Riquna “BayBay’’ Williams, fresh off her rookie WNBA season, is packing up her belongings in Tulsa, Okla., this week and heading to her new job in Kosice, Slovakia, a town known for the world’s second-oldest marathon and a 14th-century Gothic cathedral.
Shenise “Moe’’ Johnson, the San Antonio Silver Stars’ first-round pick in the April WNBA Draft, will soon be off to Sopron, Hungary, the birthplace of famous composer Franz Liszt.
Life as a professional basketball player is about to get really interesting (and a bit scary) for the former University of Miami stars.
Neither player has ever set foot in Europe. Each will be the only American on her team. Both expect to be homesick. But the financial reality of women’s basketball leaves them little choice if they want to pursue their passion.
The average WNBA rookie salary is $36,570, the league minimum for a veteran is $54,000 and the maximum is $105,000. The NBA league minimum, by comparison, is $473,604 and the average NBA salary is $5 million, compared with $72,000 for the WNBA. The WNBA season lasts only four months, so the vast majority of the players head overseas to make the bulk of their annual income.
Twenty-eight WNBA players spent last winter in the Turkish league. Other popular destinations for WNBA players are Israel and Russia. The European league pays American players a sixth-month salary ranging anywhere from $40,000 to $500,000 for superstars such as Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker.
Those paychecks come with a price, however. American players have to leave the comfort of their country to play far away from family and friends. They are typically the only American on their team, so there are language and cultural barriers to overcome. And there are long bus rides. Lots of them.
Into the unknown
Williams admitted last week she knows nothing at all about Slovakia or her new team. In fact, she didn’t even know the name of the team. Turns out she is playing for the Kosice Good Angels and is listed as the starting point guard on the team’s website. She will be playing alongside complete strangers named Lucia Kupcikova, Beata Jaoscikova, Tijana Krivacevic, Miljana Borjoric and Helena Sverrisdottin. Two are from Slovakia, two from Serbia, and one from Iceland. Williams has no idea if any of them, or their coaches, speak English.
“This is what I have to do to follow my dream,” Williams said. “At some point, if you’re a woman playing basketball, you have to go overseas. We really have no choice. I’m nervous, definitely. I have no idea what to expect. But I hear they take care of you, give you a nice apartment. I signed for only three months instead of six in case I get too homesick.”
Williams grew up in Pahokee and was known to get homesick during her four years at UM. Getting acclimated to life in Tulsa was no easy feat, but at least they have Applebee’s, Olive Garden and a cozy soul food place named Sweet Lisa’s. Slovakia will feel like Mars.
Johnson has traveled to Thailand with USA Basketball but never to Europe. She is joining a Sopron team whose roster includes Zsofia Fegyverneky, Sara Krnjic, Fanni Szabo, Vivien Borondy and Zsófia Licskai. The club finished runner-up in the Hungarian playoffs last season. That’s about all Johnson knows.