Two years ago, Brandon Givens, a lanky senior shooting guard with range, was the nation’s leading scorer, averaging 27.7 points per contest for the Battling Bishops of North Carolina Wesleyan College.
Like so many talented college basketball players, the Division III star — who is still remembered around campus for dropping 50 on Christopher Newport University — had dreams of playing at the next level.
When his NBA dreams fizzled, Givens looked for work overseas — following the well-trodden path for players who refuse to let their basketball dreams die. Unlike most journeymen, who end up in Europe, Russia or East Asia, Given’s path has taken an unexpected turn.
“I never thought I’d be playing basketball in Iraq,” Givens told Vocativ.
That’s right, basketball in Iraq — the war-ravaged, ISIS-controlled, nightly news nightmare — is a thing.
Givens is one of 29 American journeyman clinging to their basketball dreams by suiting up for the Superleague, war-torn Iraq’s state-run basketball program, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Of the nine professional teams in the Superleague, eight have American players on their roster, according to the Journal. In a country where the closest most people have come to meeting an American is having one kick in their door with a an assault weapon in hand, the athletes covered in tattoos offer a new brand of cultural ambassador to the Iraqi people. Because of their experience and flashy play, American players are coveted by fans and coaches and “idolized” by their teammates, according to the Journal.
“They are good role models and have great influence on our local players in terms of mentality, technical skills and morale,” Abdel Jabbar Ibrahim, a 60-year-old fan of the “Police Club,” a team that represents Iraq’s interior ministry, told the Journal. “The foreign players have expertise from playing abroad. They don’t let their emotions get in the way of their professionalism.”
Curt Withers, a 6-foot-8 forward who told the Journal he prepared for Iraq by watching “American Sniper,” said the experience has been rewarding for him as well. The 30-year-old has played in South America and Asia, he said, but this season is his first in the Middle East.
“Iraqis are amused by my complexion, height and size,” he told the Journal. “People have been kind. This is my first Muslim country, this is my first exposure and it’s definitely setting the right tone.”
Drawn by the good pay compared to other professional leagues around the globe, Americans began joining the Superleague in 2010, according to the Journal. Intrepid Western tourists began trickling in around the same time.
These days, top American players “earn as much as $20,000 a month “making them among the highest paid public employees in Iraq,” the paper notes. They are considered public employees because the league’s teams are funded by the embattled Iraqi government, which is facing an extreme budget crisis because of falling oil prices and the ISIS insurgency. As the Journal notes, a $20,000-a-month salary is the exception:
Most are being paid between $4,000 and $10,000 monthly. Apart from the Americans, there are five other players from outside Iraq in the league. The top Iraqi players are earning about $12,000 a month; most make much less.
Teams sponsors also help to pay player salaries, according to the Journal.
Despite the bad headlines back home in America, players say they’re able to live semi-normal lives in the war-torn country.
“I thought it was going to be all bad with everything you see on TV about Iraq,”Mychal Kearse, a 31-year-old guard on from Charlotte, N.C., told the Journal. “That’s the picture they paint of Iraq and Iraqis.”
“Basketball is the same,” he added. “Basketball is basketball.”
That’s may be true, but there are notable differences, with the game stripped of the luster college-level American athletes are generally accustomed to. Last year’s league champion, for example, pulled out of this year’s season, in part, because of the difficulty of traveling through territory controlled by ISIS, according to the Journal.
Players live in a “modest hotel” and are shuttled to the arena in a beat-up van, according to the Journal. Night-life is nonexistent and players are often confined to their residences.
“My roommate, Chad, is scared to go out in Iraq and he scares me, so we don’t go anywhere,” Givens told Vocativ .”We go straight to practice and straight back tot the hotel.”
What exactly are they scared of?
“People getting their heads chopped off and things of that gruesome nature,” Chadwick Gray, a 29-year-old South Carolina native who played his college ball at Coastal Carolina University told Vocativ. “I really don’t want to go an explore or find out anything much more about it.”
Their fears are not entirely unfounded, Rafid Abdel Hussein, an assistant coach on Police Club who also looks after his American players and assists them with their dietary needs, told the Journal.
“If there’s an explosion nearby, we tell them it’s fireworks from a celebration,” he said.
The “People’s Arena,” a facility they share with seven other teams that currently lacks locker rooms, was named “Saddam Arena” before the US-led invasion in 2003, the Journal states. Even the sidelines, as the Journal noted, take some getting used to:
Team benches are repurposed airport lounge seats, but not the comfortable kind. The VIP seats are a row of living-room couches and easy chairs set in the bleacher section, where no-smoking signs appear to be just a suggestion.
By halftime of a recent game between the Police Club and the Petrol Club, a layer of cigarette smoke hung over the court. But the crowds, kept sparse by authorities for security reasons, are enthusiastic, beating drums and tambourines while chanting for their squad.
“It’s amazing how basketball is still relevant, especially with everything going on,” DeAndre Rice, a 29-year-old Police Club point guard from Flint, Mich., told the Journal.
As long as he remains safe, Gray told Vocativ he intends to stay. There are, however, a number of scenarios that would make him bolt for home.
“If anything goes off — a bomb, a car bomb, anything near the hotel — or just hearing about someone getting captured from America, one of the basketball players, I’d get on the plane quick.”
If Iraq doesn’t work out, there’s always Iran…