Erica McCall: learning more about life overseas

Erica McCall is hugged by one of her team's biggest fans.

Do you remember the part of Love and Basketball when Monica goes to play basketball overseas in Spain? She had to walk to her game, tape her own ankles, her coach didn’t speak any English, and the whole championship game plan was to pass her the ball to score?

Well, my overseas experience is nothing like that. For one, my coaches and teammates can speak English. Secondly, I have two great trainers that tape me everyday for practice and games. And lastly, I play on a well-balanced team, so I’m definitely not getting all the shots. The only thing Monica and I have in common is not having a car.

In my first year of playing overseas basketball, there have been have been many ups and downs, and definitely a lot of learning. Living in a country with a different language, team, and culture can be a challenge. However, my ability to adapt to a new environment has allowed me maintain a positive outlook on my experience and transform me in ways I could never have imagined.

I am currently playing in Szekszárd, Hungary, which is a small city about an hour and a half away from Budapest. There are only a few clothing stores, no movie theaters, and one fast-food restaurant. The language spoken is Hungarian – one of the five most difficult languages to learn in the world. I just stick the basics: hi, bye, and thank you.

As I previously mentioned, I don’t have a car, so have to walk every where I go, but its not by choice. Most cars in Europe are manual, which requires the knowledge of driving a stick shift. Unfortunately, I do not have that knowledge, so my legs are my transportation. Luckily the town is smal,l and it doesn’t take much time to get from point A to point B. The walk to the gym from my flat is 15 minutes or less, and the nearest grocery store is a five-minute walk. Sometimes my teammates give me rides to practices, but a majority of the time I walk. I actually don’t mind the walking, as long as I have my headphones. I get a chance to listen to some of my favorite podcasts, and sometimes I have a little concert while walking. However I can’t lie and say I don’t get some stares when people hear me attempt to hit Mariah Carey’s high notes.

I think one of the most frequently-asked questions I get from people is: how’s the food? Well, the answer is I think it’s quite tasty! Fortunately I get free lunch at a local restaurant, so I get to try a lot of traditional Hungarian food. They’re really big on soups and stews, with their most famous dish being goulash. I’m an adventurous eater, so I’m willing to try new cuisines, and Hungarian food hasn’t failed me yet – with the exception of liver and potatoes. But even with all this great food here in Hungary, I still find myself craving my authentic Mexican food in Cali.

In terms of basketball, the season lasts eight months, and I am currently on month seven. From the jump, I have experienced multiple challenges. But to my surprise, adjusting to overseas basketball was tougher than I had expected. The quick turnaround from playing in college to the WNBA was helpful in my transition to playing overseas, but that didn’t mean it was easy. It took me more time than expected to finally get the hang of playing European-style basketball.

I personally think the pace of the game is a little slower than the WNBA, but is more physical. Although there is the general European style of basketball, each team obviously never plays the same way. The style of play offensively and defensively is heavily-influenced by your coach. In particular, my coach likes to run a lot of plays with middle pick and rolls, and have the offense flow from there. Defensively, he likes my team to be very aggressive and willing to be risky.

I think my biggest adjustment was learning how to foul intelligently. In college, if I got even one foul in the first half, I was nervous to foul again because I knew I was going to have to sit for the rest of the half. But out here, we are reminded every game that we have five fouls for a reason. My coach always stresses that we must get four team fouls within the first five minutes of the quarter because it will show our toughness; and when we do foul, we have to make sure it’s never on the shot. Overall, each game presents a different challenge, but that’s what makes it so much fun and rewarding.

Erica McCall and her teammates greet fans after a win.
Erica McCall and her teammates greet fans after a win.

Learning to play European-style basketball was tough, but life outside the gym may have actually been my biggest adjustment. When I first walked the streets of Szekszárd, I felt very uncomfortable. Being the only black person in a city with a population of 45,000, you’re an outsider, to say the least. My first day walking to practice I put my hood on and kept my head down because I just knew I was an outsider. My coaches and teammates were an exception to this. They were kind and welcoming from the beginning. However, outside of the gym, this was not the case. The first couple of weeks I got stares from several people, and even got some pictures taken of me. I’ll never forget how uneasy I felt.

As proud as I am to be a black woman, I was insecure about the color of my skin in this new land. However as time went on, the people of the town became more familiar with me by going to our games or just seeing me around town. As a result, I started to become more comfortable in my surroundings and confident in my own skin. Now I walk to practice with my head held high. Some days, people may even honk at me, waving and smiling. One day, a school bus full of students waved to me. A sense of belonging filled my spirit.

Another challenge that I have to deal with is being the only American on my team. Unlike many Americans that play overseas, I don’t have another American to help get me through this first year overseas. Seven months into playing out here, it is still a situation that I struggle with. On the court, it’s not as tough because everyone has to speak English, so we all can all understand the plays and defensive schemes. My coaches and most of my teammates can speak English well, with a few exceptions. For the most part, everyone does a great job in communicating with me.

However, its once the team gets off the court that the communication with me starts to decrease. At times I feel lonely, even in a room full of people. Whenever I go out with my team, most of them speak Hungarian amongst themselves and include me in a conversation every once in a while. So most of the time I’m on my phone constantly, refreshing my timeline to keep myself entertained. It would definitely be great to have another American to talk to in English about things we relate to culturally; but nonetheless, I always try to have fun, whether I’m talking to someone or not.

Once I get home to myself, I have time to kill. A lot of time to kill. Netflix and Hulu have become two of my best friends, but even they become boring after a while. During these times alone, I’m reminded how much I miss my family and friends. I was able to see them for a week during Christmas time, but it felt like I was only home for a second. FaceTime is great, but nothing can truly capture the essence of physically being in the presence of your loved ones.

Outside of talking to my family and binge-watching shows, I still somehow find time to myself. With so much free time, you begin to learn a lot of new things about yourself that you normally wouldn’t with such a busy schedule. I’m really starting to discover new passions outside of basketball, and I’m growing in knowledge. The most-cherished of them all is my faith in God, and my growing relationship with Him. I’ve personally found a lot of faith is needed in the environment I’m in. With this faith, I have gained a positive outlook on my experience overseas, and I appreciate the strength it has given me.

However, not everyone can say they have had such a positive experience. I’ve heard people tell some terrible overseas stories. Some players don’t get along with their coach or general manager, which therefore causes a lot of tension and makes time playing there miserable. For others, the culture shock is too intense to handle. As one can imagine, it can be challenging to adapt to a situation where everything is different than what you’re used to. If you’re not placed in the right situation, it can be quite mentally taxing.

However, the most common issue that players have is not getting paid on time. Some people have to wait weeks after their original payday until they finally get paid. Any of these issues can cause great stress on a player, and may ultimately force them to leave the situation all together. Thankfully, I am blessed to say I have not experienced this. I know my journey overseas has been less difficult than others, and I am grateful for this everyday. Sure there are challenges that I face day-to-day, but I appreciate them because they have made me a better player and a better person.

My first year of playing basketball overseas has been nowhere near a Hollywood movie, but the experiences I have endured, I will remember for a lifetime. This game of basketball has helped me live a life I used to only dream of. As my season comes to an end and I look back on everything I have been through, I can definitely say that I am blessed.

Playing overseas basketball is never easy, no matter how well you are playing, but it’s all about perspective and what you make of your experience. When I think of one word to describe my journey thus far, I think of the word growth. Reflecting on my first days here untill now, my transformation physically and mentally has been incredible. I thank God everyday for allowing me to open my mind to new ways of living. This growth will carry over to my next journey in life, and I can’t wait to experience the upcoming success that it will bring me.

Erica McCall played for Stanford University from 2013-2017, guiding the Cardinal to a Pac-12 title and a Final Four appearance as a senior. She was drafted by the Indiana Fever and played her rookie season last year.