Basketball has taken Prince George’s County native Danny Agbelese all over the world. He’s played for pro teams in Iran, Uruguay, Greece, Italy, France, and now Spain, where he has competed for several clubs in four seasons. But it is a place near to his D.C. roots where the 31-year-old, 6-foot-8 post player with a penchant for blocking shots, honed his skills that have lasted nearly a decade on the uncertain path of an American playing pro basketball overseas.
Agbelese, who has many relatives still living in the District, was a frequent visitor to the courts at Barry Farms in Ward 8. In bruising games against older players, he developed his post moves and the ability to challenge opponents at the rim. Among the players he faced at Barry Farms was David Hawkins, a D.C. native who played at Archbishop Carroll and Temple University, followed by several years in Europe.
“It’s amazing. You have to be built for it,” Agbelese says of those Barry Farms encounters. “The trash-talking, the intensity. It really is what bred us Maryland, D.C., Virginia players, guys that are so close. You learn the physicality, you learn the tricks. You learn things playing there.”
Agbelese played high school ball at DuVal in Lanham through 2008 and two years at a junior college in Texas. He then headed to Hampton University, a Division I school in Virginia, where he averaged 4.0 points and 3.1 blocks as a junior and 5.8 points and 2.5 blocks as a senior during the 2011-12 season.
Keith Coutreyer, the former associate head coach at Howard, helped recruit Agbelese to Hampton as an assistant. Coutreyer left the year before Agbelese arrived, then faced him in the MEAC.
“Danny was the defensive anchor on those Hampton teams,” says Coutreyer, who is now back at Hampton as an assistant. “He allowed the guards and wings to be aggressive and apply pressure upfront knowing that he was holding down the backline.”
Agbelese, like many other Division I basketball players, had dreams of playing in the NBA. He made that his goal in college and says he didn’t know about overseas opportunities. But close to a decade into his professional career, he is one of thousands of Americans who have made a living overseas playing basketball. The pay varies depending on the country and club, but most European clubs provide a free apartment, transportation, and food allowance. It is not rare for a Division I product in a men’s league in western Europe to take home at least $60,000 per year, though Agbelese declines to reveal his current contract. Top NBA-level players in Spain and France can easily make six figures per season. For comparison, the NBA’s development league, the G-League, pays a minimum of $7,000 a month for the five-month season, according to Sporting News, while the the minimum salary for NBA players is $925,000, according to Spotrac.
“I always tell guys when they come out [of college], if you are an American you may want to do the [G]-League. But if you don’t want to do that, it’s better that you get a European agent,” Agbelese says. “Find an agent that has a good relationship with Europe.”
Although Agbelese was never invited to an NBA training camp, he had one advantage over many of the Americans that head overseas: His parents are from Nigeria, and he spent three years attending school there, from 2002-05. He holds passports from both the United States and Nigeria.
“I had already adapted to a different type of culture,” he says. “For me, I adapt so well to my environment. It really doesn’t faze me. Iran was different; it was really different, but it was nothing too tough. I mean it was tough because that was [my] first year as a rookie, but I adjust so quickly.”
On a recent October morning, Agbelese is sitting courtside in southern Spain. He will soon begin an individual workout at his Real Betis home arena that seats about 9,000 fans. As he prepares, Agbelese reflects on a career that took him from public schools in Prince George’s County to the Middle East, South America, and Europe.
In several early stops, he was the only American on his team.
“You have to know the game. You have to be effective,” he says. “The style of play is different. Here the leading scorer may average just 16 points per game. Being a big guy, you have to be physical. The pace, they slow the game down. … You really have to think. It’s a small detail.”
One of those small details is knowing exactly how to set screens. Since he is not a big-time scorer, Agbelese has to be adept at other phases of the game.
“There are more plays, there are more sets,” he says of European games.
In his first seven games this season—his team normally plays just one game a week—he is averaging about two points and two rebounds per contest.
He’s currently playing in Seville, a city of about 700,000 that in the summer is one of the hottest spots in mainland Europe. But Seville is known for much more, including bullfighting, the legend of the romantic Don Juan, “The Barber of Seville,” and the final resting place of Christopher Columbus. The neighborhood Barrio Santa Cruz gave inspiration to the 1990s Latin hit “The Macarena.”
Agbelese returns every summer to the DMV, and keeps in shape with games at local high schools such as Largo and DeMatha in Prince George’s County. This past season he worked out with Earl Timberlake, who grew up in southeast D.C. and played at DeMatha and Rock Creek Christian Academy and now plays in college for Memphis. Agbelese has also played in the summer with former Georgetown stars such as Chris Wright, Austin Freeman, and Henry Sims—all of whom played overseas.
Last season, Agbelese played in Greece and was teammates with former DeMatha and NBA player Jerian Grant, a former member of the Wizards. According to Agbelese, Greece has a reputation for sometimes not paying players on time. “That is Greece, they get paid late,” Agbelese says. He adds that his coach in Greece last season spoke very little English.
Even though he attended a French immersion school in Bladensburg, MD, Agbelese hasn’t picked up any European language well.
“Me and languages, they never clicked,” he says. “I understand my parents’ native language and English.”
He turned down the chance to return to Greece this season because he wanted to play in a higher league in Spain, even though that might have meant less playing time.
Last season, with the pandemic, he encountered another layer of challenge overseas.
“The whole country in Greece was on lockdown; we couldn’t have nobody come to visit,” Agbelese says. “All we did was practice and go home. For me, that was like a prison. Our city was not that big; we played Euro Cup, so we had to travel to different countries and sometimes we had to take three or four COVID tests in a week. That was kind of irritating. Last year I probably took over 100 COVID tests.”
One day, Agbelese would like to be a basketball agent, specifically to help alums of small and historically Black colleges and universities. He realizes his shot in the NBA is likely gone, but for now, he enjoys seeing the world through hoops. And he’ll continue to play overseas. He estimates he has been to 15 to 20 countries, with stops in London and Paris along the way.
“I still feel 25, 26. As long as I can keep moving and grooving, I want to play as long as I can,” he says.