Why the NBA’s influx of foreign-born players is good for the game.

 

There is a buzz in the arena tonight -- odd, since it’s a preseason game for the Los Angeles Lakers and the famously late-arriving and stylish L.A. crowd is not known as a rowdy bunch even during the regular season. The energy is present, though, because the Staples Center is filled with a large share of fans for the visiting team: Regal FC Barcelona, a powerhouse club from Spain famous for being a development factory for some of the world’s best players, including current Laker Pau Gasol. That’s why, after the traditional (and, let’s be honest, somewhat odd) gift exchange among players before the opening tip, Gasol takes a microphone and addresses the arena, thanking the fans for supporting this effort to highlight just how international the NBA game has become.

 

February 15 Special NBA IssueEven if all the assembled fans haven’t yet grasped this shift, it’s made crystal clear in the game’s first three seconds: Gasol (born in Barcelona) grabs the opening tip, spins, and whips a perfect pass to streaking Lakers forward Vladimir Radmanovic (born in Trebinje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the former Yugoslavia), who easily lays the ball in the basket. At first, I mistakenly attributed the bucket to equally swarthy Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic (born in Maribor, Republic of Slovenia) in my notes.

 

I should be forgiven for being unsure. It’s been said for years that the NBA game is becoming more global; now it simply is global. As of October 2008, 75 out of approximately 450 players on NBA rosters were born in other countries. Most are from well-known basketball-loving countries like Argentina (think Manu Ginobili), France (Tony Parker and Boris Diaw), and Spain (the Gasol brothers and exciting first-year player Rudy Fernandez). But they also come from corners as unlikely as Iran (Hamed Haddadi), Cameroon (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute), St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Adonal Foyle), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Didier “DJ” Ilunga-Mbenga).

 

Now, I’ve been watching the NBA intently since before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson battled in short shorts and bad mustaches, and there’s one thing I’m sure of: As this global inundation continues, the game gets better. Not because foreign-born players are better than American-born ones -- they’re not, on the whole. And not because they’re friendlier or worldlier or because they have a better shooting touch or because so many of them smoke. It’s because they’re making the game better. Subtly, yes. But appreciably. Why that is may not be entirely obvious to the casual fan, though. Let me explain.

 

Before we can talk about why the game of basketball is better now that it’s more international in flavor, we must dispel the one huge, overriding myth out there about the foreign player. For lack of a better term, let’s call it the Hoosiers myth. You know the one I’m talking about: that basketball has become all style, no substance. That domestic players lack fundamental skills and get by on athletic ability. That foreign players are thusly succeeding because they understand, as Americans once did long ago, that true success comes from perfecting the little “fundamental” details of the game: setting screens, making bounce passes, boxing out for rebounds, and so on.

 

As Italian-born NBA players Andrea Bargnani, Marco Belinelli, and Danilo Gallinari might say, that’s ridicolo. First of all, the foreigners don’t play better fundamental basketball. It took Germany’s own Dirk Nowitzki, a former league Most Valuable Player, years to learn how to make a decent entry pass, and I still haven’t seen him properly box a man out of the lane (sticking his rear against the player behind him to keep him from having an inside rebounding position) when fighting for a rebound. Hidayet “Hedo” Turkoglu, who hails from Turkey, has been playing for eight years and still doesn’t know how to move his feet on defense. And show me a foreign-born point guard, and I’ll show you a between-the-legs dribble and behind-the-back pass waiting to happen. (I’m looking at you, Spanish expat Jose Calderon.)

 

Besides, it’s not that the game doesn’t already showcase solid fundamental basketball. It’s that players are so big, strong, fast, and good that one can no longer overcome a lack of talent/size/ability with solid fundamental play and a high basketball IQ. Charles Barkley, one of the great rebounders of all time, once said if he worried about boxing out, he never would have grabbed a board.

 

Okay, I’ll concede that there is a kernel of truth to this myth. Gasol does have excellent footwork, and he’s never going to take off from the free-throw line and dunk over someone. But that overstates the point. The success of international players is not going to make the 1950s-era Bob Cousy set shot a viable NBA option. No, these players succeed and make the NBA game better for very different reasons, most of them having to do with destroying our romantic notions of the sport. But trust me, this -- like the falling price of oil and adding the BBC to basic cable -- is a good thing for America.

 

There are five reasons international players make the NBA game better.

 

•They don’t confuse getting an education with learning to play basketball.

The idea of the student-athlete -- the amateur athlete -- is quaint, but it harkens to a time that never was. College basketball is a big business that drapes itself in the cloak of higher education. That’s fine for preserving the idea that major college sports are just a diversion from the real business of educating young men (and for preserving the cash that comes from this ruse). But it’s a poor system for training future basketball stars.

 

In other countries, promising young players are developed early with professional supervision, coaching, and training. They treat it like what it is: a job you have to work at if you want to become great. Having this sort of regimented practice over years and years is the single most important factor in producing top-quality players. Influential author, researcher, and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin has suggested (and author Malcolm Gladwell has popularized) that it takes 10,000 hours to become great at anything -- even basketball.

 

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals,” Levitin writes, “this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years. … No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.”

 

David Blatt, a former guard at Princeton University who was long hailed as the quintessential fundamental-fan favorite, has spent more than two decades coaching and playing overseas and is considered one of the best Euro coaches in the world. “I still believe the best basketball players in the world are in the United States,” he has said. “But the best-taught basketball players are no longer there.”

 

A good example is our friend Pau Gasol. He played for the Barcelona junior team at 16 and the senior team shortly thereafter. He spent years playing and practicing in school and, later, in professional leagues before being drafted to the NBA. Did it harm his education? Well, he still got good grades, learned to play Tchaikovsky on the piano, and attended a year of medical school. You tell me.

 

They bring diversity.

 

Duh, right? But I’m talking about diversity of style, of method -- crucial for the success of any group endeavor, whether we’re talking about a team or the league as a whole. In The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki talks about how all groups are made better with diversity, which brings a variance in approach and thought process when trying to solve problems. Like, say, the problem of how to get a shot off over Shaquille O’Neal when you’re barely six feet tall. If you’ve ever seen tiny Puerto Rican guard Jose Juan Barea do this with his insane number of herky-jerky moves and double pumps (and I have), you know what I’m talking about.

 

In 2005, Bethlehem Shoals (the pen name of Nathaniel Friedman) and several friends started the influential basketball blog FreeDarko.com, named after one of the more notable international disappointments in NBA history, Serbian-born Darko Milicic (a man drafted for talent and potential, not for his thousands of hours of work put in practicing the game). The collective’s new book, FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats, and Stars in Today’s Game, takes an unorthodox but revealing look at the league, including sections detailing its international excellence. Shoals is relieved that international players are no longer seen as oddities or “the great white hope” but simply as players to be evaluated on their own. That said, he acknowledges and appreciates that some of his favorite players bring a unique approach to the game, describing Dirk Nowitzki as “the archetypal weirdo import” and Russian Andrei Kirilenko as having “truly trippy box scores.”

Shoals also credits Spaniards as a whole for the way they’ve changed the game. “They actually play like they are from a foreign land that came up with their own version of basketball,” he writes. This was illustrated in the Regal FC Barcelona–Lakers match, when Gasol’s childhood friend Juan Carlos Navarro kept the game close with a ridiculous number of running, off-balance, crazy-angle shots. He looked like I did in the eighth grade.

 

They distract the media, who get caught up in looking for the next big thing.

 

This is good, because it allows talented-but-raw American-born players to develop in a less harsh spotlight. Now, instead of the media putting too much faith in college stars like “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison and J.J. Redick (who both had disappointing professional careers), we get magazine stories on a 19-year-old Spanish kid named Ricky Rubio that hail him as “the next Pete Maravich.” So we go on YouTube and see Rubio highlights and try to figure out how he will translate to the NBA. Meanwhile, some late-developer from a midlevel college team (Josh Howard is a good example) will play four years of college, work on his game for a few years in relative obscurity in the pros, and “suddenly” become an All-Star-level player.

 

They reinforce our faith in superstars.

 

Because LeBron James and Kobe Bryant on their worst days are still better all-around players than Gasol and Nowitzki and Yao Ming, we know that when you combine talent, practice, and ambition, the U.S.-born players are still the world’s greatest. That, too, is good for the game, as well as for our egos.

 

Beards.

 

Seriously, is there a better look than the untamed facial hair of these guys? Even if they shave, most of them have monstrous amounts of stubble by game time. How have they not banded together to form an advertising consortium with Gillette or Schick?

 

This gets at why international players have made the game better. But there’s one problem: None of this suggests why other countries have yet to produce a dominant superstar, the one thing needed for the foreign-born player to be truly accepted by the casual fan. Nowitzki is close. I still say he could have carried his Dallas Mavericks to an NBA Finals victory in 2006 if not for some highly suspect refereeing. I live in Dallas. I may be biased. But for purposes of this argument, let’s just agree that even though he’s on first-name superstar level, he’s still no Kobe or LeBron. Why is that?

 

Few know the NBA as well as Kenny Smith. He won two NBA titles with the Houston Rockets when they were led by one of the two greatest foreign-born players ever, Hakeem Olajuwon (the other is Tim Duncan, although both attended college in the United States, so they’re a bit outside the scope of this argument). Smith is also a longtime NBA announcer and analyst, and he’s so astute that his name has been floated as a possible general-manager candidate for teams even though he’s never been a coach in the league. His opinions carry weight, and they should.

 

So when he scoffs at my question about whether we’ve essentially reached a point where foreign-born players are viewed as equal to American-born, I take notice.

 

“They still haven’t proven that they can prepare themselves for the physicality of the U.S. game,” Smith says. “They do have more training overseas than ever before, but they can’t prepare themselves for the size and speed of the top American players. That’s why they all struggle when they first come into the league. It takes them a few years to deal with that.”

 

Although you could argue that Gasol, who was named Rookie of the Year his first season, is an exception, Smith’s point is well taken. Even Gasol has grown tremendously as a physical player since first entering the league. That toughening up is required in the elbow-flying, flagrant-fouling play of the NBA simply because there’s no other game like it in the world. I mean, American Vince Carter jumped over seven-foot-two French center Frederic Weis in a 2000 Olympic game. Jumped over his head. That’s not happening to Weis in a pickup game on the mean streets of Thionville, I can assure you.

 

Smith agrees that there has been a significant shift in the way U.S. players view their foreign colleagues. They no longer assume they can dunk on those bearded mugs without fear.

 

“Now [foreign-born players] are judged like any other ballplayer,” Smith says. “It’s what they do within those 94 feet, from baseline to baseline. It’s, ‘Can you prove you belong?’ Dirk has proven it. Pau has proven it. Yao has proven it. And that’s all anyone cares about now. Not, ‘Where are you from?’ but, ‘Can you play the game?’ ”

 

I think the answer is not only yes, they can, but also wonderfully so. This was on display even in that preseason game between the Lakers and Regal FC Barcelona -- the outmatched Spaniards fighting back to keep the game close with deft passing and tremendous shooting, Gasol dominating inside, Sasha Vujacic displaying his perfect shooting form and manic floppy-haired style of play, and D.J. Mbenga cheering in one of the five languages he speaks. True, the foreign players may not jump over someone and dunk, but they add to the game’s beauty and rhythm. And not just with their footwork -- or their beards.