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Chicago JK
06-14-2003, 07:40 PM
South America holds much untapped talent for NBA
BY IRA WINDERMAN
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - (KRT) - The new face of the NBA is a familiar face.

It is a tall, lanky youth nudged toward the blacktop, on a makeshift court.

It is a dreamer whose hunger is real, felt in the pit of his stomach.

It is a kid pushing bedtime to sneak a glimpse of Michael Jordan.

It is, at its core, Americana, only, in this case South Americana.

"It is the globalization of our sport," Seattle SuperSonics General Manager Rick Sund said. "It's the same thing we've seen in Europe, where all of a sudden basketball has taken on more interest. With television, the opportunity to compete against the Dream Teams, all of a sudden the kids in South America who only wanted to be soccer players are turning to basketball."

You can see it in these NBA Finals, where Argentine guard Manu Ginobili has been changing the pace of the game for the San Antonio Spurs against the New Jersey Nets.

You will see it in the June 26 NBA Draft, where Brazil's Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejao are projected as first-round selections, and Argentina's Carlos Delfino and Uruguay's Mauricio Aguiar also are drawing scrutiny.

And you saw it this past season, when five South Americans wore NBA uniforms: Ginobili with San Antonio, Argentine guard Juan "Pepe" Sanchez with Detroit, Argentine forward Ruben Wolkowyski with Boston, Brazilian forward Nene Hilario with Denver and Venezuelan guard Oscar Torres with Golden State.

What makes the total of South Americans who played in the NBA this season so significant is it represents all but three of the South Americans to ever set foot in the league.

"Now," Boston Celtics General Manager Chris Wallace said, "we're seeing a steady stream. Last year, you had Hilario making the lottery. Barbosa is floating around, visiting everybody in the first round right now. Ginobili certainly has been an eye-opener with what he's done with San Antonio.

"There wasn't really that much excitement about it before, because most of those guys never really had an impact in the NBA. But then Argentina is second last summer at the World Championships. They're putting players all over Europe, in Italy and Spain, where we can scout them. They're building a basketball infrastructure."

To the NBA, this is all new. League executives still tend to refer to international prospects as "Europeans," even though they more and more are coming from places such as South America, Africa and Australia.

For years, the extent of the South America contribution to the basketball culture seemingly was sharp-shooting forward Oscar Schmidt, best known for a 46-point performance in shocking the United States for the gold medal in the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis. Drafted by the Nets in 1984, "The Saint Hand" bypassed the challenge of the NBA, going on to use an international canvas to become the sport's all-time leading scorer, ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Beyond that, though, there was Rolando Ferriera, the Brazilian center who played in 12 games for Portland in 1988-89, an NBA career defined by 1-of-18 shooting. Then there was Brazilian forward Joao Vianna, whose NBA career consisted of one game for Dallas in 1991-92. Factor in Carl Herrera, the Venezuelan forward who was a 1990 second-round draft pick of the Heat and never rose above journeyman status in eight NBA seasons, and you have the sum total of South America's contribution to the NBA - until the current group.

Herrera became the first South American to make it to the NBA Finals, when he appeared as a reserve with the Houston Rockets in 1994. But it is the center-stage role of Ginobili in these Finals that has opened eyes as well as potential doors. He hit a critical basket late in Game 3 staking the Spurs to a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series that continues tonight at Continental Airlines Arena.

"You've got to take a sharper look now," said Denver Nuggets General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who imported Hilario from Brazil last June. "The NBA has done such a great job of spreading basketball across the globe. Instead of playing soccer on the playgrounds, they're on the blacktop, playing basketball.

"Just with the population base down there, you've got so many talented kids, that, invariably, you're going to get some talented players."

But only if you look hard enough. Rare is the prospect who is culled directly from the South Americans streets, as was the case with Hilario.

Instead, with the funding lacking for top-tier basketball leagues in South America, most prospects first play in Europe. Such was the case with Ginobili, who was drafted out of Reggio Calabria of the Italian League by the Spurs in 1999. Such will be the case with Varejao, the 6-10 Brazilian who currently toils for Spanish League power FC Barcelona.

"The leagues at home are having problems," Ginobili acknowledged. "So when you are young, you go straight to Europe. After that, once you get better there, against better competition, you have a better chance to come here."

To put the pro game in South American in perspective, consider that Schmidt this past season was the leading scorer in the Brazilian League - at 45 years old.

"We've always known there were good players down there," said Marty Blake, an NBA scouting consultant. "But, in most cases, the really good players from South America were going to Europe."

That pipeline was diverted last year by Hilario.

The strapping power forward did not begin playing basketball until age 12, when he was recommended to a Brazilian basketball academy, such as it was. There, he played on a makeshift court, with baskets attached to the back of two Jeeps, which were driven to parking lots and placed the regulation 94 feet apart.

"If somebody missed a shot, the ball would roll forever," Hilario said. "That's how I became such a good rebounder."

Hilario completed his first NBA season as a first-team All-Rookie.

"I didn't really know what basketball was until my teens," he said. "I didn't have the financial means to see games on TV."

Ginobili did. The second-team All-Rookie selection said viewing those games had a profound impact, particularly watching the NBA Finals.

"Especially the Michael Jordan ones, when I was still in Argentina and the time gap wasn't that big," he said. "In Italy it was harder because the Finals are at 3-4 a.m. But when I was a kid - I'm talking about 12 years old, 15, 16 - I was crazy for it."

Just as his homeland is now crazy for its newest hero.

"Manu has transcended the basketball media there," said Gabriel Gabor, the NBA's director of communications for Latin America and a native of Buenos Aires. "One of the biggest newspapers there, Clarin, named him Athlete of the Year. In a soccer country, that's unbelievable."

Argentina has seven media outlets covering these Finals. One newspaper chronicles each minute of Ginobili's playing time. Another myopically raised the issue of whether the Spurs would be better off without emerging French point guard Tony Parker, so Ginobili could have the ball more often.

"Now with the NBA Finals having a connection there, it's getting bigger," Ginobili said of the NBA's impact in his homeland. "There are a lot of people staying awake too late to watch the games. They feel like it is part of their league.

"Not as many people were following the league because they had no one to identify with. Now that an Argentine is getting a lot of playing time, people are following the NBA on TV and in the press. Probably basketball is never going to be followed as closely as soccer, but it's getting a little closer."

With the NBA Finals being shown on TV in Argentina, Ginobili said the league is reaching a more diverse audience, something cable airings could not achieve in his economically ravaged nation, one where 60 percent of the population lives in poverty and the unemployment rate is above 20 percent.

Such, too, was the impact with Hilario, who said the NBA's cable-only exposure in Brazil had limited his viewing to "one or two games a month at my rich friends' homes."

The rise from poverty no longer is a domestic NBA story. Perhaps one of the best examples is Barbosa, the angular point guard who will become a millionaire once he is selected in the first round of the draft.

Recently, he offered his story after a tryout for the Bucks in Milwaukee.

Unlike Hilario, Barbosa has been playing basketball since 5, carrying the nickname Leandrinho. The "young Leandro" designation came from making the national team at 15. Yet even with such an early start, the rewards had been limited.

Asked to quantify his childhood, Barbosa spoke of oatmeal, the only meal his family often could afford. For years, he said, it stood as primary sustenance. His only basketball shoes came because of his brother, Arturo, who sold pieces of aluminum he had collected on the streets of Sao Paolo.

The only thing new about such stories of perseverance, toughness, dedication are where they come from. It is where the Nuggets' Vandeweghe expects them to continue coming from.

"I think when you look at most of those players from South America, they're pretty tough guys," he said. "Typically, they've been pretty mature early. I think they have a mentality where they come to play all the time."

"This," Ginobili said, "is just the beginning

Mandyahl
06-14-2003, 11:04 PM
interesting article...thanks, jk

Chiwas
06-15-2003, 11:53 AM
I thought Mexico was South America as well. [black humor&wild sarcasm emoticon]

MavKikiNYC
06-16-2003, 11:01 PM
Not South America, just south OF America.