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(L-R) Tyasha Harris, Kahleah Copper, Jasmine Thomas, Elizabeth Williams, Isabelle Harrison, Kamiah Smalls ESPN Illustration
WNBA

‘It’s different’: The overseas experience for Black WNBA players

A conversation with players about life outside of the U.S. while playing professional basketball

After spending a season fighting for social justice during the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, many WNBA players almost immediately began their second seasons in various countries overseas. In many places, day-to-day life is completely different compared to life in the United States.

For Black WNBA players, life overseas comes with unique challenges beyond language barriers and time-zone adjustments. Black players encounter other obstacles, from barriers to hair care to unrelenting stares from locals.

Six Black WNBA players, ranging from 10-year veterans to newly-minted rookies, spoke to The Undefeated about their experiences playing overseas. They are:

  • Chicago Sky guard Kahleah Copper, who is sitting out her overseas season in Israel. She has previously played in Belgium, Poland and Turkey.
  • Dallas Wings guard Tyasha Harris, who is playing her first overseas season in Turkey.
  • Wings forward Isabelle Harrison, who is playing in Italy. She has previously played in Poland and South Korea.
  • Indiana Fever guard Kamiah Smalls, who is playing her first overseas season in Italy.
  • Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas, who is playing in Turkey. She has previously played in the Czech Republic, Russia, Israel and Poland.
  • Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams, who is playing in Turkey. She has previously played in China and Russia.

did you ever have reservations, specific to being Black, about playing overseas?

Kahleah Copper, Sky: I was very skeptical because in some countries there aren’t Black people or they haven’t seen Black people. My first year I played in Belgium, so they’ve seen Black people. But when I played in Poland, I played there for two years, they haven’t really seen Black people. You’d have those people who just stare.

It’s uncomfortable in the beginning. As time goes on, you start to just play a game where you have to stare back. Like, ‘OK, are we going to have a staring contest?’ … It’s just they’ve never seen Black people … especially people with darker skin.

Isabelle Harrison, Wings: Honestly, I was scared. I didn’t really know how they would treat a Black person overseas. We hear about treatment that African Americans get in the States, and I was honestly thinking it would be worse once I went. I was very shy, I kept to myself and that was it.

It’s honestly a lot worse in the States than it is overseas in my opinion. People were really kind. They knew I was a foreigner and they treated me with respect and they really didn’t have that judgmental mentality I feel like they have in the States. I would say my treatment overseas from other people has been good as far as being Black.

Kamiah Smalls, Fever: I was nervous. Even sometimes walking around here you see people stare a lot, but I’ve learned that from my experience here it’s just different for them. They don’t see a lot of people like me around this area. They don’t see a lot of people that dress like me in this area. They don’t see people with my hair walking around here. I don’t take much offense to it as I did when I first got here because Americans, when you see someone staring, it’s like, ‘Why are they always staring at me?’ Here, they’re amused by my person, my body. It’s different.

Tyasha Harris, Wings: I wasn’t nervous about any racial things because I know a lot of Black WNBA players have gone to Turkey before. So I wasn’t too worried about that. The only thing I was really worried about was the culture.

Jasmine Thomas, Sun: Not really, until I experienced it. And then, once you start to talk to other people about the stares – I think that’s the most obvious thing. Even now, after 10 years of playing, it doesn’t get any different, people really actually stare at you. They watch you and you can’t really say whether it’s specifically because you’re Black or maybe because you’re tall or maybe just because you look like you’re not from there. They’re curious as to why you’re there.

Elizabeth Williams, Dream: There are so many misconceptions about overseas in general. Especially if you say a place like Turkey, people automatically assume there’s this high level of unrest and all this other stuff. So there’s that initial nervousness of just, ‘I’ve never played overseas for an extended period. So what does this look like?’ And then obviously as a foreigner and as a Black person, you stand out.

what were some of the biggest challenges you encountered at first?

Thomas: Hair products. That was something that was really hard. When I first started … I tried to just pack things that would keep me comfortable, moreso sentimental, pictures of my family, a favorite blanket. But then as I was there, I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s actually kind of hard to find some of this stuff.’ And when you do find it, it’s super marked up in price because of the import and taxes and all of that stuff. Something that you’re used to growing up having for your hair that cost $5 is now $26.

So then I started packing it in my bags and bringing it with me. Even hair care services. You can’t just walk into a salon and say, ‘I want you to blow-dry and straighten my hair.’ Or, ‘Can you braid my hair?’ It’s really difficult.

Harris: The language barrier, how they drive – they drive a little different over there. Then just the food. Some restaurants have American food, they’re super healthy in their culture, so like they eat a lot of veggies and bread with cheese in it – I didn’t know, that is their breakfast. I got there in the morning, so I was waiting for pancakes, sausage, turkey, all of that. They were like, ‘No, we don’t do that here.’

Harrison: The biggest thing would be food. I’m from Tennessee so everything is flavored, seasoning, I hate to say it, fatty. When I got overseas, it was just bland. I probably cooked the most that I’ve ever cooked my first year overseas. I still do a lot of cooking now, but Italian food is way better.

The food was just so different. It’s a lot of cold meats, carb-heavy, meat and potatoes, that’s what it was. I just grew up on something else.

Williams: It was kind of interesting culturally when I played in Russia, because obviously you’d look American and you’re Black or whatever, but people still think you speak Russian. So they assume if you’re living there for an extended period or if you’re going grocery shopping, you know Russian. So someone would try to talk to me and try to have a conversation. And you’re like, ‘No, I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ So that was one of the bigger culture shocks.

Have you experienced racism overseas?


Smalls: Nope, and I think that’s one of my biggest blessings thus far. This being my first year and landing on such a team that’s so invested in their players and the process of their growth. I feel like my coach actually cares about my well-being, my franchise actually cares if I’m mentally here on and off the court.

Thomas: Not so much violent, malicious hatred, but just a naiveness or ignorance. This was in Poland. I had a younger teammate. … When she would sing songs, rap songs, she would use the N-word. Several times we had to tell her, ‘It’s offensive to us. We don’t like that. It’s not appropriate for you to use that, even though it’s in a song.’ We had to explain to her why and the history of it, because that’s not something that crosses borders all the time. …

Another instance was probably earlier on in my career, going out to a club and actually having someone say [the N-word]. We didn’t know who it was. It was just kind of something that was screamed out as we were exiting. And it was like, ‘Oh, OK. Wow.’

Copper: I was coming home from practice in Poland. And there was a car full of, I don’t know if they were college kids, college age or whatever. But it was a group of guys and somebody did a monkey gesture. And I was like, ‘Wait, am I really seeing this? Is this really happening?’ Because people talk about racism and things happening, you always know these things happen, but when they happen directly to you, like, ‘Damn, this is real.’ I know there’s racism everywhere. It’s just a matter of where I’m willing to deal with it at.

Williams: The only example that comes to mind is just China, just people trying to touch me and commenting on my skin. But as far as … blatant, ‘I’m going to treat you worse because of the color of your skin,’ I don’t think I’ve ever really had that experience, fortunately.

Harrison: It happened three years ago when I was in Korea. I played in a game and it wasn’t my best game, but I’m not perfect, right? I had a fan come on my Instagram page and just write the N-word on all of my pictures. It was crazy to see because they love you when they love you, but when you’re not doing right you’re the worst person/player ever. I have been called that since I was younger, so it didn’t affect me in that way. I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed.

How much of an effort do you make to immerse yourself in the culture of the countries you play in?

Copper: My first couple of years, I stayed in the house a lot, I didn’t do much. And sometimes I would get teammates who would be like, ‘Come on, you have to experience …’ So I started to go to different places. Jasmine Thomas was my teammate in the last season in Poland and she made me travel. She made me try things. I really appreciate her for that. I think I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older and got more mature, just because I was trying new things.

Thomas: That’s a huge part of why I continue to play overseas. I do like to learn the culture, have the experiences. When I was in Israel, I would go to Shabbat Shalom and everyone’s families would get together and have these dinners. And I enjoyed being part of those, getting to know my teammates and experience that part of their culture or just trying the different foods. I’m not someone that just because I’m away from home, I want those comforts of home.

Harrison: My first year, no, I was not trying to leave the house. That felt like home to me, that felt like my comfort zone. Whenever I stepped outside of my apartment I was reminded of how foreign it was. Especially in the city in Poland. I was in a city called Polkowice. When you step outside, it was like cobblestone roads, old people. I felt like I was in a time machine or something.

The closer I got to my teammates, the more they brought me along to do other things. My favorite year so far was in Bologna last year. It was an hour train ride from Milan, 30 minutes from Florence, maybe two hours from Rome. Whenever I had free time, I was gone.

Williams: I’ve tried to learn a good amount of Turkish, so I can at least get around and survive and practice. And our coach speaks English as well, but obviously it helps with teammates too if you know a good amount of Turkish. Even when I played in Russia, I tried to learn a little bit of Russian. It’s important to – it’s like respecting the culture, at least trying.

Smalls: I’ve been trying. One of my goals was to try and learn Italian. It’s not fair that they fully have to adjust to me. Most of my teammates speak English, but some of them don’t. I would like to communicate with them, have conversations. I try my best to catch on to some of the Italian language as best I can.

What country have you enjoyed living and playing in the most?

Thomas: The easiest country to live in for sure was Israel. I tell players all the time, it’s a perfect place for young players earlier in their career who aren’t quite ready for that adjustment to playing overseas. It’s a great place for young players and then older players who kind of want the quality of life to be better than how strenuous the basketball schedule is. Food’s good. Everyone speaks English. They have everything that you have in America, plus the weather’s good all year round. You go to the beach in December.

Copper: I really liked bits and pieces of every country I’ve been in. I really liked Belgium. I actually still have a relationship with some of the fans that were there, they were really, really nice. I had a really nice living situation in Belgium. The people were really nice. And I actually did like Poland outside of the stares. I had really great teammates one of the years I was there. And then as far as Turkey, if you talk to any player about Turkey, they will definitely tell you they had a ball for sure in Istanbul.

Harrison: Each one brings something different. I know my least favorite was Poland. It’s very cold and muggy. South Korea was one of my favorites. The food, the people are really nice, they love sports over there. I also love Italy. I feel a little bit close to my language being here. Of course the food is amazing. The south has been very, very friendly. It’s kind of similar like in the States, Southern hospitality. That’s what I feel.

Have you had any conversations with overseas teammates about the WNBA’s social activism this past season?

Thomas: The local players or staff [in Turkey] have not mentioned it. But the WNBA imports on my team – Kayla McBride, Satou Sabally, Kia Vaughn, Kiah Stokes – we actually had a conversation about it before we came over here because we were traveling on Election Day. Every time we stepped on the court, it was dedicated to Say Her Name and social justice, and now here we are playing games and it’s like there’s no connection. It was kind of frustrating.

The conversation actually came up because on our men’s side, instead of their last names on the back of their jerseys, they have words that are empowering for social justice. The men’s EuroLeague side, they actually have commercials about racism worldwide and the efforts on what everyone can do to spread the awareness and create change.

Harrison: My teammates [in Italy] were more concerned about the bubble and how that worked. That was kind of the big deal. I don’t think they’re very aware of what’s going on as far as social problems and issues like that because that’s not really their reality. The biggest thing they’ve been talking about is Trump. That’s entertainment for them, honestly.

Smalls: One of the shirts I wore one day was from the wubble and it said ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and on the back it says ‘Say Her Name’ – they love that shirt. They’ve asked me a couple times about my opinion on our presidency. They asked me about my experience in the wubble, that experience standing up for something that we believed in as African American women.

Williams: Since I played in Turkey for a while, we follow each other on social media. So they see the stuff that we post and they see Breonna Taylor’s name. And so they’ll ask what is happening? Why are cops killing Black people? And it’s such a heavy question, and it’s hard to just say, ‘Oh, it’s linked to this because obviously historically when you go into the history of Black people in America’ and all this other stuff. With the language barrier, even though they speak English, you still have to try to simplify the racial tensions that are happening.

But yeah, I think especially just because of the election as well, we have had these types of conversations, and for them, it’s hard for them to understand why it happens. They’re like, but ‘I understand that you’re Black, but it doesn’t mean that you’re different.’ It’s hard to conceptualize why this type of stuff is happening, especially when you think about how diverse America is.

Harris: My teammates [in Turkey] are a lot of younger players, but they said they watched the WNBA. I don’t think they’re really in tune as to what’s happening in America. I think all of them have never been to America, so they don’t really know. But I asked the assistant when we were talking today, is there any worldly problems like there are in America, like racism in America, and she was telling me they deal with issues of gender equality. She said everything we’re going through racially in America, they’re going through with gender equality.

The social issues that affect black people in the U.S., have you been able to see how they kind of compare to the countries that you’ve played in?

Thomas: A huge part of what we talk about in America is systemic, it’s racist. From the result of slavery, up, policies and laws and everything has continued to marginalize communities of color. That’s a little different to some extent in other countries. I don’t dive that deep into the politics of other countries, so I wouldn’t be able to speak on that aspect. But when it comes to poverty, I will say that that is consistent. The darker-skinned, minority communities usually are of Black people or people of color.

Harrison: Honestly, it’s weird. Whenever I see police behind me in the States or if I’ve ever gotten pulled over, I would just get anxiety, and I’m not doing anything wrong. I see police here all the time, I don’t get anxiety whatsoever. I feel OK if they were to ever pull me over. I think that just goes to show the dynamic in how they see Black people overseas versus how they see Black people in the States. It’s weird that I have to go away from home to feel more relaxed when it comes to something like that.

Williams: I don’t have the same types of fears that I would have in the U.S. in regards to interacting with police, or just judgment of how you look, basically. I don’t necessarily feel that as much when I’m over here. Again you have to remember that there’s also the athlete side of it, where there are people that are big fans of you and stuff, but still, I don’t feel a high level of discomfort or tension racially as much when I’m over here.

Is there advice that relates to the Black experience that you would give to younger players?

Thomas: Some people pack their seasonings, things that they need in order to cook, because it’s hard to find, or it’s not available in a lot of countries. With the hair products, that’s a huge thing. And I would honestly say a lot of us learn how to do certain things with our hair, with our natural hair while we’re overseas, because of that lack of representation, not knowing whether we’re going to have someone to do our hair. A lot of the styles that you see me with, I actually learned how to do from YouTube overseas.

Williams: I would give them the same advice I had, to go to a place where there are a lot of foreigners. That was a big reason in choosing Turkey because I was going to have a vet on my team who played in the WNBA and played in Turkey for a while. She knew things and then playing in this league, there were always a good amount of foreigners. You don’t feel so isolated. That’s always a big suggestion. I wouldn’t suggest going to China and being the only foreigner, especially when you just don’t know how overseas really works.

Copper: My advice to the first-year players is just to pick somewhere where you’re going to be comfortable. I feel like I would never tell someone to go to Russia their first year. They haven’t really seen Black people. It’s really cold. It’s really dark. It’s really miserable. You don’t leave your house. You won’t probably ever leave your house unless you’re going to practice or you’re going to get groceries. And sometimes there, you have to have a translator or somebody with you at all times. I mean, most places you might get stared at, but you’ll have to have that experience first to see if that’s something that you’re even willing to deal with.

Sometimes people, they’re like, ‘I just want the most money.’ And that was me, and then I’m like, ‘Nah, I can sacrifice some money for it to be comfortable, for me to have fun.’ And that was me this year. That was why I was going to go to Israel. I was sacrificing some money, but super Americanized, so many Americans there, they’ve seen Black people. There are darker-skinned people there.

Harrison: I would advise them to play wherever they’re getting paid at. If you’re not going overseas because you’re scared, you might come across something racist, you get that at home and you’re not getting paid. If anything, I’d say you can’t let people like that bother you because you’re here for a purpose, you’re here because you love basketball.

Sean Hurd is an associate editor for The Undefeated. He believes the “flying V” is the most important formation in sports history.