Hi Teammates! I have been to 4 of the European basketball championships (going to Greece vs. Germany tonight) and watching the games reminded me of an important topic. American-born players who play for foreign countries on their national teams. Outside of Europe, I think many of these players fly under the radar and there are a lot of positive effects to becoming a citizen of an EU country. I too am a citizen of a foreign country and played on the Austrian national team so I know exactly what it is like.
During this round of the European Championships, 17 American-born players have the citizenship of another country. The reasons may vary greatly, but one thing all these players have in common is that they were accepted by their “adopted” countries and were given a chance to better their careers.
Why would an American take the nationality of another country just to play ball? As I said, the reasons vary and each player has their reasons but one common denominator is of course money. As a member of an EU country, it will allow the player to work (play ball) and live in any other EU country as one of their own. For example, I obtained Austrian citizenship in 2000. The next season, I moved on to France where I was able to play technically as a French player because I did not take up a foreign spot on the roster. We were able to hire two American players but we had 3, me being the third.
That made me more valuable and I was also paid accordingly. Since then there have been ruling changes concerning foreign players but in general, an American with an EU passport is very valuable. It also allows the teams to forgo a lot of the Visa and work permit problems that they face when hiring an American player.
Back to the national teams…each country is only allowed 1 Naturalized citizen to play on the national team. If you are chosen to play on a national team, you are usually a veteran player, have played in the country where you will be gaining citizenship, and have gained respect for being a very good player that can ultimately help the national team. I played 5 seasons in Austria before obtaining citizenship. However, it can also be different as was the case with Jaleen Smith.
Jaleen has played his whole career in Germany and now plays for Alba Berlin, one of the top addresses in Europe. Jaleen has never played in Croatia except for the occasional Euroleague game, yet, when Croatia figured they needed a top PG for the European Championships to get them over the hump, they made the call to Jaleen. I am sure they had compiled a list of American players that came into question, but in the end, they decided Jaleen would be the best fit.
After the initial call, it took a few weeks and he was a Croatian citizen and a member of the national team. This is not normal. This was the exception rather than the rule but if a national team has good connections, it can happen just that fast. Some people think it is not right or fair, but what you have to remember is that basketball on that level is also a business. It is not pickup basketball, but a prestige and money-driven business. As an athlete, if you are provided with such an opportunity, there are not a lot of negatives and you kind of HAVE to take it.
I have to admit, I was not at the playing level of Jaleen, Shane Larkin (Turkey), Nick Weiler-Babb (Germany), or A.J. Slaughter (Poland), and Austria is not the powerhouse of European basketball. I still experienced a huge salary after getting the Austrian passport compared to when I played as an American player. My market value increased for the remaining 8 seasons of my career partly because of that…and I wasn’t too shabby either haha.
It also had another positive impact on my life. I had decided a long time ago that I would be living someplace in Europe when my playing career ended. It made things much easier for me to live here as well. I can live and work any job, anywhere in Europe without any problem. If I want to live in Italy and work…I am free to do so without Visa issues. I have settled in Germany, but I can literally live and work anywhere in the EU whereas people from outside the EU have to jump through hoops and ladders to obtain visas and work permits.
I do not know if any of these current players or any other players that have EU citizenship will take the route I chose by staying here permanently, but at least it is a viable option for their future. Playing for a foreign national team will bring these players so much exposure and their market value will rise which is important because players only have a few years to earn money as an athlete.
I can say that my situation was a blessing not only for my athletic career but also for my future. So the next time you see an American playing for a foreign-born, realize that the player is probably a very high-level player, and it is an honor to represent another country.