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After College, American Stars Play Overseas--or Not at All

January 10, 1989|LONNIE WHITE | Times Staff Writer

The similarities between Michael Jordan and Cheryl Miller are striking.

They both were consensus All-Americans who led their teams to National Collegiate Athletic Assn. titles as sophomores and were named James Naismith Award winners as juniors. And both won gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

But here is where the similarity ends.

Jordan was able to parlay his collegiate success into a career in the National Basketball Assn. For Miller, however, playing professional basketball in the United States was no more than a dream.

"I really think it stinks that women cannot continue with their playing careers here in the United States," said Miller, who has not played competitively since the 1987 World Championships and is now a broadcaster for ABC Sports.

It's easy to follow the careers of the men who come out of college with big reputations and earn big paychecks. But those options don't exist for women.

They can find a job in the United States, practice hard and try out for the next Olympic team. Or they can travel overseas to play professionally in countries such as Italy, Spain and Japan while retaining their amateur status. Or they can retire from basketball.

Players such as 1984 Olympian Anne Donovan, who graduated from Old Dominion in 1983, and 1988 Olympian Cynthia Cooper, who graduated from USC in 1986, elected to continue practicing in the hopes of another Olympic medal.

Eight players on the 1988 U.S. women's team had played their last collegiate game more than a year before the Olympics, compared to only one (David Robinson) on the men's team.

Many U.S. players have found a new playing life abroad. Three former USC players, Cooper and Pam and Paula McGee, are playing in Italy, as are Donovan and former Cal State Long Beach player LaTaunya Pollard. Cindy Brown, a 1988 Olympian and former Cal State Long Beach standout, is playing in Japan.

Players who compete overseas are still considered amateurs because they are regarded as employees of the companies that own the teams.

After Cooper graduated from USC, she played for a year in Spain before moving to Italy last season, when she led the Italian Federation League in scoring with an average of 40 points for her team, Primizie Parma.

"I love it over here, in that I am not playing behind the shadow of anyone," said Cooper, who played on USC's national championship teams of 1983 and 1984. "I am getting a chance to fulfill a dream."

In Italy, there are no high school or college teams, only clubs. There are about 30 clubs, divided into several divisions, and most of the Americans play in the First Division.

"The crowds here are rowdy," Cooper said. "They really get on the referees here. If they feel that the referees cheated, they throw coins at him and spit on the opposing coaches.

"The officiating here is pretty weak. They let the Italian players get away with a lot of physical abuse on the Americans.

"I have to look toward this as a business now, because the physical demand is so much that the fun is gone."

Cooper is paid well by league standards, about $80,000, tax free, a year.

"Cooper is very important to the team and the league," said team president Johnny Bertolazzi. "She is a star. She is known all over the country, and everyone loves her. Everyone wants to meet and be with her."

Cooper has adapted to the Italian life style and can speak the language well enough to get by.

"It is very frustrating sometimes with the lack of communication," said Cooper, whose team also plays in the European Cup, a playoff of Europe's top club teams. "I am glad to be playing, but I plan to play just 2 more years here before moving on to other things."

In 1983, LaTaunya Pollard was the first West Coast player to win the Wade Trophy, one of the top awards in women's basketball. She was a two-time consensus All-American and is Cal State Long Beach's career scoring leader with 3,001 points. But after college, she had knee surgery, which caused her to lose her spot on the 1984 Olympic team.

Now, nearly 6 years later, Pollard is married, has a 1-year-old daughter and is playing professionally in Italy.

"It is a shame that you have to go so far away to play," said Pollard, who spent 1986 coaching at Long Beach while finishing her degree in physical education.

"When I first came over here in 1983, you could have only one American to a team, and they didn't pay well. Now, things have changed. With only soccer to compete with, women's basketball has really taken off.

"I play for one of the richest teams in the league (Sidis Ancona, which is a grocery store chain). I hope to continue to have a good year so I can ask for whatever I want next season."

Pollard plays in Ancona, which is a small city about a 4-hour drive from Rome. It is her third club in the 4 seasons she has been in Italy.

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