From tales of narrowly-escaped drug tests, dodgy flights, and suffering through marathon bus trips, to being booted onto the bench and getting mistaken for Michael Jordan in local park: being a foreign basketball player in Argentina is not always smooth ride.
“This league is well-known for being physical and tough,” says Hakeem Rollins, a 28-year-old professional basketball player from the US currently playing for the Paraná-based Centro Juventud Sionista club, one of the top teams in Argentina’s A category in the Liga Nacional. We meet while he is in Buenos Aires for a match against Boca Juniors.
“In my first year, there was one game where for the first five minutes every time I moved up and down the court there was a guy punching me in the stomach. The ref shrugged his shoulders like he didn’t know what was going on, and then eventually he called it. Fouls that you are used to being called in say, university basketball, just don’t get called here. It’s something you have to get used to.”
Rollins, a long-time professional player from Phoenix, came to Argentina in 2008, and knows what it is like being a yanqui amongst Argentines in the world of professional basquetbol.
Basketball in Argentina
Though it gets less attention than national sport, fútbol, basketball here is far more popular than you might think. Theron Smith, another US player who just finished a short-term stint in Argentina, explains that one of the reasons he came to play here was because “it is a top three country in the world as far as Olympic basketball is concerned. That should tell you that the players can really play down here.”
Although many eyes focus on the Argentine national team, whose star players hold spots on top teams in the US NBA league and around the world, the local league is also big business. The process of bringing in foreigners is a big part of that, and agents work from across the continent in order to scout pro-players and send them to Argentina.
The first division of the Liga Nacional has sixteen teams in total across the country. Each team is granted a limit of three of foreign players each year, who are more officially known as “import players.”
Rollins explains that “most [import players] are from the US and already professional players playing abroad, but there are some who come right of out university leagues to work in Argentina.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Rollins adds that one of the top factors attracting so many state-side basketballers to Argentina is money.
“In the US everyone wants to play in the NBA but not everyone can. The next best thing is the development league. If you play in the A class you can make US$40,000 a year, in B class some US$30,000 and in the C class it’s down to US$10-20,000 per year. In Argentina you can earn anything between US$6,000 – US$40,000 per month.”
But while money can draw players to the country, it can just as easily cut their stay short. Smith only received a 3-month contract with BA club Obras, and while the reasoning for his short-term stay wasn’t in writing, there were suspicions to suggest that his wage was too high to be maintained for a long-term gig.
“It’s very common for players to have short contracts or switch teams. Foreign players get changed all the time,” says Rollins. “The Argentines have guaranteed contracts and are signed for a whole year. I mean, we signed real contracts, but the team can release you at any time, for whatever reason they want. That’s kinda how it is down here.”
“There was a guy playing for another team in Corrientes for four years, and this year was his fifth year. They changed coaches and the new coach didn’t really like him as a player. The guy played hard, played well but just didn’t get a lot of touches, so around Christmas time -halfway through the season- they let him go. He didn’t do anything wrong, they just didn’t want him anymore.”
Rollins himself began to play overseas right out of university, though did not move to Argentina immediately. Upon graduating from Washington University, he passed through a diverse selection of countries from Scotland, to Macedonia and Uruguay before landing in Argentina.
Since arriving, he has played at clubs all over the country, including stops in Corrientes (with Club San Martín) and the city of Junín (with Ciclista in the TNA – B league) in Buenos Aires province. His longest stint to date were his two years at Gimnasia club in Comodoro Rivadavia, a remote city located in the southern province of Chubut.
“Moving to Comodoro was the most difficult. I wasn’t too fond of the city as it was smaller than what I was used to and there was a lot less to do. We didn’t get a lot of time off, but when you did you really didn’t want to go and explore. It just wasn’t really that nice. There are no trees, a lot of dirt, scrub. It’s pretty dry even though it’s close to the water. It was also cold and windy.”
While the weather and city weren’t huge attractions while living in Chubut, the other thing about being some 1,875 km from the capital –and a long away from pretty much everywhere – was the travel.
“The flights were interesting because of the weather; in particular in the wind. It was like a rollercoaster every time we came in. I am fine on planes, but I was scared every time we flew into Comodoro. That was the thing about playing down there, its so far away you have to pretty much fly everywhere.”
“To Buenos Aires took two-and-a-half hours by plane. Taking the bus was miserable. It takes 24 hours and is awful. Being tall and having a bunch of big guys on a bus – there just wasn’t enough room. Short trips are ok but long trips, not so much.”
Foreigner at Sea
Despite the harsh local conditions in Comodoro, Rollins says he enjoyed “buena onda” during his time on the team.
“My first year in Comodoro we spent a fair bit of time together outside of practice, we’d have dinners together and go out together. It was nice, a younger group of guys, so everyone just felt more comfortable hanging out together. In my second year it was an older group of guys, so many of them had families and girlfriends, so the opportunities to hang out were much less.”
Regarding language barriers, it helped that by the time he had got to Comodoro, Rollins had been living in Uruguay and Junín and had built up a basic knowledge of Spanish that proved essential.
“I knew enough Spanish to make myself understood. It definitely helps. You wouldn’t want to be down there and unable to speak Spanish. It’s not like Buenos Aires, there aren’t a lot of English speakers.”
On the court, however, Rollins says language plays a minor role. “You really don’t need to use that much Spanish if you’re playing, but if you want to be self-sufficient it helps a lot, and to talk to your teammates.”
After four years, and with his sights set on another location – perhaps Venezuela – after the end of this season, Rollins has plenty of fond memories of his time in Argentina. One particular anecdote concerns a narrow escape for a teammate at a routine drugs test.
Like other national basketball setups, Argentina takes drug use among players very seriously. League-wide policy states that if a player is tested positive for having taken any kind of drugs, they will be banned for two years. Tests are usually unannounced and are carried out about twice a year.
Rollins remembers a particular game, the first after the Christmas break, when test time arrived.
“There was a guy who went home and smoked marihuana, not thinking that they would tested on the first game back. He was worried, because you don’t know who’s been chosen until after the game. They read the names off the list, and he’s on it.
“He was freaking out. So another guy from his team is like ‘ok we have to find a way to get clean urine for him to use’. A condom is suggested, for the drug-free guy to urinate into, being tied off and stuck it to the guilty guy’s leg. There’s a moment where you are left alone in the test, so he had 20 seconds to get the urine into the cup, but he was having trouble to untie the knot. He ends up having to bite it off – tearing off the tie with some of the urine getting into his mouth but managing to pour in some and spitting in the rest.”
The player who this happened to got his lucky strike, and his tests came out clear. “Weed is big. Some guys just can’t help themselves,” Rollins said.
Theron Smith describes a lighter-hearted experience that stood out to him during his time in Buenos Aires when he decided to hang out at the park on a Saturday, kitted out in Jordan gear.
“Some say I look a little like Michael Jordan with my head shaved, and when I was walking through the park a group of people started to follow me. As I walked, more and more people starting joining the crowd. They started chanting “Jordan, Jordan, Jordan!” I tried to tell them I’m not him but the crowd had gotten so big no one could hear me. I ended up signing autographs for two-and-a-half hours.”
Smith has now returned to Florida, and hopes one day he’ll be able to come back and play in Argentina. “I loved everything about my time in Argentina. It was always somewhere I had dreamt of going, and it definitely lived up to my expectations.”