Traveling with the Ball

Less than a year after finishing his college career at IUP, basketball player G.J. Macon is playing across the Atlantic Ocean in the German B regional league.

G.J. Macon

While that may seem overwhelming to some people, traveling long distances is nothing new for Macon. He grew up in Alaska and played junior college basketball in Utah before he came to IUP in the fall of 2003. He averaged 12 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as a junior that season, then 14.7 points and 6.6 rebounds as a senior in 2004-05 for IUP.

Now the 6-foot-9 forward is playing for pay in Germany for the Itzehue Eagles. The town has about 33,000 people and is a thirty-minute drive from Hamburg in northern Germany.

“I ended up in Germany by mistake, really,” Macon said. “I had a contract in place for a team in Japan, for a very good team. But as I debated the contract, they were talking with another player who wasn’t as good as I was but was more eager to sign the contract. So he signed, and they took the contract from me. That’s the nature of the business, though, and the next best thing was this team in Germany.

“It's different—that’s the first challenge I have faced. It’s really different here. Everyone speaks English, but they would rather speak German, so it’s tough to get around. On the court, it’s not bad, because basketball is basketball,” he wrote in a message in October.

Leon Piper

Macon, who turned twenty-three this past December, is one of several former IUP hoopsters who has taken his game to Europe. Leon Piper was with Cognac in France, Fannar Olafsson was with Karfar in Iceland, and Dennis Mims was with Astoria in Poland, according to www.eurobasket.com. Also, former IUP assistant coach and player Mike Taylor ’95 is a coach in Ulm, Germany.

Olafsson ended his IUP career in 2004, and last season he played in Germany and Iceland. Piper averaged 12.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game for IUP in 2001-02. The London native has played in France since then, and last year he averaged 17.9 points per game. Mims finished his IUP career in 2002 and averaged a team-best 16.6 points and 11.3 boards that season. Since then, he has played in Poland and England.

In addition, Derrick Freeman—who ended his career with IUP in 1995-96—played in Germany and the Netherlands during the 2004-05 season. He also played in England during a long European career.

Fannar Olafsson

Most Americans who play in Europe are provided free use of a car and a place to live by the team, on top of salary. And in most countries that salary is tax free, and imported players have very few expenses.

“The team provides a house and transportation, and they give us food coupons that I rarely use,” Macon said. “I make around $1,200 in U.S. currency a month, which is not very much, but it’s a starting point for a guy like me,” he said. “Since I don’t have to pay any bills, it is a decent amount of money, but the whole point is to get your name out and move up and make more money in the future.”

Most European club teams at higher levels practice twice a day, in the morning around 10 and then around 6 p.m. for a total of four or five hours per day. But Macon’s team in the German B regional league—the lowest of three in the country—practices just three times a week. Some teams play just one game a week, normally on Saturdays. So that is a lot of free time for former NCAA players, who are used to two or three games a week during the season.

There are several rule differences, compared to the NCAA and NBA, in European leagues, where nearly every country has a league and most of them import American players. A few of the rules: the three-second lane is wider near the basket and is trapezoidal in shape; a ball can be touched once it hits the rim; walking is called if a player does not clearly put the ball on the floor before he picks up his pivot foot; and the game consists of four ten-minute quarters.

Dennis Mims

According to Macon, “The rules take a lot of getting used to. They don’t like a lot of animation from the players, and they give [technical fouls] to players very quickly. Also, the game is much slower. In America, the refs let the game go: they will give you an extra step if you take it, and as long as a move looks like it’s not a travel, they don’t call it. Here, if you make a good move and blow by a player, the refs automatically assume it’s a travel. It takes some getting used to, but it’s not too bad.”

Macon, like most Americans overseas, is expected to do a lot on the court. He sees action in Germany at the small forward, power forward, or center spot.

“I play all of them at different points of the game, and it’s different,” Macon said. “I am expected to do so much more here than I was at the college level. It’s a challenge but something I have prepared my whole life for.”

David Driver, a freelance writer from Maryland, has lived in Hungary with his family the past three academic years. He has covered pro basketball games in nine different European countries and has contributed to several American magazines and newspapers.