Former Sacramento State basketball stars Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney, along with Josh Ritchart of UC Davis, are about to embark on professional careers overseas.
Mark Payne, a former UCD standout, has some sage advice for the trio.
“The first three months are going to be the toughest, so don’t quit,” Payne said. “You are going to be lonely. You’ll miss your friends and family. It will be a culture shock. There were many times when I wanted to quit and come home. I’m glad I stuck it out.”
Five years later, through a half dozen stops in three countries, the 6-foot-8 Payne has developed into one of the top American players in Europe.
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Last season with Champagne Chalons-Reims of the Ligue Nationale de Basket Pro A, France’s top league, the swingman was one of two Americans to make the five-man first team. Nicknamed the “Swiss Army Knife” for his versatility, Payne averaged 15.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists for a team that finished 17-17 in the 18-team league.
Payne’s performance landed him a lucrative contract with Limoges CSP, the two-time defending Pro A champion. Limoges plays in the 24-team Euroleague, Europe’s highest level.
When we’re home, we stay in the same room where I grew up, so that seems a little strange. But when we’re in Europe, we develop bonds with the other players and their wives. We’re like a family, so it’s been a good experience.
Melanie Payne, on living in Europe with basketball-playing husband Mark Payne
“I’m thrilled to make the jump, though it was tough leaving my old team,” said Payne, 27. “But now I’m on a team that will compete against the best teams throughout Europe.”
Payne has steadily progressed as a pro. He started his career with a season in Spain and two in Greece before moving to France last year. Along the way, he and his wife, Melanie, acclimated themselves to new cultures and three languages.
He and Melanie, a former UCD and Oak Ridge High School volleyball player, return to the States each summer, when they spend two months with Mark’s parents in Colorado or Melanie’s parents in El Dorado Hills.
“When we’re home, we stay in the same room where I grew up, so that seems a little strange,” Melanie said about living out of a suitcase. “But when we’re in Europe, we develop bonds with the other players and their wives. We’re like a family, so it’s been a good experience.”
It can also be a surreal experience, as it was when they lived in Greece, which has been plagued by protests and riots in recent years because of economic turmoil. The chaos can spread to sports arenas, where fans sometimes set off road flares in the stands and sing, hiss and boo amid the haze. Players often have to dodge projectiles from the stands.
“It’s a lot crazier than the States or anything I experienced playing at Davis,” said Payne, who left the area this week for training camp. “France is a little more tame.”
Top players in Europe’s elite levels can earn $300,000 or more annually. Perks include team-sponsored lodging and transportation.
“The main thing that is so beneficial is that the team pays my taxes,” Payne said. “For sure, the money and the benefits make it all worth it to keep going. It also cuts down the number of years I have to work in an office.”
I can’t believe how all this has worked out. When I was in high school, I never thought I’d play college ball, let alone professionally. I couldn’t fathom it.
Mark Payne, on playing professional basketball in Europe
Payne earned an economics degree at UCD and is studying to become a certified financial planner. With that background, Payne is hesitant to return home and attempt a jump to the NBA.
“I’m a conservative guy,” Payne said. “I don’t like to roll the dice. I could have come back and tried out for (an NBA) team, but that would mean passing up on guaranteed money.”
Hundreds of former college basketball players compete in leagues at various levels worldwide.
Jared Waters, who helps train Payne during the offseason, thinks playing overseas is a better option than the NBA Development League for most.
“I tell guys who are so bent on trying to be in the NBA that they are not going to make as much money and that it’s really hard to stick and get a contract,” Waters said. “Mark has gone overseas and played in some of the nicest countries in the world, some of the nicest leagues in the world all because he was willing to take the opportunity. There are so many teams, so many players and so many different avenues for players to be successful.”
Waters played at Division II Cal State East Bay and for two lower-tier pro teams in Italy. He said playing overseas helped him “grow as a person.”
“You have to have an open mind,” he said. “It’s a culture shock, but you accept it and you embrace it. I got to see 10 or 12 countries while over there. You are getting paid to travel and play basketball. What more could you want?”
Waters said Payne’s work ethic, versatility and precise shooting helped him establish a career overseas. He said Payne is perfect for the game in Europe, where the players are more skilled, though perhaps not as athletic as many of their NBA counterparts.
“I remember when I played against him when he was at Davis,” Waters said. “He was (6-8) and playing point guard. He does all the little things, the fundamental things, really well.”
Payne marvels at how far he has come since high school, where at St. Mary’s in Stockton he said he was largely a role player.
But he averaged 10.0 points and 6.0 assists as a senior for a Rams team that reached the CIF Division III state final in 2006. That led to a partial scholarship offer to UCD, where Payne developed into one of the school’s all-time top players. He ranks seventh in school history with 1,382 career points.
“I can’t believe how all this has worked out,” Payne said. “When I was in high school, I never thought I’d play college ball, let alone professionally. I couldn’t fathom it.
“So UC Davis was a great experience for me. I met my wife there, and even though (the Aggies) weren’t that successful (46-79 from 2007-08 to 2010-11), it certainly didn’t hurt me career-wise.”
Some former area men’s basketball players who played overseas last season and/or are playing there this season:
Vista del Lago
x-Thames is now playing in the NBA Development League; y-U’u retired in April