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Chicago JK
06-14-2003, 07:56 PM
International house of basketball

By Johnny Ludden
San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted : 06/10/2003 12:00 AM

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. The half-hour drive from the Spurs' Manhattan hotel to the Meadowlands can be a tedious trek in even the lightest of traffic. But it does give Malik Rose a chance to brush up on his language lessons.

Game 4
Spurs @ Nets
When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: ABC, Radio: WOAI, KCOR
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Spurs' international players key
Spurs chairman can hardly look
Nets' No. 3 scorer on bench
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Stephen Jackson's 'home' videos

Tony Parker, series MVP?

Fourth quarter made up for slow start in Game 3

Spurs know play hasn't been that good

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From his seat on the bus, Rose can hear Manu Ginobili speaking in Spanish. Tony Parker sits a few rows back, talking by cell to his fiancée in French. Mengke Bateer and his translator, the esteemed Jimmy Chang, joke with each other in Mandarin.

"Then you've got ghetto coming from the back of the bus," Rose said. "We even need a translator for our translator."

If the Spurs' bus is a United Nations on wheels, the Spurs themselves are a picture-perfect Benetton ad, complete with smiling faces of all colors. They have a shooting guard from Bahia Blanca, Argentina; a point guard from Paris, France; and a backup center who hails from Inner Mongolia. Even Tim Duncan, the reigning two-time MVP, is counted among the league's 65 foreign players because he was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands rather than one of the 50 U.S. states.

The Spurs' fondness for foreign parts also helps explain why they now need just two more victories to claim their second championship.

Parker, who honed his game in France's professional league, scored 26 points Sunday while out-dueling New Jersey's Jason Kidd, the NBA's best point guard. When Parker's shot deserted him, it was Ginobili, the Spurs' South American southpaw, who preserved the victory with a steal and clutch jumper in the final 78 seconds. All the while, the retired jersey of late Nets guard Drazen Petrovic hung over the Continental Airlines Arena court, a tribute to one of the league's international pioneers.

"Basketball is definitely a global spot, and we're evidence of it," Rose said. "These guys are leading their countries into this basketball revolution."

For the Spurs, the revolution began in 1989 when they signed Yugoslavian guard Zarko Paspalj, a sharp-shooting forward whose penchant for unfiltered cigarettes and Pizza Hut helped earn him a trip back to Europe after one season. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had spent the previous summer traveling the back roads of Eastern Europe looking for players whose fundamental-based skills could translate to the NBA. The Spurs also wanted to draft Yugoslavian center Vlade Divac that year, but didn't want to risk the second overall pick on him.

"The few of us that were over there were like kids in a candy store because of all the talent," Popovich said. "We were running around like crazy all over the place, trying to figure out how to get players over here.

"You didn't know if the player wanted to leave his country. You didn't know if his team was going to let him go. You didn't know how their contracts were going to work. You didn't how the NBA was going to regard them. It was really an interesting, but confusing time."

If the language barrier wasn't difficult enough, NBA scouts often couldn't find where the prospects were playing. When they did locate the gym, getting tickets for the game even proved challenging.

"There was a lot of slinking into back rooms," Popovich said, "to try to get deals done."

Popovich, ironically, found himself trying to outrecruit his future boss, Don Nelson, for the services of Sarunas Marciulionis. Spurs vice president of player personnel Sam Schuler, then working for Nelson, played an important role in getting Marciulionis to sign with Golden State.

"I was speaking Russian to Marciulionis," Popovich said, "trying to undo everything Nellie had spent two years doing. I don't think he liked me very well."

Though Popovich struck out with Marciulionis, the Spurs, under his direction, haven't since missed on many foreign players. After the team's 1999 championship, general manager R.C. Buford used a couple of second-round draft picks on Ginobili, then a reed-thin guard, and Gordan Giricek, a swingman from Croatia. The Spurs then left both players in Europe to develop for a few seasons. Believing Ginobili would be a better fit for their team, the Spurs sold the rights to Giricek who now starts for Orlando to Memphis for $1 million.

"I got tired of drafting guys who were second-round picks and being done with them by Oct. 15 (because we had to cut them)," Buford said. "You've wasted that resource.

"The less you know about a player the more you can dream. With international players, you're dreaming on guys with size and skills that a lot of players with size from here don't have."

Almost exactly two years ago, Buford had to struggle to get Popovich and the Spurs' other coaches to attend a private workout for a 19-year-old point guard from France. When Lance Blanks, now the Spurs' director of scouting, abused the point guard in the workout, Popovich thought Buford had wasted his time.

It wasn't until Sam Presti, the Spurs' young assistant director of scouting, compiled a scouting tape that refuted Popovich's concerns that Popovich agreed to give the player another chance. Parker more than impressed Popovich in the workout and the Spurs took him with the 28th and final pick of the first round.

"I didn't care what people think about European point guards," said Parker, whose father grew up in Chicago and played professionally in Europe. "I just thought if they saw me play, I was going to change their minds. A lot of people didn't believe in Europeans, but that didn't bother me."

Parker has since opened a lot of eyes. Foreign players are expected to fill this month's draft, particularly in the middle to late first round. Prior to Sunday's game, the Spurs worked out three prospects: Alexsandar Pavlovic, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard from Yugoslavia; Slavko Vranes, a 20-year-old 7-4 center from Yugoslavia; and Zoran Planinic, a 20-year-old 6-6 Croatian point guard. Last year, the Spurs planned to take Nenad Kristic, one of Europe's most promising young big men, only to have the Nets select him a few picks ahead.

"The game is being viewed in almost 225 countries," said Nets center Dikembe Mutombo. "More kids are becoming interested worldwide. If you travel as much as I do in the summer time, you see people all over wearing NBA jerseys and knowing players by name."

NBA commissioner David Stern said this week he still believes the league could place its first franchise in Europe by the end of the decade. The Spurs, like many teams, now spend considerable money and time scouting the world for future players.

Buford has given youth clinics in Turkey and traveled to China to look for players. This summer, Julio Lamas, a former Argentine national coach, will help coach the Spurs' summer-league team. The Spurs have also this year flown in a handful of other foreign coaches who help serve as contacts and scouts in their respective countries.

Of the seven players the Spurs have drafted in the past four years, only two were born in the United States. Robertas Javtokas, a Lithuanian forward drafted by the Spurs two years ago, visited San Antonio two months ago, but is not expected to play in the NBA after serious leg and shoulder injuries in a motorcycle accident. Last year, the Spurs drafted Luis Scola, a talented forward and Argentine teammate of Ginobili's. The Spurs don't have plans to bring in Scola, who has a buyout clause with his Spanish team, because they are hesitant about using their salary-cap room to sign him.

It was Scola and Ginobili, of course, who helped deliver one of the biggest victories for foreign players when Argentina upset a U.S. team filled with several NBA stars in the World Championships this past summer. Even Popovich, who served as an assistant on the U.S. team, had to admire Argentina's passing, cutting and selfless play.

"As much as we hated losing, it really showed people that the rest of the world has caught up," Popovich said. "Basketball has become an international sport. And right now, there's a lot to sing praises about."