6 American Athletes Who Found Stardom Abroad
Josh Childress, a former star at Stanford and a key piece of the Atlanta Hawks' 2008 playoff run, is nowhere to be found on NBA rosters this season. Instead, he's in Greece playing for Olympiacos. In an effort to make a big splash, the Greek League squad signed the swingman to a 3-year, $20 million net deal this past summer. As Childress told the New York Times earlier this week, he's making about twice as much dough as he would have in the NBA, and he gets a chance to be a star. Plus, he gets to see Europe.
Childress isn't the only American who's gone abroad in search of stardom (and we're not just talking about soccer legends). Here are a few other athletes who made their marks after getting their passports stamped.
1. Milt Stegall
In college, Stegall excelled as a wideout and kick returner for Miami University (Ohio), but that success did not translate to the NFL. No team drafted him, and although he eventually signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, he only spent three nondescript years in the league. For his NFL career, he caught just 43 yards' worth of passes and scored one touchdown. In an effort to salvage his football career, he signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League for the end of the 1995 season. He might have arrived in Winnipeg as an unheralded NFL washout, but he quickly transformed into the man known as "Milt Stegall the Touchdown Beagle," a devastatingly effective slotback. (Think of the position as a Canadian football hybrid between a slot receiver and a running back.)
Within a few years, he became the CFL's answer to Jerry Rice. His 147 career TDs are a CFL record, as are his 15,071 career receiving yards. The NFL didn't just lose a speedster when Milt went north, though, they also lost an affable personality who's always quick with a quip, including this gem: "There's only six guarantees in this world. Death, taxes, trouble, Milt Stegall being on time, Milt Stegall being pretty, Milt Stegall being in tip-top shape. There are only six guarantees." How can you not cheer for this guy to win a Grey Cup before he retires?
2. Bob McAdoo
Unlike Stegall, basketball big man Bob McAdoo more than established himself in the top American league. There are few players who wouldn't envy McAdoo's stellar 14-year career in which he won two NBA championships with the Lakers, was the NBA's 1975 MVP and 1973 Rookie of the Year, and made five all-star teams. As his NBA career was winding down in 1986, though, McAdoo decided to hit the road. He signed with Olimpia Milano of the Italian League and started dominating European hoops with his blend of size and deft shooting. In his first season he led Milan to the Italian League championship and the Euroleague title; his squads successfully defended their titles the next season. He spent seven seasons in Europe before retiring, and was later named to both basketball's Hall of Fame and the Euroleague's list of its 50 Greatest Contributors.
3. Walter Szczerbiak
Hoops fans probably recognize the last name because of his son Wally's successful NBA career, but like Kobe's father Jellybean Bryant, Walter Szczerbiak's European exploits helped pave the way for his son's NBA success. In the 1970s, the elder Szczerbiak was a mustachioed scoring machine for Real Madrid after a brief career in the ABA. Under Szczerbiak's leadership, Real Madrid captured the coveted Euroleague title in 1974, 1978, and 1980 as well as four Spanish League titles. Like McAdoo, he was part of the list of the 50 Greatest Euroleague Contributors.
4. Ken Shamrock
Before he was one of Ultimate Fighting Championship's first major stars and the holder of the nickname "The World's Most Dangerous Man," Shamrock was a small-time professional wrestler. After spending some time in regional promotions here, Shamrock moved to Japan in 1990 and started to find his niche. Although he kept wrestling, he also began dabbling in mixed martial arts with the young Pancrase Hybrid Wrestling. It turned out he was better as a real fighter than a fake one, and Shamrock became the first King of Pancrase Open Weight champion.
When the UFC made its debut in 1993, Shamrock came back to the States to help the company take off and appeared on its very first card. After that, his American career began to thrive, both as a UFC fighter, where he won the UFC Superfight title, and in the WWF, where he won the Intercontinental Championship.
5. Tuffy Rhodes
Certain things about baseball's opening day are pretty much guaranteed. Jamie Moyer will be on someone's roster. Royals fans will have already given up hope. And some previously obscure player will explode with a career day, causing analysts to derisively bring up Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes. Rhodes spent parts of six mostly undistinguished seasons in the bigs between 1990 and 1995, but he's really only remembered for banging three home runs on opening day for the Cubs in 1994. Rhodes' power never really showed up again, though; in the other 94 games he played that season, he only managed five more round-trippers. Today, his name's synonymous with any early-season outburst from a player who probably can't keep it up.
After the 1995 season, Rhodes became a free agent, and with dim prospects in the Majors, he headed to Japan's Pacific League. Although American fans never got to see another glimpse of the prodigious power Rhodes flashed on that opening day, Japanese connoisseurs of the long ball got a pretty good look. In his new home, Rhodes became one of the most ferocious sluggers Japanese baseball has ever seen. In 2001 he clubbed 55 homers to tie the single-season Japanese record held by legendary home-run king Sadaharu Oh. (Rhodes might have broken the record, but when he played against teams managed by Oh late that season, pitchers intentionally walked him so a Westerner wouldn't claim Oh's record.) For his career, Rhodes has hit over 400 home runs in Japan, more than any other foreign-born player. Not bad for a guy MLB considered a one-day wonder.
6. Randy Bass
Bass was sort of a forerunner of Rhodes, but unlike Tuffy, he never had even a moment in the sun in the Majors. In fact, he was pretty awful. He somehow managed to play parts of season between 1977 and 1982 despite being a first baseman who couldn't hit for power or average. In six seasons, he put up a putrid .284 on-base percentage and .326 slugging percentage and managed just nine home runs.
In 1983, though, he went to Japan and turned into Ted Williams. While playing for the Hanshin Tigers he won four straight batting titles (including a season in which he hit a record .389) and won two straight Triple Crowns. He also nearly broke Oh's single-season home run record but fell prey to the same sort of trickery. On top of that, he propelled the Tigers to a championship.
He also inadvertently gave birth to one of the funniest jinxes in sports history, the Curse of the Colonel. After the Tigers won the 1985 Japan Series, the reveling included fans who looked like the squad's various players jumping into a canal in Dotonbori, Osaka. There was understandable difficulty finding a 6'1", 210-pound bearded white guy to jump into the river in Bass' stead. The Hanshin fans got creative, though, and chucked a life-sized plastic statue of Colonel Sanders they'd taken from a KFC off the bridge and called it a day. (After all, the Colonel was a white guy with a beard"¦close enough, right?)
After their Series win, though, the Tigers fell into an inexorable decline that seemed to get worse every year. Superstitious fans blamed the Colonel statue they'd drowned in the channel. They tried apologizing to the owner of the store from which they filched the statue. Divers and dredgers scoured the channel trying to find the missing mascot, but it's still at large. And the Hanshin Tigers haven't won the Japan Series since. Bass, on the other hand, is doing quite well as a Democratic state senator in Oklahoma.