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Local players continue basketball careers in Europe
By MIKE DOUGHERTY
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: April 13, 2007)
Donnie McGrath is learning the culture and nurturing a dream. Chris Watson is winding down and dealing with reality.
The local basketball exports do share a common goal: Both are determined to leave the relative anonymity of Europe behind and make a living in the NBA.
One way or another.
"I'll never play in the league," said the 31-year-old Watson, who is in his second season with Basket Groot Leuven in Belgium. "But my dream is still to win a championship with the Knicks, and when I come home, I have to get a job there.
"Do they need a ball boy?"
McGrath is just beginning the journey.
The former Kennedy standout was invited to a number of NBA tryouts after four years at Providence, and was set to play summer league with the Knicks before a thumb injury ended the run. He wound up in the Italian League, and is now starting for Pallacanestro Cantu.
A little perseverance was required just to get that far.
"I kind of expected to come over here and start playing a lot right away," said McGrath, a Katonah native who cracked the starting lineup 17 games into the season.
Regardless of location, rookies are forced to learn their place.
"I guess that makes sense for anyone who's relocating to a different city," said Billy Ceisler, the Westchester-based agent who represents McGrath, "and playing a different kind of basketball."
Only the basic rules are universal.
It's not uncommon for some players who venture overseas to get homesick and walk away.
"You really have to be open-minded," Watson said of his experiences on and off the court over nine seasons. "Sometimes it's hard to accept there are other ways to do things."
McGrath, 23, struggled with the sudden abundance of downtime. There's a strength-and-conditioning session each morning, a full practice in the evening, and just one game a week.
"I hate that," he said. "If you lose or have a bad game, it's a long time before you play again."
Technology makes it simple to stay in touch with support systems here at home. McGrath and Watson both have Internet phones and satellite televisions.
And fast food is readily accessible.
"I'm a picky eater," McGrath said. "Thank God I'm in Italy because I like pizza and pasta, but I still go to McDonald's once in a while."
Language hasn't been an issue for either player.
"All of the basketball is played in English," Watson said with a laugh.
Learning to direct the offense is critical to McGrath's chances of catching on with another NBA team. He's under contract for next season in Cantu in case more of a dress rehearsal is required.
"The second half of the season, I've only played the point," said McGrath, who's averaging 6.6 points a game. "I feel a lot more comfortable and we've moved up to fifth place. It looks like we'll make the playoffs."
Every minute helps.
"I still want to play in the NBA," McGrath said. "The season started slow, but I think I'm on the right track again."
Watson realizes the road trip is nearing an end.
The energetic forward started at White Plains, switched over to Stepinac and starred at Niagara before going international. He's made stops in Uruguay, Israel, England and Sweden, and he's under contract with Basket Groot Leuven for one more season.
"It depends on the situation, but I might call it a career soon," he said. "My body is getting older."
Watson is averaging 11.2 points and 5.5 rebounds, but no longer feels the need to show off.
"I play like a European now," he said. "I'm the setup guy."
Watson met his wife, Roni, while playing in Israel. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Dream, who also will have a say in what comes next.
"She's almost ready for school," said Watson, who lives in Norwalk, Conn., during the offseason. "And my wife is ready to start working."
It's a unique lifestyle, but there are bonuses.
"On the road, I've gone out with some of the Italian guys on my team and walked around places like Rome and Bologna," McGrath said.
Watson also likes to expand his horizons.
Dealing with the obstacles presented in a foreign environment takes a certain amount of personality and enthusiasm.
"Chris has a great spirit," former Stepinac coach Frank Henderson said. "He's always positive and full of energy. He's a lot of laughs, too."
No matter where he goes from here, Watson is confident traveling halfway around the world in pursuit of a dream was more than just a way to postpone the inevitable.
"I've picked up so much basketball knowledge," he said. "When I do hang it up and come back, I should be able to stay in the game."