After College, American Stars Play Overseas--or Not at All

Times Staff Writer

The similarities between Michael Jordan and Cheryl Miller are striking.

They both were consensus All-Americans who led their teams to National Collegiate Athletic Assn. titles as sophomores and were named James Naismith Award winners as juniors. And both won gold medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

But here is where the similarity ends.

Jordan was able to parlay his collegiate success into a career in the National Basketball Assn. For Miller, however, playing professional basketball in the United States was no more than a dream.

"I really think it stinks that women cannot continue with their playing careers here in the United States," said Miller, who has not played competitively since the 1987 World Championships and is now a broadcaster for ABC Sports.

It's easy to follow the careers of the men who come out of college with big reputations and earn big paychecks. But those options don't exist for women.

They can find a job in the United States, practice hard and try out for the next Olympic team. Or they can travel overseas to play professionally in countries such as Italy, Spain and Japan while retaining their amateur status. Or they can retire from basketball.

Players such as 1984 Olympian Anne Donovan, who graduated from Old Dominion in 1983, and 1988 Olympian Cynthia Cooper, who graduated from USC in 1986, elected to continue practicing in the hopes of another Olympic medal.

Eight players on the 1988 U.S. women's team had played their last collegiate game more than a year before the Olympics, compared to only one (David Robinson) on the men's team.

Many U.S. players have found a new playing life abroad. Three former USC players, Cooper and Pam and Paula McGee, are playing in Italy, as are Donovan and former Cal State Long Beach player LaTaunya Pollard. Cindy Brown, a 1988 Olympian and former Cal State Long Beach standout, is playing in Japan.

Players who compete overseas are still considered amateurs because they are regarded as employees of the companies that own the teams.

After Cooper graduated from USC, she played for a year in Spain before moving to Italy last season, when she led the Italian Federation League in scoring with an average of 40 points for her team, Primizie Parma.

"I love it over here, in that I am not playing behind the shadow of anyone," said Cooper, who played on USC's national championship teams of 1983 and 1984. "I am getting a chance to fulfill a dream."

In Italy, there are no high school or college teams, only clubs. There are about 30 clubs, divided into several divisions, and most of the Americans play in the First Division.

"The crowds here are rowdy," Cooper said. "They really get on the referees here. If they feel that the referees cheated, they throw coins at him and spit on the opposing coaches.

"The officiating here is pretty weak. They let the Italian players get away with a lot of physical abuse on the Americans.

"I have to look toward this as a business now, because the physical demand is so much that the fun is gone."

Cooper is paid well by league standards, about $80,000, tax free, a year.

"Cooper is very important to the team and the league," said team president Johnny Bertolazzi. "She is a star. She is known all over the country, and everyone loves her. Everyone wants to meet and be with her."

Cooper has adapted to the Italian life style and can speak the language well enough to get by.

"It is very frustrating sometimes with the lack of communication," said Cooper, whose team also plays in the European Cup, a playoff of Europe's top club teams. "I am glad to be playing, but I plan to play just 2 more years here before moving on to other things."

In 1983, LaTaunya Pollard was the first West Coast player to win the Wade Trophy, one of the top awards in women's basketball. She was a two-time consensus All-American and is Cal State Long Beach's career scoring leader with 3,001 points. But after college, she had knee surgery, which caused her to lose her spot on the 1984 Olympic team.

Now, nearly 6 years later, Pollard is married, has a 1-year-old daughter and is playing professionally in Italy.

"It is a shame that you have to go so far away to play," said Pollard, who spent 1986 coaching at Long Beach while finishing her degree in physical education.

"When I first came over here in 1983, you could have only one American to a team, and they didn't pay well. Now, things have changed. With only soccer to compete with, women's basketball has really taken off.

"I play for one of the richest teams in the league (Sidis Ancona, which is a grocery store chain). I hope to continue to have a good year so I can ask for whatever I want next season."

Pollard plays in Ancona, which is a small city about a 4-hour drive from Rome. It is her third club in the 4 seasons she has been in Italy.

"When you are on a team which does not have a good year, you have a chance to switch teams, because that team may drop to the Second Division, and Americans can only play in the First Division," said Pollard, who considers the level of play in the First Division to be comparable to college Division II in the United States.

Pollard plans to play at least one more season, but said: "I have said that after every year."

Another former USC star playing in Italy is Paula McGee. She and her twin, Pam, are playing for the same club team in Palermo, Sicily.

Paula McGee did not go to Italy right out of college. She first had an unsuccessful tryout with the Harlem Globetrotters and a brief stint with the Dallas Diamonds of the now-defunct Women's Basketball League before traveling to Spain and then Italy.

Although she is in her third year playing in Italy, McGee still has mixed feelings about it.

"I go back and forth," McGee said. "I have never really loved it, but I am making a living over here. Some things still bother me, like having washers but no dryers, but overall, if you make an effort to get acclimated, things are OK."

McGee still thinks that a professional league can make it in the United States, but only if presented right.

"First off, you cannot have a team in Los Angeles, because there is too much of a strain on the fan's entertainment dollar," McGee said. "You have to accept the fact that you'll lose money at first, but if you keep it in small places like Norfolk, Va., and Ruston, La., the players would start staying home."

Cheryl Miller, who emerged as the celebrity of women's basketball during her playing career at USC, was supposed to have an unlimited future. In college, Miller was called the best female player in the world. She was a three-time Naismith Award winner and a member of the 1984 Olympic gold-medal winning team. But she did not make the 1988 Olympic team because of a knee injury.

"It (the time after her last game) was the worst experience of my life," Miller said. "I had always felt that when I was done with basketball, everyone would be knocking at my door.

"Here I was, preparing myself to make a tough decision on whether to meet with Johnny (Carson) or Joan (Rivers) once I returned home from Rome, and the only call I had was from my aunt, who said she had seen me on television."

Although she had offers from foreign teams, Miller did not want to leave the United States. So she and her attorney, Arn Tellem, started knocking on media doors. ABC decided to give Miller a chance to do color commentary and features, although she had no experience.

"I hated my first year at ABC," said Miller, who also works for ESPN and other cable networks. "I'm a perfectionist, and I wanted to be the best, but it was hard.

"I am doing other things now. I was the sideline reporter during the USC-Stanford football game this season, and I will get a chance to do commentary on my first men's game in March, and the women's Final Four."

Miller had hoped to conclude her playing career in the Seoul Olympics, but the knee injury, suffered in April, 1987, kept her from making the team.

"The Olympic trials were a nightmare," Miller said. "I often think that I would have been better off if I had not tried, but I would have hated myself if I hadn't."

Despite her efforts, Miller was sent home before the final cut. She denies that she quit the team.

"For various reasons, I was just not good enough to make the team," Miller said. "Everything could have been handled differently, but I just want to let it die. I am glad that the women won."

Miller admits now that her playing career is over.

"I would have loved to continue to play basketball here in the U.S.," said Miller, who says she never considered playing abroad. "But, there are not any leagues to do so. The guys just do not know how lucky they are to get money to play the game they love.

"I used to see myself as flamboyant when I played, but now I am a more private person. I cherish my time alone at home. I just wish I could have played longer."

Rhonda Windham, another former Trojan star, also decided to end her basketball career. She graduated from USC in 1987 and now is coaching in Italy.

"I am a demonstrative instructor in developing players 12 to 18 years old," Windham said. "I really like what I am doing. I am getting paid well, and I am also teaching English in a classroom."

Windham, who won the 1987 Francis Pomeroy Naismith Award as the nation's top player under 5 feet 6 inches, first tried a career in marketing.

"I did not like working in that kind of atmosphere," said Windham about her career in marketing, which lasted 3 months. "I knew that I was going to the Olympic trials in April, so I was just trying to bide time."

Unfortunately for Windham, the trials were a disappointment.

"My heart just was not into it," she said. "I did not have the burning desire to make the team. I had no desire within, and it showed."

After she failed to make the team, Windham went home to New York until she heard from her agent about a job coaching in Italy.

"Everything happened so fast," Windham said. "In 3 days' time, I was off to Italy, and things have really taken off."

WHERE THEY ARE NOW

What members of the 1988 women's Olympic basketball team are doing now:

Player College Doing Now Cindy Brown Cal State Long Beach Playing in Japan Vicky Bullet Maryland Playing for Maryland Cynthia Cooper USC Playing in Italy Anne Donovan Old Dominion Playing in Italy Teresa Edwards Georgia Attending school after playing in Italy Kamie Ethridge Texas Playing in Italy Jennifer Gillom Mississippi Playing in Italy Bridgette Gordon Tennessee Playing for Tennessee Andrea Lloyd Texas Playing in Italy Katrina McClain Georgia Playing in Japan Suzie McConnell Penn State Public speaking Teresa Weatherspoon Louisiana Tech Playing in Italy

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