It’s not quite the NBA, but for more than two dozen Americans, the Swedish Basketball League—Basketligan—is a ticket to the stardom many thought was only a pipe dream.
Basketligan isn’t a European powerhouse along the lines of the Italian or Spanish leagues, where Barcelona and Milan rule the court. Still, the level of play in Sweden is enough to convince many American college stars to try their luck in Scandinavia rather than toil in one of the minor hoops circuits in the States.
“Explaining how I feel after I finally made it to the professional level is impossible,” said Solna Vikings forward William Walker. “As a kid, all hoopsters want to call themselves professional athletes and that’s a goal that I have accomplished. Now it’s time to re-evaluate and set new ones. I’m very excited about it and once again rejuvenated for the game of basketball.”
Walker was a star with NAIA power Bethel College, which he led to the 2010 NAIA National Championship. A 6-foot 8-inch forward, Walker averaged 20.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game and led the Pilots to a 33-4 record and their fifth Final Four in program history. He earned National Player of the Year accolades and Mid-Central Conference Player of the Year honors.

Going overseas to go pro
He isn’t the only college star about whom few NBA watchers have heard. Tyrone Levett, an Alabama State University star, joined Plannja Basket (also called LF Basket) after stints in Ireland and Slovenia. Before moving to Sweden, he played in the fledgling American Basketball Association, leading the Vermont Frost Heaves to the league title. Now in Sweden, Levett said he believes Basketligan can help realize his final goal.
“I wanted to play pro ball after my college days were over, so I did. I had two NBA workouts (Utah Jazz and Miami Heat Summer Pro League). I played well, but it didn't work out for me at that time,” he said. “I took the path that I never thought of, and that was going overseas to start my pro career. I still think I can reach the NBA and achieve my dreams.”

Spend time on the bench or play
For each small college star the NBA might have overlooked, there are others who chose Basketligan rather than sit on a bench with a farm team. Joe McNaull, a standout with Long Beach State University, had several tryouts with NBA teams but never quite made the cut, despite his 7-foot, 250-pound frame. Instead, McNaull found an “in” to European basketball—his Polish grandmother. Under the rules of the Federation of International Basketball Associations (FIBA), McNaull could play in Europe as a Pole, which opened many different doors to his career. As a citizen of an European Union country, McNaull could play in any country and not count as a “foreign” player. Most leagues still have restrictions on the number of non-EU players allowed to play.
The big center bounced from Greece to Turkey to Spain and finally landed in Norrköping, where he helped the Vikings become the first Swedish team to reach the Baltic Basketball League finals. The BBL is open to the top teams from leagues in Baltic countries. However, unlike other Americans aiming to return to the States, McNaull tries to keep the flow of American players to Europe strong. He founded JM International, which holds camps for potential pro players at which scouts from the NBA, WNBA and European leagues can see talent they otherwise might have missed. McNaull also knows what it’s like to be overlooked.
“We are changing the game for players who are looking to play in Europe and the rest of the world,” he said. Our goal is to make sure every player who attends our camps, gets a shot to show if they can make it as a professional basketball player.”

McNaull, with U.S. teammates George “Gee” Gervin, a former member of the Harlem Globetrotters, and Fred Drains, a Division II All-American at Kean University, has Norrköping off and running in both Swedish and European play.
The Dolphins won their first two Basketligan tilts and advanced to the final field of the EuroChallenge league after knocking off a team in Belgium.
The Södertälje Kings currently top the 10-team Basketligan with a 3-0 record. Norrköping is second at 2-0.

The season runs from October to April.

by Chipp Reid