By Ben Breiner — The Daily Cardinal
& Jordan Schelling — The Badger Herald
When graduating from college, any student’s top priority is to secure a job… even if that student is a basketball player.
And while most college athletes must relegate their athletic pursuits to just a hobby, there are many who do find work playing the sport they love.
Former University of Wisconsin basketball standout Devin Harris received the chance to play basketball at the highest level when he was selected 5th overall in the 2004 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards before being traded to the Dallas Mavericks.
Harris is one of few players to leave the Wisconsin basketball program early, opting to forego his senior season to pursue his NBA career after receiving Big Ten Player of the Year honors as a junior.
“I weighed all of the information I received concerning where I might go in the Draft and decided that it was in my best interest to leave Wisconsin after my junior year,” he said. “I sought advice from coaches and the NBA, and my family was very involved.”
But few players at the collegiate level have the luxury of knowing they are likely to be chosen early in the draft. The journey from the end of college to playing professionally has many steps and situations like Harris’ are rare.
Last spring, former Badger forward Brian Butch began his journey, which would take him near the NBA, but not quite into it.
Basketball is different from other major sports in that it has professional leagues that span the globe from the United States to China to Spain and everywhere in between. This gives many Division I basketball players the chance to continue their careers if they so choose.
“It’s nice as a back up to whatever else, but in the end you still need to be able to have an education,” Butch said. “That’s what I definitely did at Wisconsin, getting my masters and everything. You can only play basketball for so long. All it takes is getting an injury and you could be done playing.”
Butch earned bachelors and master’s degrees in life science communication during his five seasons as a Badger. He led the team to the 2008 Sweet 16 in his senior season, but as soon as that ended, the process of going pro began.
He attended an all-star game the weekend after Wisconsin’s season-ending loss, and the following weekend participated in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, in which 64 seniors compete over four days in front of NBA scouts and agents.
After that, Butch had to pick an agent.
“You go through, you kind of interview them. I had a set of questions I wanted to ask each guy I interviewed. And you try to select the best one at that time,” he said.
Once Butch had chosen his representation, he focused on finishing his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin. After completing his studies he plunged back into the world of NBA evaluation, heading off to the league’s official pre-draft camp.
He worked out for Boston and Memphis before returning home for two weeks, finding that no two workouts were quite the same.
“The workouts, it just kind of depends what each team is looking for,” Butch said. “When I was in Boston, we did a lot of shooting, we did some three-on-three stuff and we also did a three-minute run which is a conditioning test that they do. The workouts usually go anywhere from half an hour to an hour, hour and a half just depending on what team it is.”
Butch went on to say that Memphis emphasized post play in their workout. He also added the rules have changed this year, allowing for additional workouts before the NBA’s pre-draft camp.
After the workouts, Butch went home to Appleton, Wis., to catch up with friends and family while keeping tabs on the draft.
“Draft night was just one of those nights that you sit around, you watch,” he said. “It was nice to come home and we actually kind of had a cookout, just so I could see my family and my relatives because I hadn’t had a chance to see them because I was so busy prior to that.”
The path to professional basketball then took Butch to the Memphis Grizzlies’ summer team, but by August, he was nearing a moment of realization about his future. He was not invited to any NBA training camps and began doubting the advice he was receiving from his agent.
“As things kept on unfolding I realized that a lot of what [my agent] was telling me wasn’t true. At that point I kind of realized that, you’d have to go overseas and play,” Butch said. “It was one of those things where, it kind of happened in August where I kind of realized that would probably be the case. And you get excited for it because you get to see the world and you get to play a game so it’s a pretty cool thing.”
Butch then switched agents, dropping his first agent and signing with Edge Sports International Inc. — the firm that also represents former Badger Rashard Griffith. Griffith left Madison in 1995 after his sophomore year and has played with several high profile European teams and has won a Euro league title with Manu Ginobili on Italian powerhouse Kinder Bologna.
When he began pursuing his options overseas, Butch sought advice from one of his former teammates who had already made the transition to European basketball.
“A guy that I talked to the most was Zach Morley [about] what he’s been through and things. When you have a chance to talk to him, you realize it’s going to be different,” he said. “Especially being over here as long as I have now, you realize it’s different, it’s not what you’re used to, but it’s still the game of basketball.”
Morley, who played with Butch for two seasons after transferring to Wisconsin from Indian Hills-Ottumwa, currently is a member of the Aguas de Valencia – Gandia Basquet this season, which is in the LEB Gold league in Spain.
For Morley, who knew the NBA was out of the question when he finished playing for the Badgers, the opportunities presented in Europe were not something he really considered before graduating.
“I didn’t really know what options I would have to play after I finished at UW,” Morley said. “The only thing I really knew about playing overseas is what I had been told by the different agents.”
Though Morley still dreams of playing in the NBA someday, he is grateful for the experience of playing overseas. And while he would prefer not to be away from his family and friends for nearly 10 months out of the year, he loves what he does.
“It also has allowed me to travel the world and meet a lot of great people,” he said. “And I may be biased but I think that Spain is the best country in Europe to not only play basketball but to also live.”
For Butch, the experience of living in different countries has been a rewarding aspect of his basketball career overseas. He played two games in November for a Chinese team based in Nanjing, the capital of China’s Jiangsu province.
But then came another change. By mid-December, Butch was living in Germany playing for the Giants Nordlingen after being sent home by the Nanjing Dragons. It was then that Butch realized just how cutthroat the business can be.
“You quickly find out and learn that this is a business now,” he said. “It’s not all about playing the game you love because it is a business. As fast as you get somewhere they can let you go. You learn that very quickly.”
Now that he is in Germany, Butch has started adapting to his new surroundings. He has found enough English speakers to feel comfortable in his new home. And though the first few weeks were a challenge as he had to adjust to the new culture, Butch found things got easier as he became used to his new surroundings.
And though he is enjoying his time in Germany, like Morley, Butch still hopes to return the NBA in the future.
“I think the goal is of course always to get back to the USA and play in the NBA. I think that’s everyone’s dream still,” he said. “But if that doesn’t work out, a lot of people over here make a lot of good money and a good living playing basketball overseas, and I think people underestimate that.”
Playing the game they love for money, regardless of path they took to get there, is something each of these three former UW athletes considers a privilege.
So whether they’re earning millions in the NBA, have found a spot in a Spanish league or adjusting to life in Germany; Harris, Morley and Butch all started in the same place, as members of the Wisconsin basketball team.
“With my basketball career, the overall understanding of how to play the game on both ends of the floor and the relationship between hard work and results that I learned from Coach (Bo) Ryan and his staff,” Harris said. “Those things have helped me tremendously in becoming the pro player that I have become.”