STURGIS | Megan Mahoney stands off to one side of the floor, calmly instructing high school girls on the intricacies of two-person basketball.
It was more than a decade ago that Mahoney was in the youngsters’ place, learning the game from Mike Friedel, who was overlooking a camp at Sturgis Brown High School. And it’s still a little hard for Mahoney to believe where the game has taken her since.
From Reykjavik, Iceland, to Taranto, Italy, where she has led Taranto CRAS Basket to three Italian League championships in six seasons, to playing all over Europe as a EuroLeague All-Star, Mahoney has experienced more of the world than she ever would have dreamt possible while growing up in the Black Hills.
“I think the farthest I’d ever been in high school was Denver or Salt Lake,” Mahoney said. “I really had no idea that basketball would ever give me the opportunities that it has.”
Even playing at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., seemed like a bit of a long shot. Mahoney had all but suited up for Colorado State coming out of Sturgis, where she was one of South Dakota’s all-time greatest players. The Wildcats never gave up on Mahoney, though.
“I had basically made my mind up,” Mahoney said. “I was 99 percent sure that I was going to Colorado State. I mean, Becky (Hammon) was my idol and that’s where she had gone, so I was pretty sure that’s where I was going, too.”
But Kansas State kept up the pressure, giving Mahoney the total blue-chip treatment.
“They kept asking me if I had made up my mind, and I told them that it was pretty well made up, but they kept on me and asked if I’d go on a visit,” Mahoney said. “They actually flew a private jet up here to the Sturgis airport to pick me up and take me down there. I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go and make sure and then I’ll know,’ and then I got there and really fell in love with the place.”
Mahoney had a great career as a Wildcat, earning a first team all-Big 12 selection and making a Big 12 all-tournament team. She remains tied for 11th in conference history for career assists and 10th in games started, and she still holds the Big 12 tournament record for assists in a game with 12 against Missouri in 2004.
Mahoney suffered a torn Achilles during the Big 12 championship game her senior season but was still drafted by Connecticut in the third round of the 2005 WNBA draft. That led to her first taste of European basketball in Reykjavik to get her into shape for the WNBA. Mahoney dominated her one season in Iceland but wasn’t terribly excited about going back.
“It wasn’t a very good league,” she readily acknowledged. “That’s kind of what me and my agent wanted because I was coming off (the Achilles) injury and I wanted to ease my way back into it a bit, but it didn’t take long before I was scoring about 40 points per game. The competition wasn’t the greatest. Plus, when I first got there it was only light outside from about 10 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. I just didn’t like it very much.”
From Iceland, Mahoney came back to the U.S. to play for the Sun in 2006 and '07. Mahoney was on the Connecticut team for two seasons but never really fully broke into the Sun's rotation. After her second season, she was traded to the Houston Comets, which came as a shock.
“I heard I was traded to Houston and I was surprised,” Mahoney said. “Their roster was nothing but one-on-one players, people who are going to take you off the dribble, and I’m not that kind of player. I’m more about making the extra pass, moving the ball, you know? So I was a little concerned and I never really got comfortable down there. I got cut after two weeks and was kind of wondering why you’d trade for me if you were just going to cut me anyway.”
Like any rejection, the Comets’ decision to cut Mahoney stung for awhile, but she had already established herself in the Italian League and knew that she could find a basketball home somewhere. That somewhere has been Taranto, where Mahoney lives and plays for about eight months a year.
“I absolutely love it,” she said, while acknowledging that she entertains the notion of living in Europe after her playing days are over. “I miss my family and my friends, but I’m definitely not like a lot of Americans who go over to Europe and are counting the days off on their calendars until they get to go back to the States. I love everything about it: the people, the food, the style. I don’t want to sound unpatriotic or anything, but I could definitely see myself living there when I’m done (playing).”
Mahoney has played all over the continent, citing Prague as one of her favorite locations, although she says there aren’t a lot of places better to live than southern Italy.
“It’s great,” she said. “The food is amazing. Food is so much fresher and better for you over there, the weather, the people. It’s just a great place to live.”
It’s so great that Mahoney, who has turned down WNBA camp invitations the past two summers -- most recently from Washington -- doesn’t even think about playing in the world’s best league anymore.
“I love where I’m at,” she said. “For the first year or so (after being cut) I thought about getting back somehow, but I’m over that now. I just don’t think I could do it, mentally. I need that time off in the summer to kind of recharge. I don’t know how girls like Becky and (Diana) Taurasi and some of them play as much as they do. They’re going year-round. I just don’t know if I could do it. I’m very comfortable with where I’m at right now.”
Besides, it’s not like Mahoney isn’t getting a chance to measure herself against the world’s best. Her teammates on the 2011 EuroLeague All-Star team included WNBA standouts Seimone Augustus, Candice Dupree, Sylvia Fowles, Angel McCoughtry, Tina Charles and Sue Bird. Former UCLA standout Michelle Greco and Rutgers forward Kia Vaughn, both WNBA veterans, also played with Mahoney in Taranto.
“The WNBA is the best league in the world,” Mahoney said of the 132-person organization, “but there are a lot of great players, WNBA players, playing in Europe, too. I know that I can play in the WNBA, but there are some politics and things that go into making a team.”
Unfortunately, Mahoney’s spot in Taranto is currently in limbo, too. The European debt crisis has impacted the ownership of her team to the point that Mahoney isn’t sure where she will be playing next season.
If recent history has been any kind of indication, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Mahoney will make a basketball team better somewhere.
It will just be one more step in a journey that has taken a former Sturgis Scooper further than she could have ever imagined.