When Bridget O’Donnell arrived at George Mason three years ago, playing professional basketball couldn’t have been further from her mind.
Three years later, completing her master’s degree and chasing a profession in journalism are still very much goals. But, now, so too is giving professional basketball a shot.
On Tuesday, O’Donnell signed a contract to play overseas with SBS Ostrava in the Czech Republic. The 6-foot-6 center from Belle Mead, N.J., will be one of just three American players on the team. Ostrava plays in the ZBL (Česká ženská basketbalová liga), which features 12 teams in the Czech Republic and carries several former collegiate and WNBA players on their rosters.
“I am really excited,” O’Donnell said. “It is crazy because I feel like basketball keeps giving me opportunity after opportunity and this is just another thing that basketball has done. I was on the fence about it and I decided to go to a combine during the Women’s Final Four in Dallas and just see how it went. And it went pretty well.”
O’Donnell’s interest in playing professional basketball was stirred this past winter when former assistant basketball coach Chris Lewis suggested she look into the combine in conjunction with the Women’s Final Four at the end of March in Dallas. Only two weeks before the WNBA Draft, the combine is invitation-only to college seniors and allows them the opportunity to be seen by WNBA coaches, general managers, foreign coaches and agents.
It was at the combine at SMU that O’Donnell met with 610 Sports Management and later signed with an agent out of the Houston-based company. Her agent worked over the next several months to find the best fit overseas. O’Donnell never worked out in front of coaches with SBS Ostrava but instead her agent boosted O’Donnell’s chances through game film and highlights from her collegiate career. O’Donnell also said 610 Sports Management already had developed a working relationship with SBS Ostrava as the agency has sent players to the team in the past.
“Once I decided to sign with an agency I was really hoping I would be placed somewhere for sure,” O’Donnell said. “They were confident and they said, ‘We’ll find you a place to go.’ I just wanted to make sure it was a safe place, a good fit basketball-wise, a good fit culturally – all of that. It sounds like this Czech team is the best fit for me.”
The 23-year-old will leave for Ostrava in late August, start practicing with the team and prepare for the beginning of the season in October. Her contract runs through March, with an option to play in an Australian summer league.
O’Donnell says she’ll approach the opportunities next summer affords when she gets there and dependent on how she’s feeling after her first professional season. Part of her initial reservations with playing professionally was the sacrifices it would mean for furthering her education. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in journalism from George Mason in May 2016 and then immediately enrolled in the school’s graduate program for sports management.
O’Donnell worried about leaving graduate school, concerned it might be difficult to return and finish her master’s degree if she stepped away from school. After talking to her parents, though, and with only four classes remaining for her to graduate, O’Donnell decided she could always take online classes or come back next summer and take a class or two.
The chance to keep playing basketball, make a living while doing it and see the world was too much for her to pass up.
“I wanted to keep going and keep working at it,” she said. “I decided school will always be there but this basketball opportunity will probably not be there in a year or two from now. So I just really wanted to give it a try.”
Ostrava is the third-largest city in Czech Republic with a population of 300,000. The city is less than 10 miles from the border of Poland. Czech Republic sits in the middle of Central Europe, surrounded by Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Poland.
O’Donnell has traveled to Istanbul and Tanzania but never to Central Europe. Though she’ll need to learn the language of Czech, many residents also speak English and German. The latter of which O’Donnell is no stranger to as she started taking German classes in middle school all the way up to college at Mason.
“I’m working on trying to learn more about the country but it is sort of going to be a learn as I go sort of thing,” she said. “If all goes well and it lives up to the expectations I have, I want to make a short career of this and see if I can do this for four years or something like that. Hopefully I can build my name and every single year I want to grow as a player and learn how to play in this European style, which I’ve heard is completely different than the American style of basketball and I just want to travel and see different places.”
O’Donnell becomes the third former Mason women’s basketball player in the last two years to play professionally. Guard Taylor Brown (Iceland) and forward Kristi Mokube (Germany) both played overseas last season.
O’Donnell, the niece of Hall of Famer and Olympic gold medalist Anne Donovan, played in 60 games and made 21 starts in two years at Mason. Her 45 blocked shots are tied for 15th-most all-time at Mason.
“The people I’ve met, so far up to this point, are the reason I wanted to do this,” she said. “Coach Chris Lewis, (former director of basketball operations Steve) Yang, all the coaches, they really inspired me to do this. I think if you’re surrounded by the right people, they can inspire you to do things you didn’t think you could do. I never would have thought in a million years I would have been able to do this. But if you surround yourself by the right people you can do anything you want.”