Serbian war criminals? A new batch of United Nations weapons inspectors? Gibberish typed out by left-handed chimpanzees? No, all of the above are among the 20 foreign players taken in last month's National Basketball Association draft. In fact, more than one-third of all players taken in the draft are from outside of the United States, including an astonishing four from Serbia and Montenegro, a country about the size of Santa Cruz County with an economy about the size of Santa Cruz Bowling Lanes.
The rush to foreign shores is prompting a lot of old-school basketball enthusiasts to smile and nod, a handful of idiots to scream racism and NBA announcers to ask for hazard pay. What's certain is that this is not an anomaly; rather, it is a logical consequence of trends that have been brewing in this country and abroad for the past quarter-century. A funny thing has happened to the only major sport completely invented in America: Americans no longer play it as well as others.
Basketball is the quintessential American sport, perhaps the easiest of all to attempt but certainly the hardest of all to master. It is a game that can be played athletically and cerebrally at a frantic pace--or slowed down to an excruciating crawl. It's a game where differing styles and techniques lead to mesmerizing clashes, where an astonishingly athletic run-and-gun UCLA team can be stunned by a head-shorter-and-step-slower Princeton team that uses precision and execution to pull off the perfect upset.
Thirty years ago, the NBA was almost exactly 50 percent white and 50 percent black. It got less and less white as it went along, and its popularity soared, thanks to the gripping Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s and the Michael Jordan ascendancy of the 1990s.
But, as time went by, a funny thing happened--funny as in pathetic, like Christina Aguilera's career; not funny as in ha-ha, like Blazing Saddles. In many quarters, individuality supplanted team play, and playing (and even losing) pretty became preferable to winning ugly. Style triumphed over substance and the fringes of basketball degenerated into this hip-hop mishmash of sh-t talking and highlight plays.
Young kids decided they wanted to be the next Michael Jordan, not realizing that Jordan is actually one of the most fundamentally sound basketball players of all time. Unfortunately, all these kids saw was Jordan's dunking highlights on ESPN, and they thought that was what the game was all about. They all wanted to fly but had no idea how to function on the ground, where almost all basketball games are won.
With the exception of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, where the most outrageous officiating of all time cost the United States a Gold Medal, America had always dominated international basketball. The United States would send over a team of college kids to whup up on professional teams from other countries. But the game caught on in those other countries and they began to make slow and steady progress. Still, it wasn't until 1988 that the United States legitimately lost a game in the Olympics, and even then, it was only because hard-headed U.S. coach John Thompson decided to employ a brutal physical style of defensive basketball. (Thompson ignored all-around players like the UA's Sean Elliott and went instead with guys who couldn't score in a monkey whorehouse with a bag full of bananas.)
American hoop fans screamed for the United States to send professional players to the 1992 Olympics and, oddly enough, foreign fans screamed even louder for the exact same thing. They wanted to see the best and play against the best. The Dream Team (consisting mainly of '80s stars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird) demolished all comers, but a scant 10 years later, the U.S. team of pros finished sixth in the world championships (played on U.S. soil), losing to Yugoslavia, Spain and (ahem) Argentina.
For a variety of reasons (including certain political and technological restrictions), many Europeans have learned to play the game the way Americans played it a quarter-century ago: setting picks, playing defense, hitting the open man.
These European basketball players--besides the aforementioned four, three come from France, two each from Italy, Spain and Greece, and one each from Bosnia, Poland, Yugoslavia, China, Turkey, and Croatia--play old-school basketball and are an absolute breath of fresh air in a league gone stale with absurd attempts at showmanship.
The NBA's two-time reigning MVP, Tim Duncan, who led his team to the league title last month, plays the old style. The league recognized him as its best player--both in the regular season and the playoffs--but Nike, which has long been part of the problem, cancelled its contract with the unflashy Duncan so that it could throw $90 million at a high schooler with an ability to dunk and an unsettling willingness to cut corners.
At high school "all-star" camps around the country this year, the mere mention of European players has brought a chorus of boos from kids who act like their birthright is being taken away from them. Some even suggest that the NBA is racist and want to whiten the league up for its fan base. (This is ridiculous; the NBA has always been the most integrated of all leagues, among its players, coaches and front-office executives.)
What these players don't want to recognize is that America has produced an entire generation of young people who have incredible basketball skills but can't play the game of basketball.
As a lifelong fan, I welcome the Europeans. Maybe they'll help usher in the long-awaited globalization of the NBA. I'd settle for their nudging the game back in the right direction.