Approaching professional basketball overseas for success
Wearing a red Ohio State t-shirt and black Nike basketball shorts, Scoonie Penn sat on a leather sofa inside his home near Columbus, Ohio. He shares the gorgeous, split-level structure with his beautiful wife and children. The spacious unit features five bedrooms, five baths, encased on the outside by a stone façade, all built upon the strength of a hoop dream realized.
A few miles down the road, Scoonie Penn had once led his alma mater to a Final Four. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year, an All American, and remains today one of the most celebrated Ohio State Buckeye Basketball players of all time.
“It’s a difficult journey”, Scoonie said, while reflecting back on his last eleven seasons as a professional basketball player overseas. “But you’re going to get out of it what you put in. More often than not, you’ll find a lot of the Americans can’t handle it. All of our dreams are to play in the NBA.”
After being drafted 57th overall in 2000 by the Atlanta Hawks, Penn would accept a guaranteed contract offer to play in the Italian League as a rookie. A lucrative overseas playing career would follow over the course of the next decade. But his path to financial success, through the game of basketball, would be as challenging as it was foreign.
“My first year, I was on a team in Italy, a middle of the pack team”, Scoonie recalled. “At the time, the Italian League was the best league in all of Europe; guys like Marko Jaric and Manu Ginobili were there. Carlton Myers, probably one of the best Italians ever was there. It was from top to bottom a great league. Even the good Yugoslavians were there too, everyone was in Italy at the time.
So when I came in, I got thrown into the fire. And my coach, he knew nothing of English. When I say nothing, I mean nothing.”
Twelve years later, Scoonie Penn can now speak Italian. Initially though, equipped with only a couple years of high school Spanish, simply trying to converse with his coaches and teammates was a challenge unto itself. He was alone in a foreign country, unable to communicate freely, while his friends and family remained a million miles away in the United States.
“It was tough for me at first, it was tough, but you adapt”, Penn said. “I was kind of depressed being in Italy the first year. I was thinking, man, I should be in the League.
I would be alone in my apartment. I’d go to the same pizza joint everyday, order the same food, then go home and eat. I didn’t have cable television, Internet wasn’t hooked up right away, it was unreal. I wasn’t with my friends and family, and that was the toughest part. I just started to read, I read a lot of books.”
It’s that initial shock of realizing actually how far away you are from everything you’ve ever known, Scoonie says, that’s most challenging for American professional basketball players trying to make their way overseas.
“That was a dark time for me”, Scoonie admits, “but my escape was basketball. To get over those first couple months, or through them, I just started staying in the gym a lot.
When I eventually got home, I’d eat, read a book, maybe get on the Internet to send an email if it was working. My phone bill was astronomical, but it was a time where I really got to know myself as a person. As that season went on, I ended up playing some of the best basketball of my life as a result”.
Scoonie’s play would capture the attention of powerhouse teams all through Europe. He’d eventually play for clubs like Virtus Roma, Olympiacos, and Elfes Pilsen, in Italy, Greece, and Turkey respectively. He created an opportunity to earn a great living for himself and his family in the process, and now shares his experiences with young pros preparing to make that same leap overseas.
Prior to our meeting, Scoonie had just sat down with former Ohio State stars Jon Diebler, David Lighty, and Dallas Lauderdale. He offers what guidance he can on the overseas experience to anyone who reaches out.
“It’s to the point now where the guys who are going overseas, they’ll call me to find out what’s going on before they go”, Penn said. “I’ll advise them on the pros and the cons, because there are a lot of pros, and a lot of cons.
But my main message is that you have to go overseas with the right mindset”, he explained. “Go there to get better, and then come back. Don’t go there depressed, and think about how you’re not in the League. That’s everyone’s downfall.
The problem is, when a lot of the Americans get over there, it’s like they’re hung up on not being in the League. That clouds your mind from taking care of business while you’re there.
I tell guys that you have to be thinking about where you’re at and what you have, instead of where you’re not and what you don’t have. If you’re not focused, they’ll just cut you, and then you’re stuck with nowhere to go.”
As his first year in Italy went on, Scoonie says the game of basketball itself helped to break down those foreign barriers that initially appear so overwhelming to many.
“Come game time that first year, my coach would be yelling at us in Italian. He’s in the huddle, speaking a foreign language, looking right at me while he’s drawing up a play because I’m the point guard.
But even though I can’t understand a word he’s saying, I began to understand what he wanted because I knew what the right basketball play was in that situation.
So even though I maybe didn’t understand what he said, I’d understand what he wanted. Eventually, what happened, was that the game of basketball translated the language for me.”
Which is why Scoonie’s main message for American pros overseas is to stay as close to the game as possible.
“The language barrier, being away from your friends and family, everything outside the court, it might be difficult at first to learn and understand. But you’re job is to play basketball. So I tell these guys, when you go, put that time in the gym. Remember why you are there.
“A lot of Americans, they’ll do the same things I did, but the thing is, can you get over that hump? The first three months are going to be tough. But if you can you get past Christmas, you’ll create a lot of opportunities for yourself and your family.”
Those opportunities include bigger paychecks from more prominent overseas clubs, as well as the chance of catching an NBA scout’s attention if you remain focused on the task at hand.
“There are more NBA scouts in Europe than are here nowadays”, Penn said. “They see guys all the time. The scouts are there at all the big games overseas, and even the smaller games they’ll be there. There are scouts all over.
If you’re starting out in a situation where it’s not a good team, or you’re not making big money at first, just make sure you play well. If you do that, you’ll set yourself up to make more money next year, and then you’ll have leverage.
If you play well in Europe, handle yourself well, and the NBA doesn’t work out, you’ll have another place to come back to. But if you go there and you mess this up, now you’re stuck. You don’t make it in the League, then where you going go? You’re career could be over.”
Scoonie Penn is now retired from professional basketball, on his own terms. His family later joined him in Greece after his first couple seasons overseas, and stayed with him through the remainder of his career.
The Penn family made stops in Serbia, Croatia and the Ukraine, as well as in Greece while Scoonie starred for Olympiacos. His children attended International School while abroad, and his family stays in touch with friends and teammates they met all over the world.
Scoonie Penn is now a Basketball Mentor and Educator in the Columbus, OH area. He recently launched the 5-on-5 T.O.U.C.H Hoops Classic this past July; an annual event he created to support the charity organization Teaching Opportunity Unity by Connecting Hearts. A mentoring program supported by Scoonie to assist the formerly incarcerated.