As professional basketball has progressed over the past several decades, the competition has grown and making a career in the NBA has become increasingly more difficult. But luckily for the thousands of college players who may not have what it takes to make it to the pros, building a career overseas is now a very viable option.
Recent Colorado basketball alumni Sabatino Chen (class of 2013) and Nate Tomlinson (class of 2012) did just that.
After a successful tenure with the Buffaloes, former guard Chen knew that playing overseas was the best move for his young career.
“I just knew I wanted to keep playing basketball for as long as I could, and I knew Taiwan would always be an option because I got a Taiwanese passport,” Chen said. “I was keeping other options in mind, but in the end I wound up going to Taiwan.”
It was not, however, something he had planned on pursuing from the get-go. Before making the decision, he sought out the expertise of several influences in his life who had played abroad before.
“I had talked to Coach [Rodney] Billups for advice, but mostly about picking agents and stuff like that,” Chen said. “He and some other people that had played overseas, like Coach [Jean Prioleau] and Levi Knutson, had told me that it would be a lot easier for me to get a job overseas with an extra passport, so I pursued that route.”
Former guard Tomlinson, on the other hand, always hoped he would return home to play for the Australian league. For him, it was a more personal matter.
“Growing up in Australia, I obviously watched the [National Basketball] League as a kid and thought I would come back and play in it one day,” Tomlinson said. “My father coached in the league, so I was able to be around the players and see how they went about being a pro basketballer. I was very familiar with the league, so I knew it was a safe choice for my first job out of college.”
Despite his best intentions, though, the uncertainties of the career path still plagued him as a young “basketballer.” He, too, sought out the advice of his college mentors.
“I didn’t know whether I was going to come home to Australia or go over to Europe and play,” Tomlinson admitted. “I had a lot of people I trust help me with the decision and Coach Billups and all the coaching staff were some of those people. Bouncing questions off Rodney and Coach ‘Pri’—who both played in Europe—and hearing some of their stories helped paint a picture of what I could have been going too.”
But when push came to shove, the two CU alumni found gigs that would further their careers as professional basketball players. Chen found his home with the Yulon Dinos in Taiwan, whereas Tomlinson returned to his roots “down under” as a Melbourne United Tiger.
“For me to get a chance to play in front of my family and friends again after so long, it was something I couldn’t really turn down,” Tomlinson explained.
Despite their great success with their new teams, the journey was not always smooth. In the beginning, both men faced the challenge of adjusting to the unknown, in a game where the style of play was much different than what they were accustomed to in Boulder, and their expectations were very limited.
“I didn’t really know what to expect because most of my teammates or people I knew that played overseas had never played in Asia, so I didn’t really know what to expect about the competition or the style of play,” Chen noted. “After the first few practices and games, the style took some getting used to, it was very very fast-paced because there was not much defense being played. That is probably the biggest difference.”
Chen also faced some adversity early in his career when he fractured a metatarsal in his right foot, an injury that required surgery. And, as with any serious injury, Chen was forced to miss a good chunk of the remainder of the season. It wasn’t all for loss, though.
“I really learned a lot about how to take care of my body once I recovered, because I wanted to learn and do everything I could to not be in that situation again,” he noted. “So, in the end, I definitely got stronger and learned more from that experience.”
For Tomlinson, the adjustment period was a different experience altogether.
“I guess growing up watching the league and idolizing some of the players, it was weird to come home and play,” Tomlinson explained. “I hadn’t played in Australia in six years so I didn’t really know what to expect. The biggest adjustment for me was not playing in the black and gold anymore. Playing with new teammates, new coaches, new rules, new everything, it was all just different and I probably didn’t handle it great at the start of my career.”
His setbacks were also a little less threatening to his health.
“My first year in Melbourne, I came off the bench and backed up Jonny Flynn,” he explained. “It was a role I was not very familiar with and didn’t have a great year. I struggled to be myself and it was a tough year for me.”
After their first few years as foreign professionals, both men reflected on the impact that Colorado head coach Tad Boyle and his staff had on not only their games, but their lives overall.
“Coach Boyle prepared me the way he prepares all of his players for life after college, because he teaches his players to be accountable and responsible,” Chen explained. “This helped a lot in my case and probably many players who play overseas, because you feel kind of on your own here and so you have to rely on yourself a lot to push yourself in order to accomplish your goals.”
Tomlinson had similar things to say about his former alma mater.
“Playing under Coach Boyle didn’t just prepare me for a professional basketball career but it also prepared me for life,” he agreed. “Discipline and accountability were two things that I took away most from coach Boyle. He led from the front and by his actions and he was accountable for how we played. If we played bad, he always put his hand up and said it was on him and he will get better. That’s what a leader does.”
Since then, the two players have been thriving with their respective teams. They wouldn’t trade it for the world, because they know they’re doing what they love, no matter what their passports say. It’s something they would recommend to any college player today who strives to pursue his career, even if he can’t make it to the NBA.
While discussing the option, Chen made some very good points.
“I would say it say it is a very viable option once you graduate,” he said. “You can only play sports for so long at a high level, while you can work at a desk at any age and point in your life. I would recommend it to anyone who loves playing their sport because it is tough being overseas and out of your comfort zone. But if you really love it, then I would do it for as long as you can.”
Tomlinson agreed and elaborated about some of the perks in playing in Australia specifically, a country he is only slightly biased towards.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Australia is one of the best countries to live in the world and the NBL is a great league. It’s only getting stronger and with the caliber of players coming out to play it can only get better. Our season plays over the summer months, which unlike everywhere else in the world, it’s not cold! All the teams are in nice cities across Australia and we play in good arenas with great fans.”
For now, the former Buffaloes need to focus on their ball handling and jump shots without letting their careers and health turnover or fadeaway.
Contact CU Independent staff writer Alissa Noe at email@example.com.