes heading overseas has increased in recent years, the concept of Aggies going abroad is not a new phenomenon.
After graduating from UC Davis in 1997, current Aggie women’s basketball head coach Jennifer Gross found her way into the European ranks.
But unlike Payne and Mintun, Gross was not actively seeking a spot in a professional basketball league.
Several months after she graduated, Gross’s college coach passed her name along to one of his friends in Denmark, who was impressed with what Gross had to offer. Not long after, Gross found herself playing for Amager, a team located near Copenhagen.
“It just fell into my lap,” she said.
Gross said that playing abroad was fun at first, but the excitement wore off after some time. She said the hardest part of playing abroad was the language barrier.
After finishing a year in Denmark, Gross made her way to Israel to play for a team playing near Tel-Aviv in 1998.
While she acknowledges that there are some major differences, she was surprised by how similar life in Israel was to the United States.
“The area around Tel Aviv is similar to New York,” she said. “I don’t think people realize what it’s really like.”
Her stint in Israel was short-lived, however, as her team ran out of money halfway through the 1998-99 season and was no longer able to pay its players.
At that point Gross knew it was time to return to the U.S for good, and her international career ended.
Still, she says she enjoyed her time playing abroad, and the best part was the people she got a chance to meet.
“Everyone does it for a different reason,” Gross said. “Some people do it because they want to make it into a career. For me it was an opportunity to see the world.”
TREVOR CRAMER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.