This morning, there’s a story in Milwaukee’s Journal Times about the Bucks’ restricted free agent, Charlie Bell. There have been ongoing negotiations between Bell’s camp and the team during the summer, but all reports say that the two sides are still far apart.
Enter Olympiacos. Reportedly, the Greek superteam has offered the 27-year old Bell a two-year deal worth $10 million. Supposedly, the best that the Bucks have put on the table is an offer of three years, $9 million. Milwaukee has already shelled out huge free agent dollars for Mo Williams this summer (a reported six-year, $52 million deal), making another big contract unlikely. And something that’s not mentioned in the report? Bell’s Olympiacos contract would be tax-free. That, coupled with the fact that Charlie’s already been a superstar in Europe, makes it seem more and more likely that he’s gonna be out.
For Dime 35, our Associate Editor, Austin Burton, got up with Charlie to talk about what it’s like to be an American basketball star in Europe. The following appears in that issue, on newsstands now…
A national championship and two other Final Four appearances at Michigan State weren’t enough to get Charlie Bell’s name called in the 2001 NBA Draft. After a short stint in the NBA and the American minor leagues, he went overseas to play for some of the top international teams in Italy and Spain, and became a star. In 2005, Charlie walked away from a high six-figure salary and national icon status in Spain to take a pay cut and sign with the Bucks. Last season he made 64 starts for Milwaukee, averaging 13.5 points, three assists and 1.2 steals per game, and should cash in as a free agent this summer. Here he talks about his experience playing overseas.
“When I first went overseas, it was after I had been released by the Suns and Mavericks and had played in the ABA for a minute. I was ready for a change. I knew players could make good money in Europe, but I’d also heard horror stories about guys not getting their money. It was a risk, but I was ready to try something new. I was scared a little bit, going far away from home, and after my first three months in Italy I was so ready to go home. It was a culture shock, but I ended up enjoying it.
“In Italy, it’s similar to a college-type atmosphere. The fans are really into the sport. Soccer is the main thing over there, but basketball is starting to grow. As seriously as the fans took it – chanting the whole game – made it a fun experience.
“The first time I went to Italy I was playing with Benetton Treviso. Mike D’Antoni was the coach at the time. The biggest culture shock was just going out to eat. I ordered some kind of shrimp salad the one time, and the shrimp still had the heads on it! The eyes were sticking out, and you have to take the heads off yourself. We were like, ‘Whoa, hold on.’ In Spain, octopus is a big thing they eat. The first time I saw it I was like, ‘I ain’t about to eat this!’
“The teams take care of your apartment and your car. They’ll take you around and show you three or four different living situations you can stay in, and you basically have a car waiting for you. The cars over there are all manual, though, not automatic like in the U.S. You have to learn to drive stick shift if you don’t know already; it took me two or three days of driving around the parking lot to get it down. My wife knew how to drive one, but I had a lot of herky-jerky going on.
“The language barrier was an issue. Anytime you go somewhere and they speak a totally different language it’s going to be like that. I stayed in a smaller Italian city where no one spoke English. You had to know a little Italian. Even if you don’t know the word for ‘eggs,’ you still need food, so you learn to do sign language pretty good.
“When I was in Treviso, we were looked at as celebrities, but we weren’t as big as the soccer team there. When I was in Spain and leading the league in scoring, I was really popular there. People would come up to me like, ‘Charlie Bell, you’re the greatest.’ Everybody called me ‘Santo Dios,’ which is like a saint. I was the Michael Jordan of Spain at the time. I’d go downtown and have crowd of kids following me around.
“Spain was the best league in Europe at the time. Italy was right there, too. Greece, Russia and Spain probably had the best teams. Spain had a lot of money, so they could go and get the best players.
“I had one bad year overseas, when I played in Bologna. It was a nice-sized city and they had one of the best teams with Manu Ginobili and Marko Jaric the year before I came. But then those guys went to the NBA, and everything fell apart. I messed my knee up early in the season, we lost some games, and the owner stopped paying everybody in December. I was over there injured and I couldn’t come back home. I was still hoping to get paid, and if I had left, I wouldn’t have gotten anything. After I had my surgery it was a nightmare. I was in my apartment all day with my leg up and I couldn’t move for a month. We’d just had our daughter … it was tough, one of the toughest things I’ve gone through.”
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“The nightlife is different in Europe. In the U.S., most places close at 2 a.m., or maybe if you’re in Miami or something they’ll be open a little longer. In Europe, you don’t even go out until one or two o’clock. They party over there until five in the morning. It’s much safer over there, too. When you go out, you don’t have to worry about somebody with a gun or some of the things you have to worry about here. You don’t hear about much violence; only a little bit. I never saw any fights or somebody getting shot the whole time I was there. I think it’s just a different lifestyle. Most people over there stay with their parents until they’re about 30.
“The style of dress is different, too. Most Italians or Spaniards are naturally smaller than most Americans, so the clothes are smaller. It was hard to find stuff my size. And in the U.S. we wear our jeans baggier, but over there they like them tighter. So it’s tough, fashion-wise, to find some jeans that fit the way I like. The clothes are probably better overall, though. A lot of stuff that’s sold here is made over there, mostly in Italy. People walk around in Louis Vuitton shoes all the time and it’s not a big deal. All the Dolce & Gabbana, all the outlets are over there. My wife loved it.”
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“I had some great teammates: Jorge Garbajosa, Bostjan Nachbar, Jose Calderon … I still see guys now in the League that I played with in Europe. I’m thankful I got a chance to go there and experience that type of stuff. A lot of people don’t get a chance to leave the city they’re from, and I got to experience whole other countries and whole other cultures. I played in Italy for two years and some change, and also in Spain. Everything is an adventure when you play overseas: going out to eat, grocery stores … you never know what to expect.”