GENEVA — Women from the United States are beginning to give European basketball a much-needed shot in the arm but the transfusion is no easy process.
Although still not on the level of former NBA stars like Bob McAdoo in Italy in salaries and fan appreciation, former stars like Lorraine Ferret of the University of Missouri and U.S. Olympic team player Patrina Trice from the University of North Carolina are trying to upgrade European basketball, and to have some fun.
"Basketball was a business in college," says six-footer Ferret, who has played in Switzerland since 1983. "I came here to ski and have other experiences, although the money and competition were better in Italy."
The first foreigner to play in Switzerland, the 26-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, now speaks Italian and German as well as averaging nearly 40 points a game.
"When I first played here it was like high-school, a joke," she said in an interview. Since then, Tina Hutchinson of San Diego State and Olivia Bradley, both former students of Ferret at a basketball camp in the United States, have followed her.
"The basketball in Switzerland is better now, but it's only Division II or Division III," said Ferret.
Trice, from Norfolk, Va., is starring for Celta Citroen in Spain, where there are 10 American women in the 12-team league. U.S. women are brought over to "add excitement to the games and to increase the Spaniards level of play," according to Enrique Prat, a Spanish women's league official. He said clubs in Spain have an average budget of $166,000, with crowds averaging 1,500 for regular season games.
American players suffer from changes in food, lifestyle and isolation from their families, according to Celta Citroen President Victorio Alonso. "It's understandable and we try to help as much as we can. We're paying for Spanish classes for Patrina," he said.
The Americans, who often score more than half their team's points, are constantly in the limelight.
"It's a pressure-filled role," said Wanda Ford of Cleveland, who plays for Fontvela Manresa near Barcelona. "Since you're the star, you are more on the spot to perform your best at all times."
She said her Spanish teammates range in age from 15 to 19 and that most speak English. "The coaches and players still have a lot to learn about basketball, but they work hard," she said.
Nearly all of the 100 American women who play for European clubs are represented by Bruce Levy Assn. About 40% of them just play for expenses while the others make "real money," Levy said.
Denise Curry, who starred at UCLA and had a spot on the U.S. women's gold-winning medal team in the 1984 Olympics, has one of the best deals in French basketball. Her team, Stade Francais, provides a car and as well as room and board.
Curry is breaking all the scoring records in her third year on the Versailles team and is reported to earn $1,200 a month, compared to the $20,000 to $30,000 a year for top players in Spain.
In Sweden, where only six Americans are playing in the 10-team elite division this year, "Every American star gets paid," said a Swedish basketball federation spokesman. "We don't disclose any salaries, but no American player makes more than $15,000 a season."
Ferret, who jumped from $5,000 to $15,000 after one season with Mauraltese in Italian-speaking Switzerland, said she is leaving Switzerland next month because of injuries and disenchantment.
"I liked being here and many of the people were just great. But I still don't feel I get enough respect. We, the Americans, are true mercenaries and after five years I need to get out."
The top scorer in Switzerland, Janice Walker, who started with Swiss Cup finalists Pully, has no moving plans. With Pully, she averaged 40 points a game.
After one season, Walker, 26, transferred to BBC Baden, ranked seventh in the Swiss League. "We immediately accepted Levy's conditions, $1,500 a month plus apartment," said club treasurer Andrin Waldburger. "We believe a top American player like her is our life insurance."