There were many nights that Arik Smith, a 2011 Bakersfield High School graduate, sat in his apartment in central Italy wanting to leave.
He was only making about $350 per month in his first year as a professional basketball player and the team didn’t always pay him. The electricity, water and heating in the apartment the organization provided would shut off for days at a time.
He pondered booking a flight, taking a taxi to the airport and going home without a word to any of his teammates or team staff.
“I wanted to quit,” Smith said. “I wanted to give up. I wanted to say this wasn't for me.”
But each time, he’d talk to his family and they’d tell him this was what he wanted — to be playing basketball overseas — and he needed to finish what he started.
When Smith recently signed his “best deal so far” with BK Inter Bratislava, a team in the highest-tier league in Slovakia, he locked himself in for his fourth year playing overseas. Going from Italy to Sweden and now to Slovakia in August, Smith is far away from his days in Bakersfield and as a Division III player.
He’s proven his worth as a professional and is working his way up the ranks in Europe.
Smith’s path overseas started when he transferred from Wisconsin-River Falls after two seasons to Cal Lutheran, both Division III schools. Smith hadn’t gotten any offers out of high school in 2011 — considering he was 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds after playing varsity at BHS for two years — but was scouted by UWRF while playing with an AAU team in the summer.
Part of the reason Smith left to go to Cal Lutheran was because he knew the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which the team plays in, would be taking an all-star team to play in Italy. After his second year at UWRF, Smith decided he wanted to pursue professional basketball and if he stayed in Wisconsin he wouldn’t get that chance.
After two years at Cal Lutheran, Smith made the conference senior all-star team and went to Italy. He was “by far and away” the best player on the team, Cal Lutheran assistant and all-star coach Geoff Dains said. In the second game, Smith scored 27 points against N.B. Sora 2000. The Italian team’s coach offered Smith a spot. Smith didn’t accept until later in the summer when nothing else arose.
“He just needed an opportunity to get his foot in the door and he made the most of it,” Dains said.
The team arranged Smith’s apartment but the utilities weren’t always paid. In the winter, he sometimes had to sleep in his jacket and sweatpants to stay warm.
When the team didn’t pay Smith and another American teammate for a month, the two showed up for a game without their uniforms and refused to play until getting paid.
“The first year was the hardest, by far, life experience that I ever had,” Smith said.
Though Smith got interest from teams in a higher level in Italy, N.B. Sora 2000 wouldn’t let him workout for the other teams until his contract expired on June 1, 2016. That hindered Smith’s marketability and landed him back at the same level in Serie C in Italy the next year.
Smith felt he was wasting his time by not moving up, but after one year with Cestistica Ostuni in southern Italy, he joined a better league in Sweden.
Though the living conditions were better than his first year in Italy, Smith didn’t like winters — specifically the snow and lack of daylight — in Sweden. His final year in Italy and first in Sweden also granted him the same salary, at about $1,100 per month.
Averaging 20 points per game, Smith led the Swedish Basketligan — the top league in Sweden — in scoring and was named the guard of the year.
“It was the first year that I felt like I was in the right place and I was headed in the right direction basketball wise,” Smith said. Finally, the coaches in Europe stopped passing over him because he only played D-III basketball in the U.S., Smith felt.
Smith had such a good season he knew he could leverage it into a better situation for his fourth season in Europe, but his contract with Umea BSKT was a one-year deal with a second-year team option. The team wanted Smith to return, so he had to buy his way out, spending $9,000 to get out of the contract. It cost him more than he made that season.
He took the initial loss, knowing his deal to join BK Inter Bratislava in Slovakia would pay about five or six times more and include his own apartment and car, two meals seven days per week and two round trip tickets back to California.
Smith wants to play professional basketball in Europe for as long as he can. He knows each summer there’s a chance no one will want to sign him, but his goal is to play for teams in France, Germany and Spain.
“This whole three years, people have been telling me that it’s not gonna workout,” Smith said. “‘You came from a D-III. You can’t play at this level.’ The thing that I’ve learned is don’t focus on what other people say.”