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Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014

Sioux Central grad Alex Dunn spans the globe

Monday, January 31, 2011

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From the Berlin Wall to vineyards in France, Alex Dunn has seen a bit of it all. All of it made possible by a round orange ball that weighs less than a pound and a half.

"I will never forget the Red Square in Moscow, the Berlin Wall, the concentration camps in Auschwitz," said Dunn. "The fog in the Ukraine, the smog in Shanghai, the feta cheese in Greece, the crepes in France, the rugged mountains in Turkey, flying over the snowcapped Swiss Alps, and the amazing 1,000 year old cathedrals throughout Europe."

Dunn's passport is an impressively well-weathered one for a 28-year old. His world wide tour comes as part of a day's work as the 2000 Sioux Central graduate has spent the past six years touring Europe as a professional basketball player.

Dunn left Sioux Central as the school's fifth all-time leading scorer (733 points) and sixth leading rebounder (405). Averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks a game, he led the Rebels to an 18-4 finish his senior season. SxC advanced as far as the District finals that year, helping the now 7-footer garner All-State accolades and a spot among the top 350 seniors in the nation in 2000.

Dunn took his talents to Wyoming and closed out his five-year collegiate career by averaging 9.3 points and 8.6 rebounds his senior season. Dunn soon realized that embarking on a pro career stateside would be difficult.

"The CBA was scraping by, and the NBA D-League was still up and coming when I graduated," said Dunn. "People always ask me and my family why I don't play in the NBA. What many people don't realize is that with only 15 roster spots for 30 teams, there are only 450 players who can play in the NBA. If you narrow it down to my positions, there are only 90 spots available, with at least half of those being veteran guys who already have their "in" with the NBA. With so few spots, it's absolutely one of the most difficult leagues to get in to, no matter what your skill level."

His senior year wrapped, and the NBA most likely out of the picture, Dunn began courting suitors in Europe.

"I was planning on going to Europe after my senior season, so my agent immediately began searching for the right team," he said. "My first job was with a team in Poland, which had pretty low expectations. A successful season would be finishing in the top eight and making the playoffs. We ended up finishing third, the most successful season in the team's history."

While the game played across the pond is nearly identical to the state side version, the organizational ranks are structured more like Europe's professional soccer leagues than the NBA and it's developmental league affiliate.

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"When people ask where I play in Europe, I always say whichever country I'm playing in," said Dunn. "A lot of people think there is only one team per country, and I'm representing that specific country against others. Nearly every country in the world has their own professional league with around 12-15 teams, but the strength of the league varies greatly. The NBA is obviously the strongest in the world. After the NBA, the strongest leagues are found in Europe, where Spain is the next strongest followed closely by France, Italy, Russia, Greece, Turkey, and even Israel has a good league."

Just as in the soccer ranks, basketball clubs are up for promotion or relegation to different divisions based upon their performances. There is also the Euroleague, Eurocup and Eurochallenge, three different cup tournaments that pit the continent's best teams against each other. The top 32 teams in Europe take part in the Euroleague, the next 32 in the Eurocup and so on. Being among those prestigious enough to take part can also be a grueling challenge as the cup season games are played at the same as the regular season schedule.

After Poland, Dunn made stops in Turkey, before finding his current team, in Roanne, France, a small city of roughly 35,000 located fifty miles Northwest of Lyon, and 250 miles south of Paris.

"I absolutely love France," said Dunn. "I'm in a small city, but there are still things to do and plenty of great restaurants to try. It's only an hour drive to Lyon, which is a very big, Americanized city. I'm also five minutes from acres of vineyards, where some great wine is produced. I was even able to help out with a wine harvest last Fall, which was a great experience. The biggest surprise has been how friendly and cordial all the French are. They get a bad rap from Americans as being rude and pompous, but I haven't encountered a single person that fits that description. They are always happy and more than willing to help you out."

While Dunn is enjoying the French hospitality off the court, his team is thriving on it.

"This season is going very well," he said. "My team is currently 12-4 and in first place in the league. This team has a rich basketball history and is usually one of the top teams in France. In addition to the league, we played in the Eurocup competition. We didn't advance to the second round, but we played games in great locations like Berlin, Germany; Venice, Italy; Madrid, Spain; and Thessaloniki, Greece."

The French league consists of a 30 game season that runs from mid-October to early May.

With a regular season half as long as the NBA's, and owners more open to shopping around for new talent, the European leagues breed a competition that won't be seen in the NBA's drawn out, 82-game slate

"The competition is extremely fierce," said Dunn. "Our job is to play basketball and win. If you aren't producing, you can be replaced in a second. European basketball has a mentality of 'what are you doing for us now?' If you are struggling through a 2-3 game stretch, you may start to feel the pressure, not only from the coach, but the GM, owner, president. They don't like to lose, and they won't hesitate to replace you. Even though we have a signed contract for the season, teams will hire and fire players until they find what they like."

Dunn also sees the style of play between the NBA and European games nearing each other in appearance.

"I think the styles of play are continually getting closer to each other," he said. "The international style has traditionally revolved around the 3-point line, with big men playing more like guards. They grow up doing the same drills as guards, so they are naturally pretty good shooters instead of physical players. Great examples of this would be (Dallas Maverick's Dirk) Nowitzki and (Toronto Raptor's Andrea) Bargnani. The European game is still very physical though. I think in 5-10 years it will be even more difficult to differentiate."

While Europe is still a soccer dominated culture, Dunn feels that hoops has solidified a devoted fan base all its own.

"Soccer is definitely number one, but there is a strong basketball following as well," he said. "The fan base varies from team to team, but for the most part, people are crazy about basketball in Europe. Each team I've played for so far has had great fans. The gyms aren't as big as in the states, but most games sell out around 4,000 fans."

Surprisingly, the language barrier hasn't affected Dunn much.

"All the players I have played with have been able to speak English very well, or at least enough that it was never an issue," he said. "One of my coaches in Poland spoke very little English but it still wasn't much of a barrier. Every team has a manager who is fluent in English to help out as well. I spent four years in Poland so I learned enough Polish to get around and converse with people if they didn't speak English."

Also aiding in the language barrier are the number of American players taking part in action overseas.

"Most teams will start out trying to get the best available national players from their country," said Dunn. "Americans and other foreigners are then added to fill out the rest of the roster. Every country has a stipulation on the number of foreigners on each team. In France you can have five foreigners, anybody that is not French. I've played against several former NBA players. One of the most notable would be playing against (Michigan's) Robert "Tractor" Traylor in Turkey. I've played against a few Duke and North Carolina guys like Daniel Ewing, Shammond Williams, and Ed Cota. My team just signed Ricky Davis, who went to Iowa and spent 12 years in the NBA."

The extended travel, and rubbing elbows with NBA, collegiate and international greats, are great perks, but at the end of the day it's still a job, one leaves Dunn living comfortably.

"Coming out of college I was an unproven rookie," he said. "After a successful first season I was in a position to make significantly more overseas than at any job I would be able to find with my college degree. If I could find a job in the states that pays me what I make now, I would be done with basketball. That's just not a reality. Salaries vary significantly based on your personal value, team, and situation. Players can make as little as a couple thousand dollars a month to over a million dollars for one season. If I had to guess, I would say the average salary of an American player in Europe is around $8,000 per month."

The pay comes at a price, however, most notably long hours and long distances from loved ones.

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"I thought I had an idea of what it was going to be like playing overseas before I stepped foot in Europe, but you don't really get a grasp until you've done it for a few years," said Dunn. "Most people think you get a lot of time off and can take vacations all around Europe whenever you want. We practice twice a day Monday through Friday and play games on Saturday, so that only leaves one free day a week and we need that for recuperation. The hardest part about playing overseas is the sheer distance between you and your family and friends. This is especially difficult around the holidays. They obviously don't celebrate Thanksgiving in Europe, so it's just another Thursday in November here. We very rarely get more than a couple days off for Christmas so we are usually stuck here as well. I've been able to spend one Christmas in the states out of the six years I've been in Europe. We are here for the long haul during the season. My wife (Katie, Miss Wyoming 2004) works in Salt Lake City year round but is able to make quite a few trips over to visit. So far she has been here for Thanksgiving and Christmas, with her next trip planned to come over in two weeks."

All and all, it's been a wondrous trip for the Sioux Rapids native, but a return to the states is what he ultimately envisions.

"My plan is to play one more season after this one," said Dunn. "I'll be 30 in just over a year, and I am about ready to settle down and have a "normal" life back in the states. Playing overseas takes quite a toll both physically and mentally. I don't have any desire to live in Europe once I'm done playing. It's a great place to visit but it's just not America!"

Readers can keep up to date with Dunn and his Roanne teammates at: http://www.chorale-roanne.com/.



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