The phenomenon of Cougar ballers playing professionally overseas can be traced back nearly 50 years to when Ken “Gus” Gustafson ’75 – a four-year starter at the College – signed a contract to play in Grenoble, France, the summer he graduated. Initially, he tried out for but didn’t make the Virginia Squires team in the American Basketball Association. So, off to France he went. His career in the Class B League there spanned three years, an era Gustafson recalls as “a wonderful life experience.”
“That league was restricted to only one American per team,” he says, reminiscing in his West Ashley office, where he runs his own insurance brokerage. “We practiced at night because most of the other players had full-time jobs, and the coach did as well. My contract entitled me to a nice salary – roughly three times what the average person who played in college was making [in the real world], but it wasn’t NBA-level money. I also got round-trip airline tickets to and from the U.S., plus an apartment and a car. On top of that, there was a bonus for each game we won. All in all, it afforded me a great lifestyle.”
Gustafson gave the U.S. leagues one final try the following summer but was cut from the Atlanta Hawks after that team’s rookie and free-agent camp, so he resumed his career in France. “I got to play in Nice, Paris and Monaco that year,” he says. “I also enjoyed a sort of local celebrity status in Grenoble. And, on top of all that, I also learned to speak French pretty quickly.”
A little more than a decade later, Steven Johnson ’88 succeeded Gustafson as the Cougars’ lone basketball export. In college, Johnson was a smooth-scoring, game-breaking player who, like Gustafson, has his name and number adorning the rafters of TD Arena. Johnson’s steady, assertive play helped put Coach John Kresse’s program on the map, and immediately after his hall-of-fame career at the College, he signed with a German-league team. Johnson went on to play for teams in France, Spain and Austria, charting a career that spanned the better part of two decades.
Despite that success, another 10 years would elapse before players from the College truly caught the attention of pro scouts. In 1997, Johnson’s youngest brother, Anthony “AJ” Johnson ’98, had a stellar senior year, leading the Cougars to a conference-dominating season and a first-round victory in the NCAA tournament. That June, the Sacramento Kings selected AJ in the second round of the NBA draft.
AJ’s notoriety and the Cougars’ nascent success helped prime the pump of professional opportunity and set in motion a phenomenon that is as unrecognized as it is defining.
That same summer, swingman Stacy Harris ’97 and small forward Rodney Conner ’97 both inked contracts to play in Europe. Two years later, three other players found professional roles, including slashing swingman Danny Johnson ’11 and forwards Carl Thomas and Sedric Webber ’99.
Cougar faithful will remember the lanky, athletic Danny Johnson for his heroic, final-second putback that pushed the Cougars over the then-No. 3-ranked University of North Carolina Tarheels in 1998 – still the Cougars’ biggest regular-season win. Others know him as the radio analyst for men’s basketball games during the current era. Between those phases of his life, Johnson enjoyed a peripatetic 11-year career playing professionally in six different countries. Despite the relentless, grinding mechanism that is professional sports, he recalls most of that time fondly, ascribing his success to determination, physical prowess and a little luck.
Like so many Division I players who enjoy success in college, Johnson had his sights set on getting drafted and playing in the NBA. That he would have to pay his dues early on was a given, so he didn’t balk at settling for a role in the United States Basketball League (USBL) immediately after his collegiate eligibility elapsed.
“I played in the USBL with the Connecticut Skyhawks initially and then got my first break – a call to play for the London Towers,” recalls Johnson. “That was big. Right away, we were in a tournament in France matched up against some top European clubs and International Basketball League (IBL) all-stars. I think I averaged 36 points in two games and that got some attention from scouts back in the U.S.”
Though he would bounce back and forth between leagues in the U.S. and Europe for several years, Johnson eventually found a home overseas. It’s a simple sentence to write, yet nothing about his journey was easy – or simple.
“I was part of a new era for players at the College,” recalls Johnson. “We had been in Division I for only a few years, and we were having success, but there wasn’t a strong legacy of guys before me who had played professionally. No one really knew what path to take. Aside from AJ, Rodney and Stacy, there were really no role models, and I think professional teams and agents were skeptical. Their outlook was, ‘They’re a good team, but are they good as individuals?’”
The life Johnson had chosen threw down the gauntlet, and he responded. “Because I wasn’t an NBA draft pick and because I wasn’t high on anybody’s list,” he says, “I knew I had to make a name for myself – quickly.”
And that he did. In Connecticut, he earned USBL Rookie of the Year honors, which led to his brief stint with the London Towers. And that led to a starting role with the St. Louis Swarm in the IBL, where he became the league’s second leading scorer and again, Rookie of the Year. In turn, that performance brought invitations to NBA training camps and offers from overseas.
He played briefly for a team in France and one in Greece and then wound up back in the U.S. playing in the Continental Basketball Association.
At age 25, Johnson was invited to the New York Knicks summer camp. Despite what he describes as a “great camp,” he didn’t make the team. It was then that his calculus changed.
“I was 25, almost 26, and I knew I had reached the point that the NBA wasn’t going to look at me any longer. I realized it was time for me to buckle down and just go get what I could from the game careerwise before I got too old because this is definitely a young man’s sport.”
Capitalizing on his overseas opportunities, Johnson spent the next seven years playing for a variety of teams in Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Paraguay and Saudi Arabia. His good fortune, he says, was that he and his sister had been raised by his parents to be broadminded, to welcome new experiences and to approach the world on its own terms.
“The first few times I went to play overseas,” he says, “I wasn’t open-minded because I was young and focused on getting to the NBA. But as my career endured, I began to embrace different cultures and languages, and I realized it was cool to be playing and living in a new country.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “Playing international basketball comes with its challenges. There are language issues and contract disputes, that sort of thing. As an American on foreign soil, your legal leverage is minimal. In addition, you exist in an atmosphere of ‘produce or be gone.’ For everybody but the highest-paid players, it’s a game-to-game existence. If you lose a couple games in a row, you could end up with a pink slip. You have to be mature enough and mentally strong enough to deal with the fact that nothing is guaranteed. For a lot of guys, playing overseas isn’t what it might seem.”
Johnson also credits his two years at the College with preparing him to adapt. At a liberal arts institution, he says, you meet people from all kinds of backgrounds who expose you to diverse perspectives: “That opened me up and got me thinking about different ways of life and not being resistant to someone else’s perspective.”
All of this tutelage came to bear on what Johnson regards as the greatest moment of his pro career – an incident that took place well away from the hardwood.
“I played in Lebanon for three years with the same club,” he says. “That’s a rarity in this business. Most guys stay with a team for maybe one season. But I got to know my teammates well. We became good friends – still are. And in that span of time, we took that team from the basement to the top of the league.
“I came into practice one day,” he continues, “and could tell that something was wrong. The normal energy just wasn’t there. The local guys were down, and eventually I learned that management had been withholding their pay for a couple of weeks. They all knew that my pay was secure. I was the leading scorer, the team’s poster boy. For me, this was a powerful moment. I had to determine what I would do.”
In short order, Johnson arranged a meeting with the team’s management. He politely gave them an ultimatum. He said he’d sit out a few practices, and if the other players weren’t paid, he’d let the owners decide how they wanted to proceed without his services.
“It was definitely a gamble,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how they’d react. I put my name and my career on the line. Fortunately, I got a call after two days from a teammate, who said, ‘We’re good, they paid us,’ and we all went back to work.”
Pride of the Cougars
Five years after the turn of the new millennium, 11 more players from the College had started careers with teams in other countries. At the time, Cougar alumni were playing professionally in Lithuania, Germany, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Venezuela, Argentina and a few other countries. But the most prodigious and successful exports had yet to come along.
In 2007, 5-foot-11 Dontaye Draper finished his collegiate career, spent a few months playing for the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Summer League and then signed to play for one of the top teams in Australia, the Sydney Kings. That season, he earned sixth-man of the league honors, as well as some keen attention from NBA scouts and international teams. After playing with the Washington Wizards the following summer, he departed for the first of what would be nine seasons playing for teams in Europe and Asia.
Draper’s career turned out to be a steady evolution of increasingly impressive – and increasingly well-compensated – performances. His first season in Europe, he went from a team in Italy to one in France and then to BC Oostende in Belgium. Initially, he had reservations about playing in the European leagues and says he didn’t enjoy his first two stops. But Belgium won him over. The move to Oostende furnished him with nearly treble the salary, as well as a car and a nice home.
Despite his success overseas, Draper returned to the U.S. each summer to play in the NBA Summer League. “There were always different NBA teams that would want me to play then,” he says. “And for me, it was an effective way to showcase my talent.”
One evening, after the end of the summer’s final game, Draper looked up to see his agent charging across the court at him, waving wildly. “We’ve got a meeting right now,” he yelled, and dragged his client off to meet the coach of Cedevita Zagreb, a team in the Adriatic League.
“That was totally unexpected,” remembers Draper. “The coach had been following my game that summer and said he wanted to build his team around me. I had been playing really well, and my game had generated a fair bit of interest from scouts, but I wasn’t thinking about Europe right then. Zagreb’s offer turned out to be really nice, so I ended up signing with them, and that led to a year that changed my life.”
That next season, Draper killed it. He remembers flying high with confidence and loving Zagreb, and, despite all the wins he and his teammates were racking up, he says he never even looked at his statistics that whole season; he was just relishing the game so much.
“It was an amazing year. Our team made it to the final four of the EuroCup,” he says excitedly. “And I was being considered for MVP of the season [which he won]. And then, the Croatian Federation approached me and offered citizenship. They wanted me to play for the national team. That changed everything.”
Draper’s success created a quandary. His stellar season with Zagreb had him firmly on the radar of NBA teams back home. But accepting Croatian citizenship would require him to re-sign with Zagreb. Fortunately, the team offered him the biggest contract he’d ever had – $1.3 million over two years – so he became a dual citizen.
Success, as the saying goes, breeds success, and Draper would soon be headhunted by one of the top teams in Europe – Real Madrid. “That club is such a phenomenon,” he says emphatically. “When you tell someone that you played for Real Madrid, it really opens doors.”
He spent two years playing in Madrid in a system that afforded him not only a higher salary than Zagreb, but also diminished practice and playing time. “We had three point guards on the roster,” recalls Draper, “so I mostly played the third quarter of every game, and that was it. And practice, well, that was also different. We never practiced more than an hour and 15 minutes a day.”
At the end of his second season with Real Madrid, Draper decided it was time for a change. He and his agent negotiated a deal that would move him to Istanbul, Turkey, the next season to play for Anadolu Efes, part of the Turkish League. After a tough yet productive year there, he signed a one-year contract to play for Locomotiv Kuban in Russia. A year later, in 2015, he was back in a Real Madrid jersey for another year. He then played two more years for two other teams.
Now a full season removed from professional play, Draper considers himself blessed. “I grew to really enjoy other cultures and I’ve basically traveled the world in this profession and done OK for myself financially. Playing in the NBA was never my ultimate dream. I just wanted to make enough money to help my family and do the things in life that I like. You can make a really good life for yourself and do what you love – playing basketball –in leagues other than the NBA. Sure, it’s not easy going over to Europe, but if you’re focused, it’s very possible. It’s really hard to make it to the NBA, and if that’s your dream, well, keep chasing that goal, but there are other avenues.”
As of fall 2018, at least 11 former Cougars were playing professionally with teams overseas. Included among them are two women – Breanna Bolden ’17, who is playing in Italy, and Jacqueline Luna-Castro, who has played in Mexico, Finland and now Australia. The most high-profile alumni cager is Goudelock, who signed a one-year, $1.5-million contract with the Shandong Golden Stars in northeast China. His impressive career – including a stint with the L.A. Lakers alongside Kobe Bryant (where he earned the nickname “Mini Mamba”), a short stay with the Houston Rockets and MVP honors in the NBA’s development league, as well as in three different international leagues, has been a statement all its own. He has flourished in nearly every uniform he’s worn.
Hunt around online and you’ll find Goudelock’s 2018–19 highlight video, a four-minute compilation of jaw-dropping three-point shots, heady in-the-lane floaters and crafty assists, all set to the pulsating rhythms of Fort Minor’s “Remember the Name.” The song carries a telling refrain, one entirely fitting for Goudelock that also hints at the zeitgeist of Cougar basketball:
This is 10 percent luck, 20 percent skill,
15 percent concentrated power of will
5 percent pleasure, 50 percent pain,
And 100 percent reason to remember the name.
In the off-season during the summer, Goudelock returns to his home near Atlanta. He relishes time with his wife, Ashli Robinson Goudelock ’14, and their two young sons, and regularly gets together with two close friends – former Cougar teammates Jeremy Simmons ’11 and Antwaine Wiggins ’12, both of whom continue to enjoy basketball careers in Europe, Simmons as a forward in Italy with Montegranaro and Wiggins as a forward in Greece with Ifaistos Limnou.
At their occasional summer gatherings, like home cookouts with their families, smiles brighten the faces of all three. Life is good when your profession involves doing what you love, as well as what you excelled at in college, while also traveling the world and getting well compensated for it. And when you’ve achieved what your alma mater desires for every student – to become a world citizen – life can be even more rewarding.
A moment like that conveys everything.