There’s a certain amount of fear stepping out on your own.
Bremerton native Ashli Payne learned that when she boarded her flight for Gold Coast, Australia, last summer after graduating from Eastern Washington University.
However, her desire to play professional basketball was within her grasp, and she knew she had to reach for it or see her dream wither away.
“You can’t get the most out of life unless you live,” Payne said in an email as she finished her first full season of pro basketball in Portugal, “and no way am I going to let the gift God gave me go to waste. So whenever I see an opportunity that I can benefit from, I jump in with both feet and don’t look back.”
Payne said taking that first step to play nine games in Australia gave her enough confidence to pursue a full season of women’s basketball in Europe.
“I was so fortunate that I got the chance to experience how it was to play overseas before I went forward and committed to a whole season,” Payne said. “It wasn’t always great basketball there, but I loved my team. They were super positive and fun to be around. Also, the environment was very relaxed.”
Her agent was able to give Payne, a shooting forward and Olympic High graduate, a few options. Gdessa-Barreiro in the Portuguese Women’s League was the team she chose.
The team was a good one, having come off a championship season last year that also qualified for the EuroCup. Gdessa played in the Czech Republic, Italy and Hungary giving Payne the chance to gain more exposure.
Payne averaged 15 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game as a starter for Gdessa. The team included one other American, Ugo Nwaigwe, a 2016 Temple University product, and the two became fast friends.
Gdessa’s season ended with a quarterfinal series loss to Sport Lisboa Benfica 61-60 at the end of March. Payne led Gdessa with 17 points and 11 rebounds in the loss.
She was rewarded by being named to the All-Star team as a starter.
thanks to everyone that voted for me to be an all star starter ⭐ much appreciated 😇💓 https://t.co/LrDHlADJ2d
— cashliii (@_ashlipayne) April 4, 2018
Payne was grateful.
“Being a professional athlete is hard, sometimes more mentally than physically,” she said. “Americans don’t get a lot of chances to mess up especially in cutthroat leagues where coaches can easily just fire you and send you home if they feel you’re not performing.”
Payne said her team last year sent three Americans home, but that added pressure made her work even harder.
“These are attributes in life you can’t just learn in school,” she said. “It’s also why I feel like I can achieve my dream of playing in the WNBA. I’ve achieved all my goals thus far, what’s stopping me from reaching one more?”
Payne said her basketball IQ has improved because of the competition she faced every day.
“Some girls in this league have been playing against professional competition since they were 16 and it shows,” she said. “So seeing the game better with my head rather than just working on my physical abilities has been extremely helpful. My mental toughness has also improved. It’s not easy being away from home for nine months, but that’s the price you have to pay in order to have this life.”
Payne’s day-to-day was pretty mundane and repetitive she said. She trained once a day, five days a week with a shooting practice twice a week. She had access to a weightlifting gym as practice was not until 8 p.m. since many of her teammates were working or in school.
It was more complicated in the beginning as her teammates lived far from her, and for a long time, she was the only American.
That is why she was so grateful when Nwaigwe joined the team.
“It’s really hard to feel at home when you have no one that can truly relate to you,” she said.
Payne started a Bible study once a week, “and that has been extremely faith-strengthening and meditative for me. Being alone most of the day gives me endless time to self-reflect because I’m always thinking of better ways that I can improve myself as an individual. I love my alone time, but it’s also very difficult when I’m missing home.”
Part of being away from home is not being able to communicate with family as much as she would like due to an eight-hour time difference, but texting, phone calls and FaceTime made it bearable.
On her days off Payne left the little town of Barreiro, where she had an older but cozy apartment she shared with four roommates, to take a 20-minute ferry ride to the capital, Lisbon.
Payne said she is become very comfortable with public transportation and will ride the subway or metro train to get around the city. Her Portuguese was coming along, but Payne admitted it was a challenging language to learn “but people give me credit for trying and they even say I have a nice accent!”
The one language she and her teammates share is basketball, and the game didn’t suddenly change when she went overseas.
“My playing style works perfectly with a club like this, so I was able to thrive in this league,” she said.
She will have plenty of options now that she has a season under her belt and she is excited for what the future holds.
When Payne stepped off that airplane in Australia, it began a journey that she has enjoyed and relished.
“I have never once regretted my decision to play overseas,” she said. “I love to travel, gain knowledge through new experiences, and meet new people. One of the most beautiful things about sports is how diverse and unifying it can be.
“You meet people from everywhere, and it’s always so inspiring hearing other people’s stories. Also being able to have a career simply doing what I love, makes me feel beyond blessed every second of the day.”