By Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post
From the places of their birth, you could hardly identify their sport, let alone what famous championship team, about a 20-season professional dynasty, they played for: Cormeilles-en-Parisis (France), Gisborne (New Zealand), Bologna (Italy), Bahia Blanca (Argentina), Joinville (Brazil), Toronto (Canada), Bruges (Belgium), St. Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands) and Canberra (Australia). Soccer, maybe?
All nine of these international basketball stars were at the White House on Monday, all of them key parts of the San Antonio Spurs. The reigning NBA champions also included six players who were born in the United States and actually could have voted for their host. President Obama praised them as symbols of “the way that this wonderful sport has become international.”
These nine international Spurs, including three who will be in the Hall of Fame someday, represented not only a great franchise but also epitomized one of the healthiest trends in any sport. Over the past 15 years, players from all over the world — Europe, South America, Africa, Australia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, China and Russia — have helped the NBA rediscover parts of its identity that many in the game think were in danger of becoming lost or at least seriously misplaced.
“It felt like the game got away from us there for a while, more flash and style than substance. Now I think it’s come back full circle here of late, returning to fundamentally sound basketball,” said Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman, who learned the game under fundamentalist Bobby Knight as an all-American at Indiana. “The [international] players have really helped the game in that way in the last 10 or 15 years. Fundamentals are the essence of this game.”
Then, Wittman’s Wizards, once one of the least fundamentally sound teams in the NBA when he took over, ended a 17-game losing streak to the Spurs on Tuesday night, 101-93. And who led the Wizards to a 48-34 rebounding domination, combining for 29 rebounds that were a key to victory? Marcin Gortat from Lodz (Poland), Nene from Sao Carlos (Brazil) and especially sub Kevin Seraphin from Cayenne (French Guiana) who dominated the interior in the fourth quarter with 17 points in 20 minutes.
What the big Verizon Center crowd saw was beautiful, fluid, unselfish basketball from both teams. Players from almost all continents blended, bringing characteristics of the way the game is played in their countries. But the evening was also an illustration of how the globe-hopping teaching clinics and camps of decades of American coaches, from Red Auerbach to Tex Winter and Hubie Brown, seeded the game worldwide with the basics, the fundamentals of the original American version of the game.
The Spurs are the extreme example of an international squad. Even their top assistant, Ettore Messina, was the most famous basketball coach in Europe with four championships. But many NBA teams are like the Wizards, incorporating important cohesive foreign players, such as Pau Gasol with the Bulls or young Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto.
“For a while, we got away from the fundamentals. It was a dunk or a three-pointer. In between, an isolation [play]. The ball stuck” in one place and wasn’t passed, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said Tuesday. “I know we [in the NBA] have gotten back to it now. It’s good to see players [studying] the rocker step, good footwork in the pivot, all the skills.
“The [international] players are more skilled. They work a lot more hours. They’ll go two practices a day for the whole summer. Then they might have a two-hour scrimmage.”
While American players may hit the playgrounds all day or shoot jumpers from dawn to dusk, acquiring their own variety of dazzling abilities, the structured study of specific skills became the accepted practice in much of the rest of the world. Many countries had national teams and programs that, in effect, turned the most promising players into full-time professionals in their teens.
Wizards star John Wall, a No. 1 overall draft pick at the age of 19, says it’s “pretty amazing” to watch international players. “I think they got more fundamentals growing up. We depended on athleticism. I got most of my [skills] better at Kentucky,” said Wall, who played one year there. “Before that it was just what I learned playing on the playgrounds.”
The views expressed by Popovich, Wittman and Wall are actually fairly tame compared with a broadside in postgame comments by Kobe Bryant earlier this month. Because his father, Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, played in Europe after his NBA career, Bryant actually grew up studying the game the European way.“I just think European players are just way more skillful,” said Bryant, known at times to take the most extreme version of a position to attract attention. “They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. . . . It’s something we really have to fix.”
And why aren’t enough U.S. kids “taught to play the right way?”
“AAU basketball. Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. You wind up having players that are big, they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post,” said Bryant ,who pointed to Pau and Marc Gasol as illustrations of “all-around players” as well as “90 percent of the Spurs roster.”
What if Bryant’s family had not moved to Italy when he was at a basketball-formative age? “I probably wouldn’t be able to dribble with my left and shoot with my left and have good footwork,” said Bryant, who remembers that the teachings of traveling NBA coaches “were like the bible. . . . Me, Manu [Ginobili] and all these guys that grew up around that same time, we’re a product of that. It’s a big difference.”
Others are not so quick to condemn AAU coaches as after-a-buck quasi-agents.
“Some of the AAU coaches do it from genuine love,” Wall said. “You have to figure out which ones.”
However, one Wizard, Otto Porter Jr., was never allowed to play AAU ball by his family and still ended up an all-American at Georgetown and the No. 3 overall pick in the draft.
“It let me spend more time at home with my family [in Missouri], not travel,” said Porter, deflecting the issue. “I learned the game from my pops [father], my uncles. . . . They were legends in the area.”
Porter loves to pick the brains of international players even though he is strong in the basics.
“They are very intelligent players. That is their best skill. They are taught to study every little thing: positioning, how to read a defender, pick and rolls, go back door,” Porter said. “In this country, we play an athletic, explosive game with lots of speed. That’s great. But it’s very helpful to pick up things from [international] players.
“Nine on one [Spurs] team, that’s a lot. But look how well they play together. The American guys are learning from them. It’s changing the game.
“You see it all over.”