The nation is filled with NBA hopefuls. But for those Division I college basketball, a spot in the pros is a longshot. Fortunately, many have the option to take their talents to the European professional leagues.
Marion Catholic graduate Ed McCants, Toledo Libbey product William Buford and Chillicothe’s Anthony “Humpty” Hitchens all have stories to tell of being a stranger in a strange land where the is the only familiar element.
After leading Chillicothe to a Division II state title in 2008 against Buford’s and his team, Hitchens — the Cavaliers’ all-time leading scorer — split his college career between Akron and James Madison. In his senior season, Hitchens hired an agent who asked if he was interested in broadening his interests to include Europe. Hitchens said the idea intrigued him and soon found himself in Germany.
Hitchens currently is playing for BG Göttingen, a team that picked him up late in the season to try and win enough games to prevent getting kicked out of the league. Hitchens said the league is a tier down from where he played in 2013, but he is far from being discouraged at his career choice.
“It’s truly a blessing,” Hitchens said. “I never wanted an actual . It’s definitely hard being over here without family and friends. It’s a totally different culture. You have to change who you are to fit in. Not everybody is built for it — sometimes I feel I’m not built for it — but I’m here playing basketball for a check.
“When payday comes, you like this.”
Solitude is the hardest aspect of living overseas.
“When I’m home, I’m never in the house,” Hitchens said. “When I’m here, I’m in the house by myself. That’s a challenge. Other guys on the team, they have a job or maybe are still in school. Some have a wife and kids.”
There’s no timetable for Hitchens as to when enough will be enough, but he said he would love to return to playing in the states. After BG Göttingen’s season concludes in a couple weeks, Hitchens will begin training for a showcase in Las Vegas.
“I just have to go full force this year and when I go home not give up,” Hitchens said. “I need to get ready for that showcase in Vegas and see what happens. Whatever I want to put in to this I’m going to get out of it.”
Sharing the dream
McCants spent four years playing in Bulgaria, Uruguay, Italy, Hungary and Germany’s upper tiers, but he never got to the highest level, the Euroleague Team. A Euroleague Team is made up of the country’s best players competing against other European countries’ best.
After leaving his daughter to attend college out of state, McCants was motivated to play overseas and improve his game with the intent to impress scouts at an NBA training camp and provide a luxurious lifestyle for his daughter. Unfortunately, McCants was greeted by some harsh reality.
“I had gotten several workouts and performed well, but there are only 400 for the best league in the world,” McCants said in an email. “It was an accomplishment I did not realize initially. Upon traveling overseas and seeing how big basketball was across the world did I truly realize how lucky I was to have gotten considered for draft camps and developmental leagues.”
However, McCants isn’t bitter. allowed him to see many parts of the world and, more importantly, make connections with Lu Jones after McCants was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2005. After retiring from playing basketball in 2009, McCants co-founded Hidden Gems with Jones. McCants gives Jones credit for being the visionary behind a program that started by assisting young players only in Ohio and expanding to programs in Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Michigan and Indiana.
“I never got the opportunity to play in the NBA, but I was right there in the thick of it and I can say I was invited to play amongst the world’s best,” McCants said. “The hard work and dedication (provided me) some amazing journeys across the world, and shockingly, the NCAA scene was the time of my life. I was able to graduate college as an African-American where only one in five who start college actually graduate.
“So I feel good about what I was able to accomplish while following the NBA dream. I currently live my dream by using my experience to motivate and inspire the young basketball players of Ohio.”
Living the dream
Buford was one who quickly saw his decision to play overseas pay off.
After starting all four years at Ohio State and being a game away his senior year from playing in the 2012 national championship, Buford went undrafted in the NBA draft.
He weighed his options and decided to take his talents to Club Obradoiro in Spain’s Liga ACB, the highest-tiered professional basketball league in that country. Buford considered the league second in talent only to the NBA.
The 2009 Mr. Basketball used his one season overseas to improve and mature his game enough to be drafted by the Santa Cruz Warriors in California in the 2013 D-League draft.
The 6-foot-5 guard’s playing career then came full circle March 8 when he was traded back to his home state to Canton.
Buford said he did not have any issues overseas other than struggling to adjust to the different style of basketball in Europe.
“It was just being away from home,” Buford said. “It’s like going to college. It’s the same difference. Learning to adjust took some time, but basketball is basketball. You just have to adjust to the different rules and what style your coaches like.”
Buford said he was fortunate to play overseas because it helped him get one step closer to his dream of becoming an NBA player. With everything developing so quickly, Buford is sure his phone call will come, but he is not concerned with how soon or how far away that might be.
“It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Buford said. “It’s bound to happen. It’s going to happen. I’m not thinking by this age, I need to be at this stage. I’m just playing basketball and having fun.”