IF you're an American playing women's professional basketball, you really can't ``go home.'' There's no league. The land of opportunity isn't one, which in large measure explains why Dawn Staley, possibly the best woman playmaker in the world and the 1994 United States female Player of the Year, is about as far from her Philadelphia kith, kin, and hearth as she can imagine.
Tarbes, France, a city of 55,000 near the Spanish border, is now her eight-month home-away-from-home, the place she plays pro-ball and attempts to keep her athletic skills oiled between summer stints playing for the US national team.
Via telephone from France, she says her team pays her a decent salary and supplies her with a car and a VCR-equipped apartment. ``The VCR is the main thing,'' she says, since it allows her to watch American movies and review tapes of National Basketball Association (NBA) games her boyfriend ships to her.
Staley acknowledges that she feels isolated and that the absence of a US professional league gnaws at her. ``Americans are missing out on a lot of great basketball,'' she says.
Various leagues have come and gone over the years, but for one to stick requires NBA backing, Staley says. ``That's where all the money is,'' she says. ``Shaquille O'Neal [the Orlando Magic star] could finance the whole league.''
Despite her longing for an American women's league, Staley sees her overseas life improving.
``I'm enjoying myself tremendously,'' Staley says. ``My [Tarbes] team is close-knit; we get along extremely well.''
Only one regular-league game is scheduled a week, but the crowds are good. ``We get about 2,500 [spectators] for each home game, which is great attendance compared with other places in Europe,'' she says.
The competition only occasionally matches what Staley faced at the University of Virginia, where she was an all-American from 1990 to 1992.
She and Daedra Charles, a two-time all-American at Tennessee, fill the team's foreign quota and are clearly its best players. Nonetheless, Staley says she uses the opportunity to work on her weaknesses while trying to let the French players shine.
``I try to give the French players the spotlight,'' she says. ``I think that's important to keep everyone confident.''
Most of her teammates and coaches speak English, a plus since Staley has found it difficult to pick up conversational French. Nonetheless, she enjoys excellent relations with her teammates, which wasn't the case three seasons ago in Segovia, Spain, where she began her see-the-world postgraduate career.
Having taken Spanish in school, language wasn't the problem. Attitude was. ``The main thing I didn't like in Spain was the selfishness of the players,'' she says. ``For the last two or three months there, I lived out of a suitcase I was so ready to go.''
That experience also soured her, she says, because the team's management wasn't always honest and upfront. Shoddy, exploitative ownership can sometimes be a problem in women's pro-sports leagues, and it momentarily discouraged Staley, whose goal is to make the 1996 US Olympic team.
From Segovia, she went on to a more agreeable situation in Sorocaba, Brazil. Now the opportunity to play in France, a fast-improving environment for women's basketball, has her thinking she might continue past 1996. Upon her eventual retirement as a player, Staley says she wants to stay in basketball, but not as a coach. Expressing a preference for public relations or marketing, she adds, ``Maybe I'll be involved in getting a professional women's league going - in the near future.''