Thursday, January 18, 2007

Basketball’s worldwide popularity changes face of NBA

Big Shot Rob put the finishing touches on his wardrobe, adjusting the collar on the jacket of his golden-colored suit after another San Antonio Spurs victory.

“Hey, Big Shot, do you got a minute?” this reporter asked.

A man who earned his nickname for his seemingly endless list of clutch performances in the playoffs, Robert Horry acquiesced to the correspondent’s request. But Horry wasn’t asked to talk about his exploits this time around; instead, he spoke about the influx of international talent in the NBA.

For the 2005-06 season, the NBA featured 82 international players from 38 countries and territories, according to

Aided by widespread media coverage, the NBA will never again be an all-American league; each of its 30 teams has or previously has had a player from outside the United States.

Intense training regimens for young athletes have contributed to the diversity of the NBA, said Horry, owner of six NBA championship rings.

“They [international players] go out and practice basic skills,” Horry said. “We [Americans] go to school and they go to [basketball] camps, basically. They teach them basketball 24/7. We don’t do that so that’s why the [international] explosion has [occurred]. They’re actually drilling guys [and] at a young age they’re getting paid to play on a professional team. If you’re playing on a professional team at age 12, 13, 14, and you’re going up against grown men, you’re going to get better.”

However, the NBA’s culture hasn’t changed completely, Horry said.

“They’re in the United States, so they adapt to our ways,” he said. “There are so many cultures in this country. They find a restaurant they like or whatever they want to do. It’s a country so diverse anyway; it really doesn’t matter if they’re playing ball or not.”

So how does someone from a country traditionally crazed with soccer make it to the NBA?

“[In my youth], I played a little soccer but I think because of my height and my friends I got involved in basketball,” said Spurs forward Fabricio Oberto, who stands 6-feet-10 and hails from Argentina. “It was my passion since I was young. I started playing at age 7, so I’ve been playing for quite a while.”

Increasing the worldwide representation of the league is a natural result of the improved basketball skill from international players, said Oberto, an NBA rookie and member of Argentina’s Olympic gold medal-winning national team.

“Being the best [basketball] league in the world, I think the NBA grows and looks for the best players in the world,” Oberto said.

Although it was once unforeseeable that a U.S. team of NBA stars could lose to a foreign team, Argentina’s Olympic victory was not unprecedented.

In 2002, at the World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis, Argentina became the first team to defeat an American team featuring NBA players in international competition. The Argentines won the silver medal, losing to Yugoslavia in overtime in the finals.

In 2004, at the Olympic games in Athens, Greece, Argentina defeated the American team in the semifinals and went on to win gold. Together with its gold medal in soccer that same year, it was Argentina’s first summer Olympics gold medals in any sport in 52 years.

The previous successes of the U.S. team motivated other teams to improve, with the hope to eventually beat the Americans, Oberto said.

Members of the Argentine team may still not fully understand the gravity of their victory, Oberto said.

“It’s incredible to be on that [short] list [of teams that have won Olympic gold in men’s basketball],” he said.

Some of the same Olympians are also impacting their teams professionally in the United States.

In the past, the Spurs relied more heavily on Tim Duncan, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands. In recent years, however, other players from around the world have stepped up their games, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.

“The maturation of Tony Parker [of France] and Manu [Ginobili, of Argentina] really helps us be more balanced and able to have as much of a perimeter and fastbreak game as an inside game,” Popovich said.

Devin Brown, who won a championship with the Spurs and currently plays for the Utah Jazz, said he enjoyed his experiences with teammates from around the world, including a training camp in Parker’s homeland.

“You get a chance to learn about everybody’s background [and] see how they grew up,” Brown said. “It’s very interesting that they all came from different places. That’s one of the things about having so many games and spending a lot of time together; they know a little bit about you and you get to know something about them.”

Don’t expect the flood of international talent to the NBA to slow down, Brown said.

“[International scouting] is intense. Not only in the NBA, but in college, too,” he said. “You start finding more diamonds in the rough, so to speak. It’s a great chance for them to represent their country.”

No comments: