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05-27-2006, 03:11 PM
Two Points for Diversity
The NBA's global push has produced a postseason with a record number of foreign-born players
May 27, 2006; Page P4

The Los Angeles Lakers charged into the postseason on the back of Kobe Bryant, while the Cleveland Cavaliers were a shoo-in thanks to their own phenom, LeBron James. But as the National Basketball Association conference finals began this week, both of those teams were sitting at home -- and Dirk Nowitzki and Boris Diaw are battling for the championship.

In what may be the NBA's most globally diverse playoffs ever, many of the league's home-grown stars are taking a backseat to a growing list of international standouts. It's a reflection of the NBA's big push in recent years to scout and develop talent outside the U.S. -- with a particular emphasis on Europe.

In that regard, this is a watershed year: The eight teams in the just-completed conference semifinals had a total of 25 non-U.S. players -- a record and more than double the previous high of 12 for that round. Had the San Antonio Spurs, which have been on the forefront of this trend, held on to win Game 7 of their last match, the conference finals would have even more international flair.

Instead of buzzing about U.S.-born stars like Carmelo Anthony or Jason Kidd (both of whom are no longer in the playoffs), commentators are raving about a 7-foot forward from Germany (Mr. Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks) and his chief opponent in the Western Conference finals, a shaggy-haired point guard raised in Canada (Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns). A handful of other foreign-born players are also playing significant roles in the current round of the playoffs. Mr. Diaw, a French forward on the Suns, was the star of Game 1 of the conference finals, scoring 34 points including the game winner.

The league sees big benefits of this globalization. These players help create interest in the NBA in places such as Lithuania, Australia and China. People in those countries buy NBA jerseys and tune in to games on television and online. The league says more than half of the visitors to NBA.com (http://www.nba.com/playoffs2006/index.html)1 now come from outside the U.S. The infusion of international players, many of whom come with more of an all-around game than their U.S. counterparts, has also raised the level of competition. Several 7-foot imports have proven that it's possible for big men to shoot, pass and dribble as skillfully as a 6-foot guard. Italian forward Andrea Bargnani, who is 6-foot-11, is a possible first pick overall in this year's draft in June.

Yet internationalizing the league also creates some domestic challenges for the NBA, which has had a renaissance in ticket sales but has been struggling to build its regular-season TV audience. (The NBA says other pro leagues are also having trouble expanding their network-TV audiences.) Will NBA fans line up to buy Air Nowitzkis at the sneaker store?

The NBA's success is due in no small part to its avid following among young, urban African-American fans who naturally identify with home-grown players with similar backgrounds and familiar stories. But from Stephon Marbury to Shaquille O'Neal, these same players in recent years have become just as popular with suburban kids, regardless of race. The top-10 selling jerseys this year didn't include those of Tony Parker, the Frenchman who has been the starting guard on two Spurs championship teams, or Pau Gasol, a Spaniard on the Memphis Grizzlies who was Rookie of the Year in 2001-02. They were all U.S.-born players, led by the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade, Cleveland's Mr. James and the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson.

"Globally, having international players helps the NBA's fan base because it literally opens markets every time there's a player from China or Argentina or Spain or France," says Ray Clark, chief executive of the Marketing Arm, a Dallas consultancy and promotion agency that specializes in sports and entertainment. "Domestically, the challenge is the American fans have not seen the player play in college, so there is a slower fan-affinity curve."
The league and its fans have long welcomed international talent, from Hakeem Olajuwon to Drazen Petrovic. But it was the Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1992 Olympic Games that is widely credited with putting NBA aspirations into the heads of millions of fans across the globe.

In subsequent years, as more players in those countries upped their game, the more enterprising NBA teams pounced. The Mavericks, the Suns and the San Antonio Spurs were among the first franchises to send scouts to mine for talent at international competitions in Europe, South America and elsewhere. Today, those competitions draw scouts from nearly every NBA and major college team -- and by the time they get there, some teams have seen most of the players dozens of times. The Suns' Brazilian guard Leandro Barbosa was a skinny kid with a funny-looking shot playing in one of his country's lower divisions when the Suns found him, says Jerry Colangelo, the team's chairman and CEO.

The NBA, meanwhile, has made globalization its primary business. It has opened offices in cities including Tokyo, Beijing, Paris and Mexico City, and has sent coaches and players to every corner of the world to put on basketball camps and clinics. It has moved equally quickly on the TV and merchandising fronts, both lucrative areas for the league. In China alone, the NBA has 24 separate television deals, compared to six four seasons ago.
The rosters of NBA teams reflect this rapid expansion: This year, there were 82 international players on opening-day NBA rosters, an increase of more than 80% from five years ago. The Suns alone have seven foreign-born players, while the Spurs, the next-most international team, have six. The Detroit Pistons have only one, while their Eastern Conference finals opponent Miami Heat have none.

The league says fans care about the skill level of the player above everything else, and now grow up idolizing European, Chinese and Hispanic players. "Our fans ask the question: Do you have game?" says NBA commissioner David Stern. "And whether your name is Yao or Pau is less important."

The international game hasn't always been a perfect fit with the NBA. Eastern European players like Vlade Divac, from Serbia and Montenegro, for all their unique skills, have been criticized for being soft, content to take long-range shots rather than bang bodies with the biggest players underneath the basket.

But the NBA has instituted some rule changes in recent years that favor the faster style of play that has been popular in Europe in recent years, including cracking down on hand-checking among players. Moving forward, perhaps the bigger challenge for the league as it continues to transform itself into a melting pot is a marketing one. The issue is highlighted by a rating system created by a division of the Marketing Arm that evaluates celebrities in several categories, including awareness, appeal and influence on consumer behavior. The index ranks Mr. Anthony, who has played in a total of 14 playoff games in a three-year career, above Manu Ginóbili, the dynamic Argentine who helped lead the Spurs to NBA championships in 2003 and 2005.

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