In this B/R exclusive interview, I recently sat down with Will Bynum to talk about his time spent in the Euroleague.
Will Bynum is a sixth-year point guard playing his fifth season with the Detroit Pistons. After being undrafted out of Georgia Tech in 2005, he caught on with the Golden State Warriors and played 15 games with them.
After that he chose to go overseas and play with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel through 2008, helping to lead them to the Euroleague final in 2008.
Following that season, he came back to the NBA, this time signing with the Pistons.
The following is his account of his time overseas.
What led you to head overseas?
I had offers to play elsewhere, but my best offer was from Maccabi Tel Aviv. It was an easy decision after speaking with other former players.
I played extremely well in Summer League, so I had other offers, but the offer from Maccabi was the best. I talked with a lot of others that played in Israel, in particular Anthony Parker and Derrick Sharp, who both told me great things about the organization and the country.
Back then I didn’t know as much as I do today about the culture and the country. I was a little bit nervous; the only thing I knew were the things I saw on the news, which were about fighting and conflict. After speaking with those players, it made my decision that much easier.
When you arrived in Israel, they were wrapping up a war with Lebanon. When you were concluding your time in Israel, they were in the midst of another war. What was it like playing in a country during wartime?
What people don’t know about Israel is that the people are the army. Of course they have a military in case things get really bad, but everyone who is over the age of 18 from Israel has to go through the army. They go to high school, then the army (two years for women and three for men) and then college. Therefore, everyone has some formal army training.
For me growing up in Chicago, there were certain areas in which I knew not to go—the same way it was in Israel. So therefore there was no fear whatsoever for me being over there. Although there was a war going on when I arrived, and another beginning as I was leaving, you would never know; everyone went about their business as normal, much like people do here in America.
Living in a different country always presents subtle differences from a cultural standpoint. What were some of the differences in food and popular culture between the U.S. and Israel?
The food doesn’t last as long as it does in America; the locals prefer to buy their produce fresh and more frequently rather than buying in bulk and storing it at home like Americans do.
Milk only lasts three days, fruit bread and small things like that don’t last as long either. The chickens had feathers on them when you bought them, so you had to pluck it yourself or have the butcher do it for you, but it was delicious. The food was delicious because it was so fresh, so it wasn’t much of an adjustment.
They have a variety of music offerings—it’s pretty much the same. There isn’t a big cultural gap between Israel and America in that sense.
When it came to adapting to the culture, it wasn’t difficult for me, a lot of things were similar. A lot of people spoke English, and a lot of signs were in English as well.
But the most difficult thing to adapt to was driving. The people over there have a different style of driving, so it took some time to get used to.
It was helpful to have other American players over there; there were about 200 players from America over there including men and women. We got to see each other all the time, so it made it more comfortable.
Being in Israel, I changed on and off the court. I changed as a man, I changed my eating habits and I also changed what was valuable to me.
The Euro game is viewed by many as being a much different brand of basketball. Talk about the Euro game and how Israelis view basketball.
I played in Euroleague, which is the highest level of European basketball.
It wasn’t guard-centric—it was more like the NBA style. The only difference is that it’s more team-oriented verses more player-oriented like it is over here.
Personally for me, it was great to play over there. It gave me the opportunity to run a high-level team and organization, and to be successful at it both on and off the court, which was life-changing. To me, if you have game, you have game, there’s no match. Basketball is universal—it’s not more difficult playing overseas. There’s no match; if you’re humble and a good player, you can adapt to any situation.
The games are more intense. In Israel, the games are more intense and spread out; we would play only two, three games a week, so when you lose, everyone is crushed. It’s a different feeling and a different pressure. The games over here are more frequent, so you can win one night, lose the next and be winning again the next day, all in a few days' span.
In Israel, the entire country is a fan of basketball; it’s the heart and soul of the country. They either love you or hate you, but the majority love you and know about basketball. Over here you have fans, but everyone has different opinions and favorite teams.
You seemed to drastically improve between your initial stint in the NBA and when you returned in 2008. Talk about how the Euro game helped you as a player.
I found that the Euro game helped me as a player. It helped me understand the value of the pass, which is crucial in the element of basketball and winning as a team.
My whole life has had me in different situations. When I was in college, I was asked to score more, so that is what I did to win. When I got to Israel, I was asked to do both—score and pass—so that is what I did in Israel.
The people helped me transition, as well as the players. Early on in the season, I had high-scoring games, and we would win, but the next day, I would be criticized in the paper.
If I was out going to the store, fans would tell me I was amazing, but [that] I would be better if I valued the pass. I saw what they were talking about, so I changed. As a result, the games became much easier and we began to win much more, and by more points. They became better-flowing games.
After a successful stint in Israel that included an appearance in the final, you decided to return to the NBA. Talk about what went into that decision.
Playing in the NBA was always the main goal for me; as a kid you always dream of playing in the NBA. Playing overseas was just another option for me—it was another path on my journey to the NBA, and so it wasn’t a hard decision for me to come back.
At this point in my career, it’s financially important for me to put my family and myself in the best situation possible, whether it be in the NBA or playing overseas.