By Kevin Schnepf
Former Morris basketball star Brett Winkelman is averaging 14.6 points per game for a professional basketball team in Italy.
Brett Winkelman is playing professional basketball in Italy - the land of love. The day after he scored 22 points in a game, Winkelman proposed to Teri Martin - his college sweetheart who was visiting in late October.
"I took her to Lake Como for a romantic day on the lake," said Winkelman, who had made arrangements for a spa followed by a dinner in a glass-enclosed room overlooking the lake and mountains. "I waited until sunset and proposed on the balcony."
Talk about a whirlwind of change for the kid from Morris.
It was only last spring when Winkelman was reveling in helping North Dakota State's men's basketball team reach its first NCAA tournament. Little did he know he would be playing basketball overseas for a salary of more than $70,000.
Little did he know he would be in scenic northern Italy proposing to the Surrey, N.D., girl he met while attending NDSU.
"I've had so many life experiences in these first few months," Winkelman said. "I'm only 23 years old and to see as much and experience as much as I have ... let's just say it's nice to have basketball, which has allowed me to do all of this."
After leaving NDSU with an engineering degree and as the school's all-time leading rebounder and No. 2 all-time leading scorer, Winkelman signed his first professional contract with Edimes Pavia - a team that competes in the secondhighest professional league in Italy.
Just as he did at NDSU, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Winkelman has made an immediate impact. He is the team's second-leading scorer, averaging 14.6 points per game. He's also pulling down 5.3 rebounds for a 3-9 team that currently sits in last place in its league.
"It's a very competitive league," Winkelman said. "The No. 1-ranked college team would have a tough time beating the best team in this league."
Winkelman is also adjusting to the European style of basketball: like the wider free-throw lane, the 24-second shot clock and the physical play.
"You have to play through a lot of no calls," Winkelman said. "Fortunately, I like that physical style of play."
Winkelman learned quickly that defenders can swipe a shot off the rim and not be called for goaltending. He also made sure to dribble before taking that first big step.
"They call a lot of travels," Winkelman said. "By about the third or fourth week, I had the game figured out."
Winkelman is also figuring out the European lifestyle in Pavia, a "Fargolike" city of 75,000 - only much older.
He has learned to navigate the windy and curvy streets of Pavia with the Lybra Lancia, stickshift automobile the team provides him. For directions, he relies on the European GPS his parents bought him.
"There is no structure ... the streets are put together like spaghetti," Winkelman said. "When you think you're going west, you're going east. That GPS has helped me out a lot."
Winkelman has also learned Italians can eat pasta every day and their five-course meals can turn into three- to four-hour social events. He's thankful he studied some Italian before he left Fargo.
Speaking some of the language came in handy when his parents shopped for supplies for a Thanksgiving dinner.
"I do like pasta and pizza," Winkelman said. "But it was nice to have an American-style Thanksgiving dinner."
Winkelman has also discovered that the professional basketball schedule is more demanding than college - even though his team plays only once a week. The one day off per week allows him a chance to hop on the train and sightsee in nearby Milan or the coastal country in northwestern Italy.
Some of his teammates have families to go home to. Winkelman spends the free time he has in his apartment on his computer - communicating with family and former teammates like Ben Woodside, who is playing professionally in France, Andre Smith, who is playing in Turkey, and Mike Nelson who is playing in Sioux Falls, S.D.
"There are times you feel like you're alone," Winkelman said. "You learn to appreciate things you had in the states. But I have no regrets. It's been great to experience a different culture."