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Illustration by Tim Marrs

How David Stern and the NBA conquered the globe.

Growing up outside Paris, Tony Parker didn’t have to look far to find a basketball hero. His father, Tony Parker Sr., who had been a Loyola University Chicago standout before playing professionally in France, imparted his knowledge of the game to him as soon as he was able to walk.

“I was two,” says Parker Jr., the star guard of four-time National Basketball Association champions the San Antonio Spurs. “My dad played basketball, so I was following him everywhere, trying to do the same moves and everything.”

While his playmates were dribbling soccer balls with their feet, Parker dribbled a basketball with his hands. Also vital to young Parker’s development as a basketball phenomenon were summers spent in Chicago at the home of his father’s parents. There, Parker learned that to be cool on the playground, you had to wear a red-and-black number-23 Michael Jordan jersey.

In his grandparents’ living room, the nine-year-old watched Jordan lead the Chicago Bulls to the 1991 championship and declared: “I’m going to play in the NBA someday.”

Dad may have been his mentor, but the French youngster wanted to be like Mike.

So, too, did young boys in cities like Würzburg, Germany; Sant’Angelo, Italy; Bahía Blanca, Argentina; São Paulo, Brazil; Barcelona, Spain; Belgrade, the former Yugoslavia; and Istanbul, Turkey.

Now, Parker, a two-time NBA All-Star and the most valuable player of the 2007 NBA Finals, is but one of 75 active NBA players born outside the United States. He is a member of the most successful professional sports franchise of the past decade, a Spurs team that has built success largely by looking beyond America’s borders.

When the Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals, four of their five starters were foreigners: Parker (France), two-time NBA MVP Tim Duncan (St. Croix), guard Manu Ginobili (Argentina), and center Fabricio Oberto (Argentina).

Last summer, when the gold, silver, and bronze medals were handed out after the Olympic basketball tournament in Beijing, China, to the members of the teams representing the United States, Spain, and Argentina, 24 of the 36 medals went to NBA players, past and present.

Standing with hand over heart as the U.S. national anthem played and the flags of the three medal-winning nations were raised in the Olympic basketball arena, NBA commissioner David Stern felt his heart swell with pride -- equal parts patriotism and self-realization.

The globalization of the NBA, long a goal Stern had envisioned, seemed an unquestioned fact.