Courtney Belger came to Quincy University in 2008 from St. Louis with a point guard's mentality.
Now he's starring in a German professional basketball league with score-first attitude.
Belger is averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game, plus 5.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists, for FC Schalke in Gerlsenkirchen, a city of about 260,000 people near Dusseldorf, in Germany's third division (it has 10 division). He started his professional career with TV Ibbenbueren in Germany's fifth division, then moved on to the Itzehoe Eagles near Hamburg in the country's fourth division. He also played with the Kalamunda Eastern Suns in the State Basketball League in Australia.
Now 27, Belger intends to play professionally as long as he can.
So how is your season going?
We're finishing up. We have playoffs in two weeks. Normally we play about 22 games during the season, then the playoffs that are the best of three. It takes three rounds to get to the championship.
How did you end up in Germany?
I got an opportunity to try out for a team in Mexico. I was there for really only one week, and I believed I had made the team. I was a point guard, and they had a point guard already. I think he told the coach, "We don't need another point guard." So the coach told me, "Well, we need bigger players and blah blah blah," and he cut me. So then I went over to Germany with Ali (Schwagmeyer, his girlfriend). I quit my job and everything. I was going to try to find a club, but it was mostly on faith.
How did you find a team?
I went to one tryout, and they said, "Yeah, you were good," but they never called back. I was going to fly home but I missed my flight, so I had to stay one more week. I met a coach that week and practiced with him, and he said, "If you don't find a team, I want you to play here next year." So I went to that team the following year, and we won the championship. I've pretty much been in Germany for four years, each year I've moved up to a higher league except last year. Maybe I can move up again next year. We'll see.
Do you play in any other countries?
I played in Australia last summer and spent time with Ali. I was hoping to do the same thing and see if someone wanted an import. I only bought a one-way ticket. Someone wasn't happy with their team and quit, and it was the worst team in the league. When I started playing, we won a lot of games in the second half. They brought me back this year. I'll go back there again.
How long do you plan to continue playing?
I'm as healthy as I felt in college. That was a long time ago, when I was able to jump and run. Maybe I'm feeling young again, but I'm taking care of my body. I could play into my thirties. The way I look at it, if you get it right and you go about business as a professional, the amount of money they throw around in the first division leagues, you might make $800,000 or $1 million in one year, so it's worth the gamble for me. You only need one good year. I also could go to a different country and make a lot of money. That's why I'm staying. I'm excited about the playoffs. I'm not too old yet.
What kind of player are you compared to the player you were at Quincy University?
I'm more of a mature player now. In Quincy, it was about being fast and strong. Now it's more of a change-of-pace type of game. I see plays that I never saw in college. I can score better now. In college, I just held myself back or something, but now I'm very comfortable with the way I play and my abilities. Now I look like a grown-up guard rather than a fast high school kid.
Your highest scoring average was 11.2 points at QU. Now you're the top scorer on your team in Germany.
That was a big adjustment. My first team, the coach talked to me real respectful and said, "Look, make sure you work hard, and I need you to score." After I embraced it, I never really looked back. I'm not used to scoring that much. When I got here, I kind of fell back into getting everybody the ball, and my coach told me, "We need your points. You can attack the rim. I can't have you looking to pass and get the ball inside." In college, it was a mental block. Why couldn't I have done that I college? We might have made it to the Elite Eight (in NCAA Division II).
You were a sophomore when QU lost in the region championship game in triple overtime. Can you ever forget that?
Afterward, you think, "We'll be back," but we didn't even go back to the (NCAA) tournament after that. You have to seize your moments. You never get that back. That's a tip-in that can go another way. That was a great time, and everybody was on a roll. I've never seen anything like that before, and it was a fun time in my life. I'm still not over it. I had fouled out at the end of an overtime. We lost on a tip-in at the buzzer, and I just remembered I always wanted to get that last rebound every game. When that last shot went up, everybody just thought the game was over, but nobody grabbed that rebound. I remember being mad at myself. I felt like I could have done something. I don't blame anybody else. That was just a bad situation.
When did you realize you had the skills to play professionally?
I always felt like I could play overseas because I worked so hard, and if I could just get a chance, I could make that work. When I went into college, I was saying I'm going overseas. It was always how I felt. Ali had good stats in college, and the agents were calling her, but I was calling the agents. I spent the whole first year at home in St. Louis. I was working at Cricket Wireless selling phones. I would wake up, work out, go to work, then go work out again. I was practicing against first league EuroLeague players, and after we were done, I was putting on khakis and a polo shirt. This doesn't make sense, but I just kept working out. It was a hard year. Ali was overseas, I'm still trying to make this work and pay bills. No team would pull the trigger. Ali was home in July, and we prayed hard one night. I was almost in tears. It was two years of not playing. I thought, "It's probably over. Nobody wants you any more." The next day, the manager of the German team called me and said, "We want you if you want to come." I was about to be done, because it was just too hard. Now I'm in a situation where everything is starting to come together.
When you were a kid growing up Florissant, Mo., did you have dreams of playing in the NBA like everybody else?
I really felt like I was going to go overseas ever since I was in the third grade. We had one of those "What are you going to be when you grow up?" days at school, and this girl asked me, "What did you put?" I said I wanted to play in the NBA. And she says, "Oh, yeah, the same as everybody." And I thought, that makes a lot of sense. I felt like I was a pretty good player, and if I'm good and fundamentally sound, I could go overseas. She helped shape my life. I don't remember her name, but I'll never forget it.
How difficult was it not to get a call for nearly two years after college?
I never felt like I had to give it up. I wrote to every team on Eurobasket (a website that follows European basketball teams). Trust me, I know them all. I wrote to every single team and paid the money to make everything available for me. I was working hard, and I was told no so many times. One person told me no because Quincy was too small. When people say they're going overseas, hey, I know what it's like. I try to tell them what the process is going to be. Some people get out of college, and they think they're going to wait on a big-money job. You can't do that. You'll never play ever. Once you miss a year, you probably won't get a job. People will ask, "Why didn't you play right out of college?"
What is the style of play like?
It's way different. In Australia, it's more like America. The game is quick, run and gun, and it's not as physical as it is in Germany. In Germany, players who aren't quick have to have the right footwork. You have to put the ball down first and then go. If you can't adjust, you're out. Things that were fouls in the states, that's not a foul here. The game is just way more physical. If you put your hands in the air, you can hit someone in the chest as hard as you want. I've actually gotten pretty good on defense over here. Also, they don't really want a ball hog. They want you to run their teams and their systems. When it gets down to seven seconds on the shot clock, then it's your time.
How fluent are you in German?
I'm not fluent, but I can have pretty good conversation. If we want to talk, I can't say everything I want, but we can have a good middle ground and have a decent conversation. The lifestyle is closer to America than when I was in Mexico. I don't feel like I'm overseas that much, Mexico was different. In Germany, people normally speak a lot of English. Everybody learns it in school. The driving is different. There are a lot of roundabouts. The weather is much better here. We were in shorts a long time ago. We have a lot of sunny days.
How's the food?
The food is all right, not too bad for me. This year, I've started cooking for myself and eating healthier. I don't have too much of a problem with the food. I don't eat a lot of the German food like the sausages.
What's the biggest adjustment to living in Germany?
There's no personal space here. In America, if you're in the grocery store, you don't walk right up on them. Here, they walk really close to you. Nobody says, "Excuse me." They just go where they want. It's not rude. That's just how it goes. When new people come from the states, I just check to see how they're feeling, and they usually say, "I can't believe they're so rude."
What would you say to any college player who wants to play overseas?
I've talked to a lot of the guys in Quincy. I just try to help them keep their head on straight. You never understand everything when you're in college. You're not playing enough or you're not playing good enough, and I try to keep them level-headed. It's about the team. You have to make sure you're prepared. If you're not performing, don't blame it on the other players. Just be ready. See how you can impact the team. I want to help people after college and pass on what I know. If you are really about basketball and want to make it happen, it's possible. It's hard, but it's possible.
Do you have plans for after basketball is over?
I've been doing basketball training, and I was the first guy one of my friends ever trained. Now he's working with overseas and NBA guys. If I said I was done playing, he wants me to come work with him right now. He says, "You'll make more money when we start training," but I want to play right now. Ali wants to open a gym. Those are the avenues and options. We could do that in Australia, but we'd prefer to be at home. I'll be around the game.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The level of the league that FC Schalke plays in was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.