|At age 39, Lebanon Valley star Andy Panko is a "fuerza" to be reckoned with and a model for how Division III players can have a successful professional basketball career.
Photo by FuerzaRegia.com
Every kid dreams of going pro, from the moment they pick up a basketball. Even if it’s just practicing that final shot, with time running out, while playing alone in the driveway. If you go strictly by the numbers, it’s just not going to happen for most of them. But, for a select few, a professional career is indeed possible.
The chances are even slimmer for Division III players. The two most successful since D3hoops. has been around, Devean George and Andy Panko, grew into big bodies during college and size always gets noticed. George was the first and (so far) only Division III player drafted into the NBA when the Los Angeles Lakers took him with the 23rd pick in 1999.
- D3hoops vault: Panko, George named to D3hoops.com All-Decade team (2007)
- D3hoops vault: D3 National Player of the Year versus the LA Lakers (October 2015)
George stuck with Augsburg for college, even after it was clear he could have larger aspirations, and got into the NBA pre-draft camp when another invitee had to cancel last minute. He played eleven seasons with three NBA teams and won titles his first three years, serving as a key contributor off the bench for the Lakers.
Panko also graduated in 1999, from Lebanon Valley College, like George a D3hoops.com All-American and a 6’9” guy who hadn’t been the same player coming out of high school. He was drafted into the short-lived International Basketball League, where he says he “spent two years riding the bus in North Dakota and New Mexico for $200 a week.”
Panko was eventually named MVP of the CBA, which opened opportunities in Europe. He spent 15 seasons in the Spanish ACB, generally recognized as the second best league in the world, earning MVP honors in 2012. At 39 years old, Panko continues to play professionally, now in Mexico, where his Fuerza Regia side, out of Monterrey, is currently 28-1 and headed towards a league championship.
His basketball success has allowed him to open a gym near Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he trains pros along with college and high school students during the off-season. “This game has given me so much. I have a wife of fourteen years and two kids who travel with me everywhere I go. I’ve gotten to see a lot of the world and give them the experience of many different cultures.”
The other path to the pros
It's rare for a D3 player to get a look from an NBA team as a player. But Division III alums in the NBA coaching ranks are now pretty common. Seven of the 30 NBA head coaches played or coached at Division III schools.
Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks: Played at Pomona-Pitzer from 1989-1993
Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics: Played at DePauw from 1995-1999
Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets: Played at Maine-Farmington from 1979-1983
Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons: Played at Brockport from 1977-1981; head coach at Castleton from 1983-1986
Tom Thibodeau, Minnesota Timberwolves: Played at Salem State from 1977-1981
Frank Vogel, Orlando Magic: Played at Juniata from 1991-1994
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs: Head coach of Pomona-Pitzer from 1979-1986
“It takes much more than talent and hard work,” says Panko, “You need those things, but you need to learn how to be a professional off the court. In Europe, because there are limits on how many Americans can play on most teams, there is a line of guys waiting to take your job. I stuck around because I was professional and they knew what they were getting.”
You also have to pay your dues. Panko rode buses in US minor leagues; Aaron Walton-Moss, a 2015 Cabrini graduate spent a season in Argentina and is now averaging a triple-double in the Icelandic league, with a very good shot of moving to a bigger league next year. “You’re only a D3 player the first year,” says agent, Mike Naiditch, “After that, you have a resume. You need to be willing to go anywhere, but you have to perform. If you play well, you’ll get opportunities, if you fail that first year as a D3 player, your career is pretty much over.”
Hunter Hill, a 2016 graduate of Augustana and one of Naiditch’s clients, currently plies his trade in the German third division for Idstein, in a small town outside Frankfurt. He says, “You have to take every opportunity, big or small, you never know what might happen.” Hill is playing well in his league and that track record will make a difference for his next stop.
One example of how this works is Rochester’s John DiBartolomeo, the D3hoops.com National Player of the Year in 2013. He signed with a first division Spanish team, but was loaned out to lower division clubs for two years. That foundation allowed him to move to Israel, where he’s in his second season with Maccabi Haifa and on more secure footing.
“It’s a tough adjustment,” says DiBartolomeo, “Living alone in a foreign country, shopping, cooking. The beginning was very hard. If you’re looking to play overseas, talk to someone who’s done it and find out if it’s for you. It is a tough thing to do.”
Success is possible, even from Division III. Looking through lists of American players across Europe, it’s easy to spot names we’ve seen before as D3hoops.com All Americans, but with so many teams, leagues, and countries, it’s very difficult to track them all. Pro basketball can be a grind, with lots of turnover, so even if you haven’t heard of the team they’re on, the fact a guy is still playing means he’s doing something right.
Of course, you don’t have to go to Europe or South America to be a professional, there are still a few outlets in the US. The Washington Generals may be a thing of the past, but 2016 Jostens Trophy winner, Trey Bardsley, of Nebraska Wesleyan caught on with the team that currently faces the Harlem Globetrotters each night, and he suits up for a local semi-pro outfit in Omaha when he’s not doing exhibitions.
Perhaps the most visible of last year’s graduating class is Catholic’s Bryson Fonville. He tried to make a go of it on his own, but eventually found representation with an agent. “I went to the national tryout for the NBA D-League and then a local tryout with the Texas Legends.” Fonville was taken in the fifth round of the D-League draft and is averaging 14 minutes per game for the Dallas Mavericks affiliate in Frisco, Texas.
There are a lot of exposure camps around, many charging for the opportunity to play in front of scouts, but there is a lot of skepticism among players and agents about their value. “You need to do your homework and find out which camps actually have coaches in attendance,” says Naiditch, “You also need a specific skill set that will do well at the camps.” A volume scorer with athleticism will stand out, but an unselfish player with a less stat-oriented skill set might get lost in the shuffle.
So many professional opportunities hinge on relationships. Agents have relationships with European partners and general managers; coaches talk to one another and become the greatest advocate for their players moving up through the ranks. Panko found his way to Mexico by following a coach from Spain to Puerto Rico and on to Monterrey.
This is precisely what Panko means when he said professionalism is key. I asked repeatedly about the challenges moving from Division III to professional basketball and universally answers centered on off-court challenges – culture and language barriers, a need to mature quickly, the ability to be humble and take what’s offered, even if it seems less than you’re worth.
Division III talent doesn’t translate into riches very often, although seasoned players can make a good living and, according to basketball-reference.com, George made $28 million during his NBA career. In the end, though, pro basketball is about more than the paycheck, or even love of the game. The players I spoke with talked about setting and achieving personal goals; they see professional basketball as almost a game unto itself, one that requires points, rebounds, and assists, but also personal growth, maturity, sacrifice, and tenacity to come out on top.
There are also some incredible benefits. Panko said, “Maybe ten years ago I would’ve told you I wanted to play in the NBA, but now I wouldn’t trade my career for anything. It’s been wonderful.” George retired at the age of 32 and now pursues real estate development back home in Minneapolis.
Many Division III players could make far more money using their degrees for other professional pursuits – and many will one day – but there is something about accepting an opportunity so few get and then experiencing new countries and cultures, challenging yourself against the best players in the world, that continues to call and reward the very best of Division III.
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