Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Tony Skinn’s career had a promising enough start.

Not long after helping George Mason through an astonishing run to the Final Four in 2006, the point guard signed a $100,000, no-cut contract to play in the top basketball league in France.

Skinn signed early, passing on offers to go elsewhere. The French team placed a huge picture of Skinn on the main page of its Web site to promote its new acquisition. At George Mason coach Jim Larranaga’s camp last summer, Skinn was all smiles as he talked about his promising future.

“It started out I had a good deal, nice money in Roanne,” Skinn said. “It was an offer I couldn’t turn down. I took it. I didn’t bother with the [NBA Development League] or anything like that because I had a son and the NBDL doesn’t pay anything. And I was playing in one of the better leagues in Europe, France Pro A.”

The outlook still may be bright, it just won’t have anything to do with Roanne. Skinn and the coach didn’t get along, and the guard left before the start of the regular season.

That began a roundball odyssey for Skinn, who then went to Croatia but quickly left after the club failed to pay him the money he was promised. It wasn’t until another stop in France that Skinn found a good — and paying — situation.

“I am going to keep playing basketball until I can’t run and jump, no matter where,” Skinn said. “If you have the opportunity to do something you like, you have to take advantage of it while you can. You could be out here working 9-to-5 doing something you don’t like to do. And you are not making $100,000 doing it or even $50,000 doing it.”

The undersized — Skinn is listed as 6-foot-1 — and ultra-quick guard is back home this summer getting ready for the next phase of his career. Later this week, he will participate in an NBA summer league camp with the Orlando Magic.

Skinn knows he is a long shot for the NBA, but he says his ball-hawking defense, exceptional quickness and offensive outbursts give him a chance. If he doesn’t make it to the world’s top league, Skinn is prepared — though not excited — to go abroad again.

“I am not a fan of Europe,” he said.

Skinn failed to make it past the preseason in Roanne, where he said the coach went out of his way to abuse him, treating each day like a tryout. The coach barely said a word to him while trying to change the shooter into more of a pass-first guard.

“It was just problems from the jump,” Skinn said while taking a break from his basketball camp at his old high school, Takoma Academy. “The first day I got there my agent was calling. I just knew something was wrong. It had little to do with me or my game. It was a real uneasy feeling. I think the team financially wasn’t ready to pay me that much money. They just signed me to that kind of money for whatever reason.”

He left Roanne after five weeks and flew home in late September to regroup. Skinn soon agreed to play in Croatia. While the level of competition was great — he played alongside several Americans on Toni Kukoc’s old club, the well-regarded KK Split — Skinn soon discovered another problem.

“They loved my game, but they weren’t paying me my money,” Skinn said. “My contract had [said] if I wasn’t getting paid within 30 days, I could leave and sue for the whole thing. I was patient with them. After 30 days, I didn’t get paid. I didn’t want to have to leave.”

After nearly seven weeks with no income, Skinn again exited Europe. He eventually received his salary for about a month.

Many players who venture overseas experience similar problems. They go without getting paid for long stretches, and some never get their money. Others receive hostile treatment because they are American.

Skinn’s old backcourt mate at George Mason, Lamar Butler, had his own problems overseas. Butler went from the most outstanding player in the Washington, D.C., region of the 2006 NCAA tournament to the obscurity of a hoops outpost in the Czech Republic.

There, Butler saw his playing time fluctuate wildly for no apparent reason and had problems with the coach. He vowed never to go back. However, when asked which former Patriots player had it worse, Butler didn’t hesitate.

“Tony, by far,” Butler said. “At least I was getting paid. He wasn’t getting paid. He was going through all that. I talked to him a few times and told him, ‘Don’t give up.’ ”

But Skinn has no desire to play in Croatia again.

“I would never go back to a country like that,” Skinn said. “I have heard horror stories. And now from firsthand experience, I have to go to a country where I know exactly what is going on — Italy, France, Spain or something like that.”

Skinn arrived home shortly before Christmas, unemployed and fed up, then finally caught a break. One of the other French teams that pursued him before he signed with Roanne — Clermont — offered him a contract. Shortly after the New Year, Skinn was on another plane back to Europe.

Finally, things turned out well: Skinn found a home for the next four months and finished the season in France. And the Clermont experience helped make up for an otherwise depressing first year as a professional.

“For a while I thought it was me, but it wasn’t,” said Skinn, who averaged 12.9 points and made 40 percent of his 3-pointers while helping the club stay out of the bottom three in the league and, therefore, in the top division. “In the back of my head I am thinking, ‘It can’t be me.’ But in the front of my head, I’m thinking, ‘It could be me.’ ”

Skinn is hoping for the best in his NBA audition but realizes he soon may be on another trans-Atlantic flight. The ex-Patriots player does not fancy himself a world traveler, but he is willing to globe trot if it keeps his hoops career alive.

“Just going over there and seeing a different culture and being a part of it is definitely a learning experience,” he said. “I can’t get mad because at the end of the day I was playing basketball and getting paid to do it.”

Except in Croatia, where paychecks apparently are optional.

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