D’Andre Williams* has been in Iceland for a little over three weeks when we meet after a Thursday night practice at the Íþróttafélag Reykjavíkur (ÍR) basketball court at Seljaskóli. He’s spent most of that time working out or practising—weight lifting for two hours around noon, hitting the court on his own around 14:00 and then practising with the team for an hour and a half.
There hasn’t been time to explore many of the waterfalls or the famed nightlife that bring most people to the country. “It’s alright,” D’Andre says of Iceland. “I haven’t really gone out and done anything yet. But as far as I can see, the only thing I don’t like about it is it’s freezing.”
Iceland will be his home for the next five months as ÍR plays 22 games against the other 11 teams in Iceland’s semi-professional premier league, the most competitive level of play in the country.
For D’Andre, playing basketball is literally a full-time job. After graduating in May from University of Arkansas-Little Rock (UALR), a Division-1 school, D’Andre began the long process of finding an agent, impressing a team and being hired to play hoops overseas.
The road to Reykjavík
If someone had told ten-year-old D’Andre growing up in Amarillo, Texas that he’d become a professional basketball player, he might have been the only one to believe it. “I was looked at as an underdog,” he says, “so I wanted to prove to everyone that, just because I’m short, I can still do it.”
Twelve years later, he’s still short. Maybe not by normal standards—he’s 177 centimetres tall—but for a professional basketball player he could do with a few inches (the average height of his team is around 192 cm).
Jón Arnar Ingvarsson, ÍR’s newly re-hired head, isn’t worried about this. There are more foreign players who want to play than there are spots. Talent—as seen in highlight reels and playing statistics—is a big part of the recruiting process, as is character. “Personality is, of course, something we really look at,” Jón says. “We want good people.”
For D’Andre, the ball started rolling last season, his senior year at UALR, when he averaged 34.3 minutes of playing time, 13.2 points per game and 3.9 rebounds and assists per game. Then the agent messages start coming in, D’Andre says, and it was a matter of finding someone who believed in him.
D’Andre decided on Elliott Kay at 123 Podium Sport Agency, an agency that specialises in overseas basketball. The Agency has, according to its website, connections with more than 1,800 teams around the world, across Europe, North/South/Latin America, Asia & Oceania. Their other American clients have recently or are currently playing basketball in Denmark, Mexico, Canada, Portugal, Lithuania, Sweden and Japan.
By the end of July D’Andre had agreed to join ÍR as point guard, rejecting offers from teams in Denmark, Israel and a later offer from a team in Germany. After two months of paperwork—work authorisation/immigration forms and FBI background checks—he arrived in Iceland on October 2.
No “I” in team, but there’s a “me”
And how is ÍR doing this season? The optimism of mid-September has been replaced by the harsh realities of October and November—a decisive thrashing from Snæfell during the season opener, another defeat from Thor Thori during overtime and just one narrow, two-point victory against Njarðvík the day after our interview. Two more games against Skallagrímur and Grindavík left them 2:3. Things could definitely be going better.
“As a team we haven’t been playing the best that we know we can play. Some people need to step up and take a greater leadership role, which should be the players that are getting paid for it,” D’Andre says. “But at the same time it’s a team thing. If one person’s doing something wrong then everybody’s doing something wrong.”
The focus on the team is essential to European basketball, but it is not always found among Americans. In 2007, Jeremy Tyler made headlines for being the first American to leave high school early and play basketball overseas to improve his NBA draft chances. Soon afterwards he made headlines again, this time for his poor performance in Israel, both on and off the court.
American basketball is characterised by stars and athletic showmanship. No one remembers Michael Jordan because he was a great passer. LeBron James doesn’t get Nike endorsement deals because he doesn’t mind sitting on the bench. The world is not on a first name basis with Shaq or Kobe because of a jaw-dropping ability to set screens for lesser players at the right moment. These players made names for themselves through slam-dunks, three-pointers and MVP titles.
And American players have a reputation for coming abroad thinking they’ll fill their highlight reels with stunning moves and make their way to the next level. Helgi Más Magnússon, the head coach of ÍR’s Reykjavík basketball rival Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur (KR), has seen American ambition from both sides, as a player and coach in Iceland and as a student athlete at an American university, one of the main scouting grounds for the NBA.
“A lot of Americans look at Iceland as a launch pad to a bigger career,” Helgi says. “And of course people should be ambitious, but at the same time a lot of those players try too hard to get their good stats instead of playing within the team concept and just sharing the ball.”
This is D’Andre’s first year abroad, and when I ask him about the “me” mentality of some American players, he prefaces with his inexperience before responding.
“But from what I can see so far, the players that win games are the players that move over. They go on and do better things. You can score 50 points a game and have the highlight reel, but if the team wins one game the whole season I don’t think they go anywhere,” D’Andre says. “If I have to sit on the bench for 40 minutes because the team is playing well, and cheer them on—as long as we’re winning it makes me look good.”
And looking good is what gets players to leagues abroad and then on to fully professional leagues. But while Iceland may lead players to more competitive and lucrative leagues in other countries, is it really a launch pad to the NBA Draft? And does anyone really expect it to be?
For D’Andre the future isn’t so straightforward. He wants to be happy with his life, he says. He wants to be a role model, an inspiration for his three younger siblings back home. He wants to make his parents proud.
The million dollar contracts of the NBA aren’t a top priority for him. He’s enjoying experiencing different things and different cultures. “It’s not so much about the money for me; it’s about the experience,” he says. “The most important thing to me is that I have my college education.” At some point he hopes to go back to school to get his master’s degree.
Then there’s the one goal that hasn’t changed since he was ten years old. “I want to play at a high level,” he says. “I want to prove to everyone that I’m a small guy, but I can compete with the best.”
* D’Andre returned to the States just before this issue went to print due to a family emergency. He may or may not be back for the season.
Icelandic basketball facts
• The governing board of Iceland’s basketball leagues is Körfuknattleikssamband Íslands (KKÍ), the Icelandic Basketball Federation
• KKÍ was founded in 1961. Its first president was Bogi Þorsteinsson
• There are two basketball divisions in Iceland: the Division I league and the Domino’s Premier league
• The Domino’s Premier league consists of 12 teams. Their 22-game season lasts from early October to mid-March.
• Each team is allowed to hire as many non-Icelandic citizens as they want, but only two can be on the court at any one time.
• Prior to the 2008 crash, American players made, on average, $2,000 USD a month. It is less today.
• There are currently 24 Americans playing in the Premier league.