Her passport is stained with pages and pages of ink, a little blue book that serves as an unofficial diary for her basketball life.
Slovakia. Stamp. Italy. Stamp. Israel. Stamp.…
Danielle McCray always dreamed of playing professional basketball, even back when she was a standout athlete at Olathe East High in the mid 2000s. In the winter, she was an all-state wing and McDonald’s All-American nominee. In the spring, she would hit the track and win state titles in the shot-put and triple-jump during her junior and senior seasons.
But even then, before a four-year basketball career at Kansas, McCray often wondered what it would be like to play basketball at the highest level, against the best women’s players in the world.
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“It's always something I dreamed about,” McCray said.
Of course, maybe she didn’t envision it like this.
In her three years since leaving Kansas, McCray has played professionally on teams in Israel, Italy and Slovakia, in addition to playing two seasons for the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA. The money in the WNBA is decent — especially for a half-a-year gig — but it won’t set up any player for the future.
And that’s what sends players like McCray overseas, where the salaries can sometimes double what they’re making stateside. Consider: Last year, during the 2012 season, the maximum WNBA salary was $105,000 and many players made as little as 36,750, the league minimum. Meanwhile, in Europe or places like China, prominent American players can command more than six-figure salaries — and the best players, like former UConn star Diana Taurasi, can push their European salaries toward $1 million.
“You enjoy it for the money,” McCray says of playing overseas, “and for the talent that you face. Because in a league, most of the time you're playing the same people all the time.”
The European seasons, which run opposite the WNBA’s summer schedule, can also add valuable life experiences. And McCray’s teams have traveled to play in places such as Russia, Turkey and France during her three seasons.
“It's been nice,” McCray says. “I've seen a lot. And it just changes your perspective on a lot of stuff. It's fun, just to go over there and play basketball and see every kind of country.”
The year-round schedule can also take a toll on your body, though, and McCray found that out the hard way earlier this year. On April 4, while playing in the postseason for her Italian team, Familia Schio, McCray pulled up awkwardly while finishing a layup.
“I just felt a kick in my leg,” McCray says. “It felt like I had one high-heel shoe on and one regular shoe.”
McCray had torn the Achilles’ tendon in her left foot. Her European season was over. And her WNBA campaign with the Sun was wiped out as well. So, for the first time since the summer after her senior year, McCray is spending an extended period away from basketball.
“I haven't had one of these in a while,” she says. “It's nice, but then again it sucks.”
It’s not the first time McCray has suffered a devastating injury. She also tore the ACL in her left knee during the final weeks of her senior season, also missing what would have been her rookie season in the WNBA in 2010.
McCray rebounded in 2011, averaging 5.9 points during her debut season for the Sun. And despite another setback, McCray, 25, says she’s never considered stepping away from basketball.
“It's totally the opposite,” McCray says. “I feel like this is kind of a rest for me. I've been at it for a while, and then it stopped. It's kind of like ... I miss it, so I'm not gonna give up.”
McCray, who spent part of her childhood in Florida, now makes her offseason home in Atlanta. She returned to Kansas City in June to visit her mother, Ellareese, and visit old friends at KU. She’s hopeful to return to a European team in January.
While rehabbing from her injury, McCray has watched the WNBA receive a minor boost from the arrival of college stars Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins. And for now, she’s hopeful that the league continues to grow as she makes her way back.
“Before Brittney came,” McCray says, “it was almost like, ‘Would the league stay here?" But now that she's come, it's like: ‘Who else is out there?’
“She's kind of helped bring it back. I think that class has helped keep it alive.”