PARIS — Sean May looks at ease playing professional basketball again.
Wearing headphones, the former North Carolina standout and Charlotte Bobcats lottery pick bobbed to his iPod mini as he stretched on an empty court before a recent game.
His decision to pack up, leave his family and friends and the comforts of the United States to extend his career overseas was made easier thanks to a familiar face, former Tar Heels teammate Jawad Williams. The two won a national championship in 2005.
“A lot of people don’t understand playing in Europe is tough. So, when you have someone you’ve known for 10-plus years it makes life easy; you don’t miss home as much.”
May and Williams have exchanged Chapel Hill for Paris, France and Carolina blue for ocean blue, but they’re still playing together.
They suit up for Paris-Levallois in the Ligue National de Basket Pro A (LNB) in France. Paris-Levallois has a North Carolina bloodline, as David Noel arrived in 2010, only to lure Williams for the 2011/12 season. Noel left for a different French squad this season, so Williams called May to fill his spot.
Gone are chartered flights, posh NBA arenas and 20,000 screaming fans. Instead, they bused more than four hours the day before and played in front of 2,500 before trekking back through the night to the capital. What the small crowd lacked in numbers on this night, it made up for with penetrating air horns that screeched the entire 40 minutes.
A far cry from the NBA – or even Cameron Indoor.
While the scenery and languages have changed, May’s game hasn’t. He leads the league in scoring at 19.1 points per game, and Williams is third at 16.8.
May credits his health and friend with his success.
“Honestly, I’m more healthy than I’ve been in a long time,” he said. “Also, I’m more of a focal point here than I have been, so I’m just trying to take advantage of it. And, playing with Jawad makes it a lot easier. We have a good relationship on the floor; you can see we play well together.”
May, who hasn’t played in the NBA since 2010, has had to shed the weight criticisms that have followed his career, but his production and the style of play in France should keep critics at bay.
Unlike other European leagues such as the Italian league May played in last season with Montegranaro that’s known to slow the play and keep it in the sixties, the French league is a fast paced, athletic and up and down style of basketball.
“The French league is the most similar to American basketball because everyone is athletic. In Italy it was much more technical, but here we average 80 points a night; it’s pick and roll, we get up and down and we score the ball,” May said after scoring a team-high 18 points in 73-71 road victory over Poitiers.
The nomadic lifestyle of a professional basketball player overseas is much different than the typical NBA player or American career in general.
Long-term contracts are rare, and player movement is frequent. Players are rarely on the same club, let alone in the same league or country for more than two seasons (often changing every season).
Therefore, adapting off the court can be just as important to on-court success as spending extra time developing a counter post move.
Having played in Spain, Japan, Israel and now France, Williams said preparation is crucial.
“I think I’m kind of built to play different places,” Williams said. “I do a great job of picking up the culture. I do a lot of reading before I get to those countries to make sure I don’t disrespect someone without knowing.”
Williams, a 6-9 athletic wing who spent parts of three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, has fit in just as nicely on the court.
“For me it’s easy because I don’t have a position,” he said. “I’m all over the floor and with this league being more up and down I can play multiple positions and I’m able to blend in and fit into any league.”
Returning to the NBA is always the goal, but it’s not the driving force to keep playing.
“If it were to happen, I would take full advantage, but we’ve talked about it and we’re both happy,” May said. “We’re making good money (both are on identical contracts and are the highest paid players in the league at $334,000 U.S. per season) and we live in a great city, so it would have to be the right situation.”
May played with international journeyman Alan Anderson in Charlotte. Anderson is back in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors, and May said he’s talked with Anderson about returning after a long hiatus. But, as he and Williams approach 30, neither wants to be a 12th man, cemented to the bench on an NBA roster.
“It’s different here, but it’s still 94 feet, two baskets and 10 players,” May said before laughing.