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The internationalization of the National Basketball Association

This past summer, the elite international basketball squads of the world gathered in Japan to square off head-to-head in the FIBA World Championship. With the United States international team towering in prestige and clout over the seemingly miniscule balling nations, it appeared as though the legendary Dream Team of gold-medaled glory was re-establishing itself atop the world of international basketball. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony: The poster boys for America’s National Basketball Association.

The Greek international squad, composed of aged, veteran international players, haven’t got a single player in the NBA; a single player good enough to make the American cut. It truly seemed like David versus Goliath.

But professional basketball is changing, and with a shattering 101-95 victory for Greece over the mighty United States in the semifinals of the FIBA Championship, the affirmation that the “greatest game on earth” is no longer a homegrown coup couldn’t have rang more true. Almost every international team now features highly-talented stars, with nearly every competitive team boasting an NBA player.

Currently, an NBA-record 83 international players, from 37 countries and territories outside of the United States, play in the NBA, that’s nearly one of every four players in the league. Quite the turnaround from 32 mediocre international players at the start of the 1996-97 season. This tumbling trend sweeping over the NBA includes some of the league’s greatest players now – Dirk Nowitzki from Germany, Tony Parker from France, Pau Gasol from Spain, Manu Ginobili from Argentina, Yao Ming from China – not to mention the league’s MVP, Canadian Steve Nash. The division has disappeared, and the league is naturally exploding with international success, culminating in the NBA’s first worldwide preseason tour of Europe.

LZ Granderson, senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and host of the radio show “Game Night” on ESPN360, believes that the internationalization of the NBA is reflexive of the global marketing of the game, as well as the increased talent across the world.

“Right now it’s a cash cow,” Granderson said. “A billion people in China buying Yao Ming gear is not a bad thing for the league, and now that he is finally starting to live up to the hype he becomes even more profitable. With that being said, expect more aggressive marketing of players like Pau, Dirk, Bargnani, etc. Guys who can help the league penetrate other countries.”

David Stern, the NBA Commissioner, has been the real proponent behind the globalization of the game. His overarching vision of the international basketball market and its inclusion into the league is “to assure that the NBA remains successful in the United States, while at the next step, develop infrastructure on a global basis to take advantage of the opportunities.”

But why is this trend becoming so prevalent in a league that experienced complete isolationist success, both financially and in international tournaments, before the inclusion of international players?

Teamwork. Motion. Ball Movement.

The NBA slipped, in the post Michael Jordan era, into a well of selfish, individualistic basketball. It bred players whose sole concern was filling their own stat sheets and filling their own bank accounts. The team game, while still thriving at the collegiate level, had all but vanished from the slow-moving world of the National Basketball Association.

“I think players who have gotten by on athleticism alone are being exposed,” Granderson said. “I think fans are refamiliarizing themselves with the fundamentals of the game. [Dwayne] Wade, [Carmelo Anthony], and LeBron [James] are great individual players, but they also have the basics down. They have the midrange game, they can hit free throws, things I think were perhaps overlooked by fans and some players over the past 10 years. And again, getting our butts kicked in international play has done a lot. People are starting to wonder why is it that a max-contract player cannot consistently hit a wide open 15-footer, or play defense.”

And while the American players continued to sink deeper into the comfort of this style of basketball, a sprinkling of international players began to find their way into the league, spurred on by the media globalization and marketing of the NBA. The trend turned into reality as international players fell in love with the game and slowly built up skills equal to – and often exceeding – NBA players.

“What is really happening is the NBA has an unbelievable appeal to youngsters all over the world,” Federico Buffa, a famous Italian-TV basketball analyst, said. “Kids all over the world will watch the NBA game, and not an Italian or Spanish or French game because of the appeal. And then you dream, and then you think you want to test yourself with the best.”

Only a few teams were daring enough to risk a first- or second-round draft pick on, essentially, a massive question mark at the time. International scouting was still in its infancy, and the danger of wasting a pick on yet another failed foreign basketball player was too great for most of the league. But with bold and obviously well-researched selections, teams like the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns began to steal well-groomed international players – players that could dribble, pass and shoot – in the late first and second rounds of the NBA Draft.

“There was that period where GMs were drafting unproven foreign players looking for the next Peja [Stojakovic] and Dirk, very much like they were drafting high schoolers looking for the next Kobe [Bryant] and [Tracy McGrady],” Granderson said. “Now that there appears to be some more intelligence behind the decision making, I think we are seeing better talent and consequently the game is better.”

But these players, while lacking the type of self-centered game many NBA teams were looking for, were already, even at age 19 or 20, veterans of the international circuit. Fast-paced, distributing, team basketball was the name of the international game, and these players had plenty to begin the systematic destruction, renovation and rebuilding of the NBA. The Spurs won another championship? With some French guy and an Argentinean in the backcourt? It seemed impossible to the bunkered down, stubborn and unchanging NBA. But as successes piled up, All-Star teams filled, and draft lotteries overflowed with the emerging presence of international players, the rest of the league finally took notice.

Joe Ash, the director of scouting for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, recognizes that scouting foreign players was no longer an option, it was a necessity.

“You have to,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press. “Not going would just be ignoring a large segment of the talent pool.”

Now, 28 out of the 30 NBA teams boast at least one international player on the roster, with the Phoenix Suns, the most exciting international impressionists in the league, carrying the most with seven foreign players on the roster, including two-time defending league MVP Steve Nash. The face of the league is no longer the shoot first, arrogant scorer, skipping practices and filling the police blotters; it’s now the face of the international player: fearlessly loyal, dedicated to teamwork, and, above all else, victorious.

As Philadelphia Sixers forward Chris Webber said after a preseason loss to Spanish basketball giant FC Barcelona this summer, “It’s great to share basketball with the world.”

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