The Family Life of an Overseas Professional Basketball Player
John Gilchrist’s overseas basketball career began in 2006, when he left the University of Maryland on the chance he would be selected in the NBA draft. When he wasn’t selected, he was offered the opportunity to play professional ball overseas. Since 2006, Gilchrist has played for several successful overseas teams. We detailed John’s journey previously on this site in a three-part series. Mikaela Samuel is John Gilchrist’s partner and fiancée. She has graciously taken time to share a glimpse of the challenges, experiences, and unique dynamics that couples and/or families face when a spouse makes an income playing abroad. Her interview is the first part of a two-part interview series that will also include interviews with two spouses of pro ball players who play abroad.
AA: Mikaela, where and when did you and John meet?
MS: John and I met in high school. We met my freshman year, his sophomore year. I was a cheerleader and he played on the basketball team. We ran in the same circle of people. We started dating my sophomore year.
AA: When John left for college at the University of Maryland where were you in school?
MS: When John went away to school, he was a year older than me. I was still in Virginia Beach—where I am now, and then the next year I attended Virginia Tech. So we kind of broke up then and we were doing two different things with our lives being in different places.
AA: Did you stay in touch?
MS: We stayed in touch. We were always very good friends, but it was a bit distant. John was very busy with basketball. He takes it very seriously, which I have always admired. He has such a great work ethic. I never wanted to be a distraction for him. It was a good time for us to focus on ourselves.
AA: The time to grow as individuals?
MS: Grow — exactly.
AA: When did you get back together?
MS: He turned professional my junior year of college and we kept in touch when he was at Maryland. When he played for Maryland, they played Virginia Tech a few times. We would always see each other at the games if we didn’t cross paths at home. The next year he left school and turned pro. It was just basketball for him and no longer school and basketball. It gave him time to reflect. We kept in touch a lot more through e-mail while he was away in Israel. In the summer he was getting ready to leave to return to Israel, I was at college. I was very involved in college and pretty much stayed at school throughout the year. I didn’t return home that much, but John asked me to come home because he wanted to talk [and] catch up because it had been a while. I decided to make the 5-hour drive home to Virginia Beach for the day. We spent time catching up and went out on a date and from there we kept in touch constantly. We got back together in the summer before my senior year of college.
AA: Was it just one of those things where you’re always in touch but nothing happens until there’s a certain maturity and readiness?
MS: Definitely, it kind of happened that way which was the beauty of it all, because sometimes you think when something ends, you think that’s it. But we always kept in touch and with maturity on both ends, it just fell into place.
AA: That’s a neat story. What is your profession?
MS: I am a special education high school teacher. I teach algebra and geometry. It’s very interesting, never a dull moment.
AA: How long have you been a teacher?
MS: This is my first year as a full time teacher.
AA: You returned to graduate school for a teaching degree?
MS: Yes, I’m still working on my Master’s Degree. I graduated from Virginia Tech in 2007 and the following year I went and lived with John in Israel for half of 2008. When I went over there, I began my master’s program online.
AA: The convenience of technology…
MS: It definitely made it a lot more convenient. I was able to do something for myself while I was living in Israel, especially with not having any friends or family—my class work made it a lot easier to adjust to living abroad.
AA: Do the overseas leagues provide partners of players with support groups or involve family members in charity work through the team?
MS: No, not that I am aware of.
AA: Were you introduced to the other players spouses/significant others?
MS: Most of the players and their partners are from Israel. Although one couple was from Serbia. The player’s wife and I were the only two foreigners, so we hung out together which helped. We would attend the games together, or while the guys were involved in basketball practice, we would go and work out at the gym. It made it easier to just have someone to talk to, even though there was a language barrier. But it worked out because she was able to improve her English by talking to me everyday. With time, it was easier to communicate with each other. But there weren’t any groups or activities through the organization for the wives and girlfriends. I think the experience would be a lot easier if there were things set in place by the organization. Both the players and their families don’t know what to expect when they go to a foreign country, unless you are fortunate enough to cross paths with someone who happened to go to that country and team before. John’s perspective as a player is a lot different from my perspective because he’s there playing and he automatically has a connection through his job with the team.
AA: NBA teams have associations with charities and organizations which connect players and their family to the community. Are there any programs in place through the teams overseas?
MS: I know that the overseas teams do have connections with local charities and the players do put on basketball clinics and make presentations on behalf of the teams. But there wasn’t anything that I was aware of for the family members to take part in.
AA: Do the organizations offer any activities or services for the wives and girlfriends?
MS: Not particularly. From my experience, they are very, very nice. I know that’s not how it is everywhere, but the organizations do ask players about their family status. They did help here and there by letting me use the gym or recreation facilities. Once I had even gotten sick, and the team was able to let me see the team doctor.
AA: Now that you are back in the United States and working, how does your profession as a teacher coordinate with John’s off-season schedule?
MS: Our vacations synchronize. John usually returns to the United States around late May, early June, depending on how successful his team is in the playoffs. The school year for me ends in June. It works out really well because we usually spend most of the summer together, except when John goes to play in tournaments or plays in a summer league.
AA: How often do you visit him when he’s abroad now that you are working in the United States?
MS: During the season, I usually see him around Christmas. Sometimes, he can come home or if he can’t return home I will go and visit him. When I was in college, I would go around Thanksgiving because I had more time off.
AA: Do you have two weeks vacation at Christmas?
MS: We do have about two weeks. I end up taking a few personal days when I visit him. When he is in a country as far away as Australia, it takes a whole day of travel. To go for one week would be just arriving and then turning back around.
AA: Pretty exhausting. In a way though, the arrangement appears to be working for you because it gives you time to focus on getting through the school year and gives him time to focus on basketball.
MS: Yes, we know we are working hard to secure our futures, and build our lives together. We are getting married this summer, June 2010. This year is a big year for us to get our careers together and on track.
AA: Do you think things will change after you are married?
MS: I think they may change a little bit. I don’t think it will change right away. To everyone on the outside, it seems a little crazy. It’s hard for people to understand [that] we don’t spend the whole year together. There are two types of reactions from colleagues and friends. Those who say, “I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t be alone.” But I don’t feel alone. We are in contact all the time. Other people say, “that’s so cool and glamorous.”
AA: How do you stay in contact?
MS: It is really convenient with all the technology today. We talk on Skype, text, instant message, you name it… I talk with him at least three or four times a day.
AA: A few years ago you couldn’t do that. Calling costs were prohibitive.
MS: It’s really cool. With Skype, I can call him computer to computer. We can web and video chat and everything is free!
AA: When I was preparing for this interview, I was thinking your relationship has some similarities of a military relationship, except he’s not being shot at and you know where he is on a daily basis and what he’s doing. But he’s away for extended periods of time and you pretty much only see him on vacations. How would you describe it?
MS: You know we often say that it is similar to a military lifestyle. It’s funny because I identify a lot with that idea. I have a lot of co-workers who have military spouses or boyfriends and we identify with the same things. We get up at odd hours to talk on the computer because of the time difference. Or we count down the days when we will see them again. Where I live in Virginia Beach it’s a huge military area. The majority of our area is run by the military. There are three major bases here. Being separated for lengthy periods of time is actually pretty normal around here.
AA: Even NBA players or minor leaguers in the U.S. are away for weeks at a time because of a teams travel schedule. Although, they are never all that far from home…
MS: John always says that too. Even if he were playing in the states, he’s wouldn’t be here. When he was participating in his first season in the “D-League” (National Basketball Development League), I went to Los Angeles with him and he was there playing for The Defenders, but he wasn’t around a lot because he was working. It doesn’t seem odd for us to be separated during the year.
AA: I would imagine the biggest issue that would detract from this lifestyle arrangement would be if you had children. Am I right?
MS: Exactly. We joke about it all the time. But we create our own holidays and birthdays because we usually miss those dates. For his birthday one year, he was in Italy playing for a Euroleague team and I ended up having a birthday cake put in his room. He had been in the states a few days before, but he was away for his actual birthday. These are the ways we roll with the punches.
AA: The soft touches really create an impression and keep you connected.
MS: Those are things we try to do for each other. Spending time apart makes us stronger as a couple because when we are together we appreciate each other and our time together. We don’t live by the norms of many people, but we create our own memories, through the soft touches. We always say in twenty years, we will look back on this time and will have so many shared memories.
AA: Do the overseas league organizations provide a travel allowance for families to come and visit?
MS: It depends. Some organizations include that stipulation in the contract; other organizations don’t. The player may need to have this negotiated as part of the contract. Some players take their whole family with them every year.
AA: When a player’s child is school age, parents then need to decide whether to place their child in a private or public school. How are those details worked out?
MS: I think it depends on what area a player is living in. Usually if a player is living in a major city, there is an American school around where classes are taught in English. Sometimes parents will send their child to a public school and the child learns to speak the language. Usually kids have an easier time adapting to the move because they are so young. I don’t know if any of John’s teammates have children of high school age.
AA: Do the league organizations help players find housing while they are living in the country? Do they provide housing for the players and their families as part of the contract?
MS: They definitely help with that. The cost of rent may come out of a player’s salary. It depends on the agreement within the contract. But the organizations do help find housing for the players. When a player brings their family and has two or three children, they may need to rent a house. The team provides standard accommodations for the players. The same applies to transportation.
AA: Does John live in an apartment?
MS: Yes, he lives in an apartment. He lives alone, no roommates. Although, some players prefer roommates and they try to live closer to other Americans, so they have a support system nearby.
AA: I imagine it can become lonely every once in awhile and there would be a desire to spend time with someone who understands what you are missing culturally.
MS: Definitely. We are from Virginia and we’ll meet players from Texas, Georgia, California, or Missouri, and its funny how much these guys have in common because they are out of the country. There are only two or three Americans per team.
AA: What are some challenging issues with John playing overseas, beyond the obvious, distance?
MS: Besides distance—which is working out okay for us—there are still days where I wish I could be at his games. If he’s had a bad day or just to be there to support him. We bounce ideas off of each other and there are days it’s hard not being able to be there for him.
AA: Being there in person having that one-on-one?
MS: Exactly, and sometimes, I become sad thinking he goes to play his games and no one is there for him in the stands. Sometimes that bothers me.
AA: I imagine planning your June 2010 wedding is a challenge. How are you working that out?
MS: It’s difficult sometimes because he’s not here. We decided to keep it small because we don’t know what his playing schedule is going to be. I guess that would be another challenge, scheduling. We have to keep an open schedule because if some great opportunity arises, I want him to be able to take it. I support him 100% because his dream is my dream. I want him to do well and succeed. When he is home, he could be called to tryout for a team or play in a tournament or league.
AA: Is the notice that quick? Do those opportunities and choices arise that quickly, out of the blue?
MS: They can. Sometimes he may get a bit of pre-warning. But like this year, his agent contacted him about the Australian team, he tried out, and it was a matter of a few days before he left and he’s been away since then…
AA: So it seems, another challenge is the possibility of sudden change?
MS: Right, we just rearrange things. Last year with his grandmother being ill, he chose to remain at home. It was different for us because he was home for most of the year. Then, the opportunity to go to Australia and play popped up and it happened quickly. I was happy for him, but we had to rearrange our lives a bit.
AA: What are the advantages and rewards for you being the future wife of a professional athlete who primarily works overseas?
MS: I would say just based on his job he’s able to travel and see and experience different things. Whether or not I am there to experience them with him, he comes back and shares it with me. We both have a global view, which is important. Not everyone has the opportunity, not even my friends of military spouses. They don’t often get to visit the places and share the experiences. Because of military confidentiality and security, my friends may not even know what their spouse is doing. Seeing John happy and doing what he loves makes me happy!
AA: Did you grow up playing a sport? It sounds like you participated as a cheerleader which incorporates gymnastics and dance. I think cheerleading is a potentially dangerous sport.
MS: Yes, it is pretty dangerous. I’ve participated in cheering and dance. I danced from when I was two years old until I completed high school. I began cheering in elementary school and throughout high school. Cheering is pretty dangerous—I got a concussion from cheering in the ninth grade.
AA: That doesn’t surprise me… But I’m surprised we don’t hear about that happening more often.
MS: Cheering is one of those sports that you have to be committed to. No one is going to volunteer to do that if they aren’t committed to it. It’s a team sport. Everyone depends on the next person. There’s no individuality in it whatsoever. If one person falls or one person doesn’t stick it, everything fails.
AA: It’s balance and timing. If one member throws off the synchronicity, you need a back up plan.
MS: Exactly. You learn lots of life lessons from cheering. You have to know who’s on your team and what differences you may have. You have to come together. By the end of every season, all team members are inseparable because you need to be that way.
AA: Do you feel your athletic experience helps you understand John’s career better?
MS: I understand the dedication it takes in being an athlete. Those days when he is home and working out, which is almost everyday, he’ll go and spend five or six hours at the gym shooting and lifting as part of his training. I go with him to work out, or sometimes in the backyard, gym or recreation center, I’ll pass him the ball maybe 200 times while he practices. I do it because I understand the dedication it takes. At times, I am able to say, “Hey when you made those five in a row, you kind of did this with your wrist.” I may not know the technical term, but being a former athlete, I enjoy doing those things because we can do them together. It’s the little things we do together while he is here. I understand why he’s doing it.
AA: Will you continue to work after your marriage in June?
MS: I want to continue to work after we are married. Once we decide to live in the same place and he’s still playing, I would still like to work. As we were discussing earlier, there aren’t any support systems that are set up right now for me to find a job, or other services while in a foreign country.
AA: What are some of the support services you think would be helpful for families who have family members playing abroad?
MS: Educating families as to what to expect of the lifestyle comes to mind. Most people probably don’t know that the playing jobs change every year or couple of years. Families pick up and move every couple of years to another country. Then they start all over again. Having access to resources or a point of contact, so we can share information would be helpful. Although I do stay in touch with women I’ve met over the past few years through Facebook. When the players play in different countries, they may get a point of contact—maybe a veteran on the team who knows his way around town and can tell John (or other players) things about the city. What to expect in the weather, what parts of town to avoid, where to shop, etc. It would be helpful if the families had this type of resource. Other useful information would include suggestions such as recommended schools, best places to shop, etc.
AA: What issues do you feel would be helpful for families that spend time apart to be aware of?
MS: A lot of families and friends do not understand how the overseas system works. The change and potential instability of professional sports as a whole is very odd. There are many trials and tribulations. Sometimes a player receives a one or two-year contract and situations can change. The team may go in a different direction and release a player or the player may go to another team. A player may be playing in a different country each year. For a lot of families it’s overwhelming, if you don’t really understand how it all works. Some people look at the life and think it’s really cool, and awesome, other people need more stability.
AA: Does it create a need to be more financially conservative? Does the team provide disability insurance?
MS: A lot of things overseas are not covered the way they are here. It’s different within each country. A player has medical/dental coverage through the team or they see the team physician, but it does tend to make you more financially conservative because you don’t know year to year how things will work out.
AA: So no pension fund?
MS: Players arrange that on their own or their agent helps set this up, but the team or organization doesn’t provide it. Another challenge is the lack of stability. If something happens and a player is out of a job, you can weather the storm if you’ve been financially conservative. But it’s different from living and working in the United States. If a player is fired from a team for some reason that doesn’t seem fair, in the United States there are more resources to draw from. Every country has different rules.
AA: Is there anything else you’d like to add? You’ve been incredibly helpful and generous with your time and insights. What’s your last piece of advice you would like to give to families of players who play overseas?
MS: What works for John and I is that we share a really strong support system. We also have time apart which makes our relationship stronger. There are ups and downs, as in every relationship. There are moments when things cave in and we pick each other up and deal with it. It’s not the end of the world and something will come along that will be better. You can’t be scared. It’s what we are doing now as we work towards our future. We have goals for ourselves and our relationship—it’s just all part of the journey!
AA: Mikaela, thank you for your time. It’s seems you and John have created a great relationship, and we hope others can draw from your experiences to help better their own relationships and situations.
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