HERE IN Baltimore, the first round of the NBA draft this week was notable because the nearby Washington Wizards chose hometown hero Juan Dixon, the University of Maryland star, thereby adding another chapter to his inspiring story of transcending the tragedy of drug-addicted parents who died as a result of AIDS-related illnesses.
But across the globe, the annual exercise in divvying up the best basketball talent was eye-catching because it affirmed that the pro game has truly become an international one. Three of the top seven draft picks, and 14 of the 58 taken in the first two rounds, were from abroad. Most notable is that for the first time the No. 1 choice -- Yao Ming of China --never played U.S. high school or college ball.
Sparked by the spectacular 1992 U.S. Olympic "dream team" (starring Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson) and driven by the NBA's incessant marketing of its own dream of franchises in places like Barcelona, team rosters have rapidly gone global -- with 52 players last season hailing from 31 countries overseas. The league's most recent All-Star game, boasting five foreign-born players, was broadcast in 210 countries and 41 languages. The team with the best record, the Sacramento Kings, included a Turk and two players from the former Yugoslavia.
But Mr. Yao puts the NBA in new territory, and not simply because he's 7 feet 5 inches tall with unusual agility. (Really big men often don't pan out in the NBA; anyone recall Manute Bol?) He stands out because the Houston Rockets not only had to cut a deal with him -- about $10 million for three years -- but also with a half-dozen entities, including the Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association, the city of Shanghai, and his team, the Shanghai Sharks.
There's an agreement that Mr. Yao will continue playing for China's national team, but the real hang-up right up to the last minute may well have been money. In a scenario all too familiar to any foreigner who's had to deal with the often Mafia-like layers of Chinese officialdom bent on getting their cut, Mr. Yao is supposed to kick back 50 percent of his salary to the government. His Chinese team's going to get an undisclosed amount, too.
Thus, as the NBA brings American pro basketball to the world, the world brings its varied ways to the NBA. Which will prevail? In Mr. Yao's case, even with his parents apparently remaining in China, one suspects it's only a matter of time before the $5 million prevails.