The taxi bumped and rattled for three hours along pockmarked roads north of Lisbon, coming to a halt in front of a rickety gymnasium in the town of Coimbra.

In the squalid locker room, a group of excited Portuguese basketball players -- the tallest measuring 5-foot-6 -- awaited the arrival of their newest teammate, a lanky Californian.

Since the coach and the players spoke no English, a literature professor was brought in from a university 25 miles away to translate.

Already dazed by culture shock, the American began dressing hurriedly for the upcoming game when he heard instructions that left him dumbfounded.

"Okay," the professor explained in a heavy accent, "we want you to take rebound, throw pass and make breakfast."

Twenty minutes later, after a tantrum, a stream of obscenities and linguistic chaos had dissolved in remorse, the American finally realized that he was expected not to cook but rather lead the fast break.

As pro basketball opens a new year, a more exotic if less glamorous version of the sport is under way in Europe, where American expatriates learn to cope not only with a different language, but lopsided balls, warped courts, drunken fans who toss money or burning cigars at them and owners who suffer amnesia over salaries.

Fresh from NBA camps, college campuses or premature retirement, about 200 American players have migrated across the Atlantic to play this year for teams from Finland to Morocco.

Few of them, however, are prepared for the startling diversity in life styles, salaries and playing conditions, let alone the quirks and idiosyncrasies that distinguish the foreign game.

In North African countries, where the sport has been popularized by Peace Corps volunteers, dusty fields are sometimes cleared, fruit baskets installed at two ends and a rugby ball used in place of scarce basketballs--an improvisation that eliminates dribbling and puts a premium on passing.

In Yugoslavia, which has developed some of the finest European players, championship games have been known to be disrupted by separatist protest groups waving banners that read "Long live a free Croatia".

In Italy and Spain, were the sport is extremely popular, U.S. players can earn more than $100,000 a year. In places such as France and Belgium, where the sport is less popular, $40,000 a year is considered excellent pay for Americans, who also get a car and apartment. The European players generally make considerably less and regard money made playing basketball as a second income.

In Italy, as in Spain, crowds for important games may reach 15,000. Johnny Neumann, the former Mississippi star who went overseas to play for a team near Milan, learned to his chagrin that those fans do not tolerate mockery.

During the last minutes of a game in Venice, with his team leading by 28 points, Neumann responded to taunts from the sidelines by dropping his trunks in front of a big crowd in the arena and a national television audience.

The stunned crowd quickly turned into a vengeful mob, chasing Neumann into the stands. He grabbed his wife and ran out a back door to find welcome refuge in a passing gondola.

Most American players encounter more benign treatment, usually from adoring fans if not from tight-fisted owners.

For the Bullets' Spencer Haywood, playing a year with Venice provided an opportunity to "tune up my game and mentally settle down" before resuming his NBA career.

Haywood also enjoyed one of the more opulent living arrangements among U.S. players abroad, occupying a splendid apartment overlooking the Grand Canal.

"The fans were fantastic but the owners were thieves," said Haywood, who is still trying to recover money promised him by a team director.

"The owners made a lot of cash showcasing me around Europe, having me play 65 games when I expected to play 30 (the standard season)," he said. "Then when I decided to leave, they portrayed me as petty person who complained a lot."

Haywood's current teammate, Jeff Ruland, recalls the eight months he spent in Barcelona with a shudder and says he has tried "to block most of the terrible experiences out of my mind."

"Some of the fans over there were absolutely crazy," he said. "They would heat up coins and throw them at us. I've still got the burn marks to show for it."

"The teams in Spain were often so fearful of riots that they used to employ policemen with machine guns to patrol the court. Once I was escorted off by the armed guards after getting in a fight."

Generally, two Americans are imported by each of the major European teams, whose native players roughly match the caliber of good U.S. high school or junior college players.

"The Europeans tend to be fine shooters," says Dave Batton, who played in Switzerland and Italy before returning this year and winning a place on the Bullets. "But they are all pretty terrible on defense and rebounding."

The Americans are expected to score well, dominate the game and provide the kind of flashy entertainment that will draw substantial crowds to pay their salaries.

If they don't fulfill the hopes of their employers, resentment inevitably builds up and and the privileged migrants can find themselves snubbed by the team, if not the entire town.

After getting into trouble with the board of the Trieste team a couple of years ago, former NBA center Marvin Barnes found his apartment under surveillance the night he decided to throw his own farewell party.

When police broke up the festivities, they discovered that the daughter of a team official also was in attendance, provoking a scandal that purportedly compelled Barnes to sneak out of the country through Yugoslavia.

Many Americans soon learn that one of the biggest difficulties is simply coping with boredom. Since teams usually play on weekends and practice two hours or so three times a week to accommodate Europeans with full-time jobs, Americans are often left with little to do during the day except watching movies, playing pinball or aimlessly wandering around town.

Some players manage to put their spare time to good use. Former Penn star Bobby Morse, who has spent a decade playing in Italy and France, studied veterinary medicine in Milan with his wife. Bill More from Oregon State parlayed his Bordeaux playing days into a wine-exporting career.

Others find that the loneliness of living abroad, with only short bursts of playing ball to relieve the drudgery, can lead to despair and even tragedy.

Two Americans have apparently died of drug overdoses in Italy in recent years. Another U.S. player, hired by a team in Switzerland, was denied permission to travel home for the Christmas holidays during a three-week break and became so depressed that he turned on the gas in his kitchen and committed suicide.

But such casualties are extremely rare. For those who can overcome their yearnings for home long enough to adjust to the bizarre nature of European basketball, a brief fling as an expatriate ballplayer can offer an adventurous, and sometimes lucrative, opportunity to explore the Continent, if not purge an exuberant addiction to the game.