Jacob Eisenberg examines basketball’s rising presence on the world stage.
The bus pulls into the tunnel in Phillips Arena at 5:43 p.m.
It’s a preseason game in the middle of October and looks like another meaningless exhibition with virtually no importance once the regular season hits.
Except, tonight’s game is different. Tonight’s game is momentous.
For the first time in NBA history, 13 players born outside the continental United States will suit up. From Argentina to Macedonia to Australia – and everywhere in between – this matchup will feature national heroes representing nine different countries and territories.
As the players get off the bus, a Belgian speaks to two other Frenchmen in their native language. An Italian laughs with a Brazilian after telling a joke. A Canadian pulls out his iPhone to show two Australians a picture he just Tweeted into cyberspace. At the end of the line, a 7-foot native of the U.S. Virgin Islands walks with his coach, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence agent in training.
No, this isn’t some commercial for the United Nations. This isn’t even a commercial promoting diversity in the NBA. This is merely another moment in the life of the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA’s most celebrated powerhouse.
“From my experience with this team, it’s just different from anything I’ve ever been a part of,” said point guard Cory Joseph of Canada. “I get to learn about different cultures and the way [teammates] do things. It’s been great.”
San Antonio was once the outlier of the NBA’s international influence. Today they are the gold standard in a league that prides itself on geographic and cultural diversity.
Something has happened to the National Basketball Association over the last 15 years.
Simply put: the league’s just not all that national anymore.
From Finals MVP and five-time All-Star Tony Parker of France to the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol of Spain, the league is filled with impact superstars born outside the United States.
As of last year, the NBA had a record 85 international players from 36 different countries and territories. That number grew even larger over the summer when, in the NBA’s annual first-year player draft, 12 of the league’s 30 teams selected a foreign-born player with their first round pick.
“It’s not even the National Basketball Association anymore,” said Spurs center Boris Diaw, a native of Cormeilles, France. “It’s now like the IBA – the International Basketball Association. Our team reached the championship last year with nine foreign players.”
Other teams around the league have noticed the Spurs’ success with players born overseas and have tried to emulate their model.
The 2013 NBA draft was the fifth time in the last 15 years in which the league’s top-pick was born outside the United States.
To put that in perspective, consider that in the 50 years preceding this trend, only three of the NBA’s top-picks were foreign-born.
“It makes sense,” explained Quin Snyder, the assistant coach of the Atlanta Hawks, who spent last season as an assistant coach for the European powerhouse CSKA Moscow. “Just like any other successful business, NBA teams have capitalized on a wider market.”
For the best international player in the world , Tony Parker of the Spurs, seeing this American league filled with such global influence is something he couldn’t have imagined as a child.
“Never in my biggest dreams could I have expected the NBA to look like this when I was a kid,” Parker said. “The popularity of basketball worldwide is growing so fast. You can’t go anywhere in the world anymore where basketball isn’t big.”
Parker joined the Spurs as a little known teenager out of Paris in 2001. The risks San Antonio took on him were substantial. No European point guard had ever thrived in the NBA before him, and there was an overwhelming sentiment from scouts and executives who believed American players were more comfortable and effective running American teams’ offenses.
When Parker struggled initially as a rookie, the critics of foreign immersion were elated.
“Obviously the game is played differently around the world,” said Spurs reserve Patty Mills, a native of Canberra, Australia. “European basketball
compared to the NBA compared to basketball over in China and Asia, even in Australia. Getting adapted to a different game is tough. It can either make it or break it.”
13 years later, it’s clear that Parker has made it.
For Joseph, Parker’s backup, a lot of basketballs’ global presence can be attributed to Parker’s successful transition 12 years ago.
“Guys have come in here and have shown that players from out of the country can play this game,” Joseph said. “These guys have worked hard and have paved the way for younger guys like me. I watched them when I was young and that inspired me to play. They still do.”
All-Star Marc Gasol maintains that it was only a matter of time before international players coming to the NBA became commonplace.
“There were always a few pioneers, and they came over first and did some good things and opened up the doors for a lot of other kids to come over,” Gasol said.
But beyond the pioneers who inspired millions of children abroad, what other factors have contributed to make the NBA a global phenomenon?
Look no further than the advent of multimedia. NBA games are now broadcast to 750 million households in more than 200 countries worldwide.
“Every year, some company bought out rights for the NBA,” said Pero Antic, a Hawks forward from Macedonia. “Everybody’s hero was [Michael Jordan].”
The game is so popular around the world that even American-born players are tempted to leave the United States for lucrative offers from teams overseas.
For Grizzlies guard Nick Calathes, who is American and starred at the University of Florida, playing basketball in Europe after college was a vehicle to travel the world in a profitable way.
Calathes bypassed an offer from the Minnesota Timberwolves and instead signed a three-year contract with a team in Greece for 2.4 million euros.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for me after Florida,” Calathes said. “Me playing over there for a couple of years – I didn’t know how long I’d be over there for – but I thought it was a good situation to get a mix in. Going over there, I didn’t think there were so many teams, but basketball is huge in Europe.”
Now, Calathes is back in America pursuing his dream of starring in the NBA.
Just 25 years ago, it would have been unthinkable for basketball to become this popular.
It’s safe to say that a lot of the NBA’s foreign-look is a result of the 1992 Olympics when the United States’ “Dream Team” took the gold medal in Barcelona. Led by Michael Jordan, the “Dream Team” showed the world just how powerful charisma and competition were on the basketball court.
Gasol, a native of Barcelona, remembers first falling in love with basketball after seeing Team USA electrify his city as a 7-year-old.
“I was a young kid but what [they] did, [they] really put a sports mentality to the people,” Gasol said. “People fell in love with sports after them.”
With the Dream Team inspiring kids to play quality basketball around the globe, NBA teams soon realized that they needed to scout overseas to maintain a competitive edge.
“I don’t think [teams] are drafting foreign players just to do it,” said Chris Vivlamore, the Atlanta Hawks beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Honestly, they’ll go anywhere to find somebody who can play in the NBA. If you’re going to limit yourself to the colleges or college seniors, then you’re going to be at a major disadvantage.”
To be sure, not every team has had success selecting players from overseas.
Foreign players are inherently harder to scout, making them a higher-risk gamble in the draft.
It costs more time and money to send a scout over to Europe than it does to send someone to North Carolina to watch a star at a college powerhouse like Duke or UNC. With the inconsistency of competition levels for players in Europe, it’s also difficult to project how these prospects will translate to the NBA.
For every Parker or Gasol who comes to the league, there are dozens of busts like Darko Milicic or Nikoloz Tsikitvili, who were highly touted upon entering the NBA but severely disappointed their teams once they get here.
“Skill and height can’t always be predicted out in the NBA game,” Snyder said. “There are enough differences here, be it with the three point line being farther or the competition being stronger, that some great European players just can’t make the transition.”
In addition, some of the highly touted foreign-players choose not to come to America at all.
The Orlando Magic used the 11th overall pick in 2005 on a prodigious Spanish forward named Fran Vazquez. Eight years later, Vazquez has yet to report to the team.
“Of course there’s a risk with drafting a European player,” admitted Gasol, Vazquez’s Olympic teammate. “You just have to know your personnel when you draft and where their mindset is at.”
Still, for smaller market teams like San Antonio, overseas talent is necessary to stay competitive with teams in bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles, who readily attract and sign superstar American players outright in free agency.
“It’s no secret [teams] have taken the Spurs’ blueprint,” Vivlamore said. “I mean, if you happen to draft the next Tony Parker, you’ll look like a genius.”
Players believe the influx of international teammates has been positive for chemistry and camaraderie in San Antonio.
“For whatever reason, being able to gel really well was something that I found really easy coming to this team,” Mills said. “I think that’s a trend we have here in San Antonio. In the locker room and off the court, it isn’t a problem at all. It’s almost like an understatement of how well [we] get along.”
Though San Antonio’s roster features 10 foreign-born players representing eight different countries and territories, Joseph says he is proudest of their world-renowned unity and cohesion. Last season, they led the league in assists per game.
After all, once the players take the court, the only language spoken is basketball.