Iowa Women's Basketball

As Megan Gustafson travels the world, basketball is constant

She was adjusting to live in Hungary and new position before play was halted

Former Hawkeye player Megan Gustafson catches her breath as her jersey is retired after a basketball game against Michig
Former Hawkeye player Megan Gustafson catches her breath as her jersey is retired after a basketball game against Michigan State University at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, on Sunday, Jan 26, 2020. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — Basketball, her Christian faith and change are a few constants in Megan Gustafson’s life these days.

But you might say Gustafson’s life is a continual transition game — especially right before and during what she called a “scary and stressful” trip home to the United States to avoid being caught alone in Hungary as the coronavirus threat continued its menacing European rampage.

Basketball is a constant, obviously, because she’s a professional player. Her faith is, too, because that’s a huge part of who she is. Change because the exterior facts of Gustafson’s life keep changing every few weeks. Especially lately, with the coronavirus pandemic literally threatening the whole world.

Not long ago, she signed a multiyear contract with the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, one of her 2019 teams.

Her other team, NKE-Csata, a professional team in Budapest, is where she started playing after her WNBA season concluded in September.

The transition from Texas to Central Europe is a big change, but she also changed positions from the post spot to power forward. That requires occasional outside shooting, something Gustafson wasn’t much required to do in Dallas or at the University of Iowa, where her No. 10 was retired in January and where she is arguably the greatest to ever play for the Hawkeyes.

Budapest has 1.7 million people. Port Wing, Wis., where Gustafson was born and raised, has 164, and Gustafson didn’t even live in town. She was raised about a mile away on a small farm where her family kept horses.

Social distancing is a way of life.

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“So, yeah, it (was) a big change,” she said in a Chinese restaurant in Budapest in late January. “I mean, it’s pretty different, going from Iowa City to Budapest. I love it, though. I’m a city girl now. And the team has just been so welcoming that it hasn’t been a big problem adjusting.”

One more American — Emma Cannon — plays for NKE-Csata, and Gustafson credits the 30-year-old world basketball veteran with easing the transition from Iowa to Budapest.

“She’s played everywhere,” said Gustafson, 23. “Australia, Russia, Poland, you name it.”

Plus Phoenix of the WNBA.

“She’s sort of a mother figure. She and her wife have been so helpful and kind. But the whole team here has been great.”

NKE-Csata finished the shortened season 15-6 and fourth in the Hungarian A league, Hungary’s top level. They play in a spotless, brand-new field house. The team was a lock to make the playoffs, although they hit a bit of a recent rough spot, losing two in a row to finish the year. Cannon averaged 15.9 points per game and 8.97 rebounds, with Gustafson right behind at 15.1 points and 8.3 boards.

It’s basketball at a high level. The first-place team in the standings was Sopron, which featured WNBA star Candace Dupree, 35, of the Indiana Fever, and Briann January, 32, a former all-star recently traded from Phoenix to Connecticut.

Cannon and Gustafson are the oldest and third-oldest NKE-Csata players, respectively, and that’s another change for Gustafson.

“Our team is so young,” she said. “We have a couple of 15- or 16-year-olds. A couple of the youngest players will suit up, at least, although they usually don’t play, so that’s different.”

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If you’re a native English speaker, Hungarian is about as close to incomprehensible as another human language can be. It’s somewhat similar to Finnish and Estonian, but that doesn’t help a girl from northern Wisconsin.

“Wow. Hungarian. It’s pretty different. A lot gets lost in translation,” Gustafson said. “I know a few words. That’s it. Sometimes it hurts my head just going to the grocery store here.”

When the team is together, though, Hungarian players make sure to include the Americans, translating jokes for them so they don’t feel left out in the locker room. That’s important when you practice twice a day.

Language may be impossible. Food isn’t.

“It’s good,” she said. “There was some meat with prunes stuff that I couldn’t see myself eating, but it’s generally fine. I went to the grocery store, though, for yogurt and ended up with sour cream, so you have to pay attention.”

Gustafson’s Hungarian contract comes with a car and that’s also engendered change. She had to learn to drive a stick. She managed, with the help of her dad, Clendon, who visited Budapest in December for Christmas and Megan’s Dec. 13 birthday.

She misses her family, including her older sister, Emily, 25, who also visited.

The car (she can’t recall the make) usually stays parked at the arena, and she normally walks the few blocks to her apartment. That walk is a small part of her effort to stay fit.

“I try to take care of my body,” Gustafson said. “I eat a lot of chicken and greens and try to stay off carbs.”

She has never experienced a serious injury. “I’m so lucky,” she said.

She recently acquired a new dog, a Corgi named Pancake, who made the transatlantic trip home with her. She follows the Hawkeyes — the men and her former teammates — religiously and was thrilled they both were good this year.

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She has her own line of signature sportswear, has a faith-based blog called “She’s Got Faith” and attends weekly services at Budapest’s Riverside Church, where oddly, there are seven or eight fellow worshippers from Wisconsin who are in Budapest for work.

She traveled a little with her family in December, driving to Slovakia, then taking the train to Vienna. She didn’t socialize a lot in Budapest.

“It’s pretty much just the team,” she said. “It’s hard when you don’t speak Hungarian.”

Soon, if the WNBA has a season, her team will be the Dallas Wings again. WNBA players and the league recently agreed to a new contract that will increase pay and improve travel and accommodation standards.

Whatever happens, Gustafson said she’ll take it in stride.

“I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” she said, after not being drafted until the second round, then cut and later re-signed by the Wings. The Wings have had an active offseason and have a whopping three first-round draft picks.

Gustafson’s chip doesn’t express itself in any bitterness, even though Dallas got a fair amount of online criticism for cutting the 2019 AP national player of the year in 2019.

“I’m really glad (Dallas) brought me back,” she said. “I kind of feel like I belong there.”

Can she see herself ever getting sick of basketball’s relentless routine?

“No,” she said. “I love the game. I love the rhythm. I love to play — wherever. To me, ‘swish’ is the sweetest sound in the world. That won’t change.”

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Larry Johnson, a former Gazette news editor, lives in Bratislava and teaches communications at a university there.

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.