League's foreign legions proving to be special forces

February 09, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

ATLANTA - Listen to the talk coming from NBA All-Star weekend. Is it the United Nations? Or David Stern's dream come true?

Pau Gasol talks about the honor of being Spain's sole representative. Tony Parker of France was a European pro in his mid-teens but says the U.S. college system can turn out solid NBA stars.

Andrei Kirilenko says he can never judge how well his fellow Russians will play in international tournaments. Brazilian Nene Hilario jokes about how nice it is to be Yao Ming, who has 1.3 billion countrymen rooting for him back home in China.

Meanwhile, Gordan Giricek said the war in Bosnia slowed the flow of Croatian players to the NBA because "it's pretty hard to run leagues when young guys are hiding in basements" and arenas in Split are being used for the military.

Welcome to your globalized NBA, where Stern's marketing vision - along with the worldwide appeal of one soon-to-be-retired Michael Jeffrey Jordan - has led us to a new-look, new-frontier NBA.

Even the American-born and -bred NBA stars are in total lockstep on the reasons this trend has made them and the league better - and richer.

"If you can play, you're welcome here," said Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, the high school standout turned pro whose star is shining bright with the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers.

"We don't just have talented players in America. This is a worldwide game. You play a pickup game in Spain or France now just like you do it here. This game was made in America, but I'm glad we've welcomed them with open arms."

It wasn't exactly xenophobia, but recent June drafts had left some U.S. players wondering why NBA scouts and general managers were so high on taking players from other countries.

It wasn't exactly paranoia, either, but there was concern, especially among some who felt that players fresh out of high school - many of them African-American - might get passed over in favor of Yugoslav, Lithuanian, French, Spanish, German, Nigerian or Chinese prospects. Better fundamentals and skills were cited. So, too, were allusions to greater hunger, attitude and "coachability."

Worry, however, has developed into admiration - and perhaps a well-deserved kick in the pants for American players who cannot take for granted that this is their game.

Yesterday, Jordan credited Stern for taking the NBA global, just as Stern credits Jordan for being astutely attuned to the benefits of selling the game and the league overseas. Jordan was adamant: "This is our game. I know it originated in Canada, but we perfected it. I think the United States should remain the best in the world."

However, even Jordan appreciates the wakeup call handed to U.S. players and USA Basketball every time a Croat is drafted or a Lithuanian team beats the United States in international competition.

Tonight, the NBA All-Star Game will present the rosy picture of globalization for everyone to see. It's refreshing and it's record-setting.

Six of the league's 66 international players will suit up at the Georgia Dome: Steve Nash (Mavericks, Canada), Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks, Germany), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Cavaliers, Lithuania), Tim Duncan (Spurs, Virgin Islands), Yao (Rockets, China) and Peja Stojakovic (Kings, Yugoslavia.)

Last night, a record six international players took part in the Rookie Challenge: Giricek (Grizzlies, Croatia), Hilario (Nuggets, Brazil), Manu Ginobili (Spurs, Argentina), Kirilenko (Jazz, Russia) and Parker (Spurs, France.) A 13th player, Marko Jaric (Clippers, Yugoslavia), took part in a Hoop-It-Up event.

The NBA's colorful map of foreign player representation is impressive, but more interesting is the way the NBA is settling into this shift in personnel, culture, skills. Players and coaches may be fighting with the referees these days, but foreign and U.S. players are using each other as measuring sticks.

"Whether it has to do with attitude or better skills or better shooters, coaches are looking for players who can help them [win]," said Cotton Fitzsimmons, the former Phoenix Suns coach who led the Western Conference rookie squad last night. "What I've watched slip in the NBA over the years are the guys who can shoot the basketball. Those guys who can shoot are a commodity now.

"The European players bring that. I remember going to do clinics, bringing Alex English with me to Italy, and the kids there were like kids in kindergarten. They were on the edge of their seats. They wanted to learn so badly. They wanted to catch up. That's what we're seeing."

Nowitzki is the best player on the NBA's best team. A versatile, slashing forward, he can now do everything it takes to score: drive, post up and, of course, shoot the three. But for all of Nowitzki's obvious shooting skill upon arriving in Dallas, he was, overall, underdeveloped. The way to measure the success of the NBA's globalization is seeing how foreign players like Nowitzki elevate their games - literally - to match that of American-bred players.

"You know Dirk could shoot the three, but that's all he did. The other things came because [Mavericks coach] Don Nelson drove him hard," Fitzsimmons said.

This is the crux of an increasingly dynamic relationship between American and foreign players in the NBA. Foreign stars might be more soundly skilled, but they still revere the way U.S.-bred players can play.

"In Europe, I was one of the best. I was good at it. But here, we are just one of the players," Giricek said.

"The [American players] are all above the rim. They jump. They're explosive. It is very physical, and the first thing I need to do is work on those things. As soon as this season's over, I'm going to work."

OK, so it's true. Some of these new guys who can really shoot still want to be like Mike. But the New Jack Mikes want to be like Peja, too. It's all good for Stern's glamour posse.

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