NEW YORK — Sometime on Wednesday morning, one of the first days of winter, Australians will turn on their telly to see if one of their own will be taken first in the 2005 NBA draft.
Wait a minute. Isn’t the NBA draft Tuesday night in New York? And isn’t this summer, not winter? And how is an Australian the top pick in an American game invented by a Springfield, Mass., gym teacher?
Well, throw another shrimp on the barbie! The world is indeed turned upside down!
It may not be the biggest thing to hit Melbourne since Foster’s, but the selection of hometown boy Andrew Bogut as the first overall pick in the draft is liable to make a another big impression for the NBA on yet another continent.
The 7-footer who played at the University of Utah could be the first of two Australian giants —Georgia Tech’s Luke Schenscher is the other — to be taken by NBA teams whose annual meat market will be held in New York’s Madison Square Garden, but beamed live around the world.
Like the All-Star games, where ballots are now printed in Japanese, Chinese and Spanish, and like the playoffs, whose international audience dwarfed a dwindling U.S. viewership, the draft is becoming one of the NBA’s biggest marketing tools in its own globalization effort. For the second time in the last four years, the 60 players taken in the draft could include at least one representative from each of the six populated continents. [Antarctica will not be represented, but then no one has starting looking for tall penguins … yet.]
“It’s Australia this year,” said Terry Lyons, the NBA’s international director of public relations. “Judging by what’s happened in the past, the interest there now will increase dramatically.
“We have to be thinking ‘let’s see what team he will be playing with, how it will be plugged into television in Australia.”
The NBA in fact has been looking at possibilities in Australia for “a year or two now because of Bogut,” Lyons said. The league is already making plans for off-court promotions with Australia’s greatest player ever, Andrew Gaze — himself a member of the 1999 Spurs championship team.
“We’ll get the media together...work together with basketball Australia. Australia will be sort of a special, where we will do it live and throw a draft party there. It's a case of tailoring something special, interviewing him, etc.” he added.
And why not? Bogut represents basketball’s international appeal, with connections to three continents. The son of Croatian immigrants, he idolized one of the NBA’s first great international players, Croatian shooting guard Drazen Petrovic of the New Jersey Nets, went to school at the University of Utah and then made a name for himself last summer, giving Tim Duncan problems during an Olympic face-off in Athens.
Lyons says the league has also enrolled Bogut himself in the P.R. strategy. “He is a neat guy because he understands how important this is. The league has talked to him about it...and we understand we have to give a player a little time, but it will happen.”
It is still about the game, Lyons said. “The business flows from the game and I think anyone who tells you it’s different, they’re crazy.”
And the game is increasingly influenced and, yes, dominated by the foreign invasion that will have its latest foray on Tuesday night.
All you have to do is look at the Spurs, with players who learned the game not on the mean streets or suburban driveways of America, but in the Virgin Islands (Tim Duncan), France (Tony Parker) and Argentina (Manu Ginobili). In fact, NBA rosters this year featured 76 international players from 34 countries and territories on five continents, or about 17 percent of the league total. Only two teams, the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics, don’t have an international player.
The draft is now a big part of the process. Teams have over the last several years discovered the darkened gyms of countries large and small and begun taking their measurements and pushing their buttons to see how they would work in an NBA environment. Last year, there were a record number of international players — 20 out of a total of 60 players taken. Three years ago, the overall No. 1, Yao Ming, was from China This year, that number is likely to grow and the overall No. 1 will again be from overseas.
“We hope so,” Lyons said.
But getting to that point is not easy … nor is it risk free. There have been international busts as well as successes. And the road to success for an international player is often filled with obstructions and confusing directions, as players try to adjust to life in the United States as well as the NBA. It could be as simple as learning how to use an ATM or as difficult as learning how to deal with teammates who ostracize you.
“It’s difficult to project NBA talent in general but to be able to do it in some dark gym somewhere overseas against competition that is often at the YMCA level is doubly difficult,” Nelson said. “A good scout is worth his weight in gold. A good scout overseas is worth double his weight in gold.”
Finding those scouts, he says, is an outgrowth in many ways of his international experience since his scouts are often like him, part of the coaching fraternity. But it’s not all about formal relationships either.
“It’s like you do with anything else. You get a confidence level with a guy. I did a lot of coaching clinics overseas, and eventually you develop relationships, exchange information,” said Nelson. “That’s the most important part, the exchange of information. A coach might want information on a U.S. player he is interested in signing or he might want some coaching aids…and that’s an exchange you don’t pay for.”
The Mavs have an international infrastructure different from other NBA teams, setting up international offices on six continents, complete with scouts and other support personnel. They use local talent to do the scouting and then when they find someone they think is worth looking at call in player development personnel from Dallas. The Mavs in fact may be the only NBA team to have a full-time scout in China.
“Scouts are like art appraisers: This one is going be valuable in the future…this one will be worthless,” Nelson said, adding that he sets limits on how long Dallas-based personnel spend in overseas locations. “We try to have our guys go over there and take a look at players, but not keep them there very long. We want them to go right off seeing an NBA game and not keep them there too long, because after about two weeks, you tend to forget the speed and the quickness of the NBA game. The quickness over in those markets is not what it is in the NBA and you can forget that if you’re there two weeks.”
The Nets have a more typical structure: two international scouts, both of whom are based in Europe, but with a difference. One of the scouts, based in Belgium, covers most of Europe while the other is based in Belgrade and focuses on the Balkans. It seems to have worked: two of the Nets’ most recent picks have come from the former Yugoslavia, point guard Zoran Planinic of Croatia and the Nets rookie center Nenad Krstic of Serbia, named to the all-rookie team this year.
“We rely on various other things. Scouts of course and we rely on film — everyone has film nowadays and we watch film all the time. There are also services you can subscribe to,” said Nets GM Ed Stefanski. “The scouts will give us reports on various players who they think can play at a high level then I go over there three times a year, 9- or 10-day trips.
“Our national scouting still takes up most of our resources but the international scene is catching up. We focus on the Spanish, Italian and Serbian leagues. If there is a kid in Turkey, like [Ersan] Ilyasova, we can jump over there too. But the Spanish and Italian leagues get the most prepared players.”
And both GM’s say start building scouting profiles early, in some cases when international players are barely old enough to shave.
“They don’t tend to have age restrictions and so you begin watching players over time,” Stefanski said. “Some start playing professionally for these clubs when they are 15 and 16 years old. You go to the FIBA Under-16, Under-18, Under-20 European tournaments to see how they progress over years, develop a profile.”
Both GM’s claim there are no “secrets” anymore, but admit they do everything they can to find them and then pick them.
“If there is a good player from Uzbekistan, there is a good chance we know someone who has seen him,” Nelson said.
Stefanski recounts how the Nets threw a blanket of secrecy over their intentions to take Nenad Krstic, a 7-foot Serbian center, in 2002. It’s a tale filled with, dare we say it, international intrigue.
“I had seen him in 2001 in Serbia at a Partizan juniors game. He was 17. I don’t think anyone knew I was there. You don’t have to register as a scout,” said Stefanski, noting that was the last time the Nets scouted him in person. “I saw he had NBA size but a terrible body. What I liked about him was that he kept getting knocked down but that he would bounce back, get right up. He knew what to do, he had the skills, but he was not strong enough to execute.”
Stefanski convinced Nets President Rod Thorn it was the right move, but he also knew that other teams liked him as well. So the Nets worked out a lot of players, but expressed no interest in Krstic.
“We knew there was strong interest from teams in back of us, the Kings and Spurs. We were concerned that they would try to jump up in front of us [in the draft] by trading up,” Stefanski said with the pride of a jewel thief. “Only me and Rod knew we were planning on taking him. We didn’t tell his agent. In fact, his agent at the time was shocked that we had drafted him!”
Nelson says he finds international scouting getting easier in one respect…and it doesn’t have to do with the success of his own Dirk Nowitzki or other stars like Yao Ming or Peja Stojakovic.
“There is an interesting phenomenon that is underrated: what I guess I would call the Americana element,” he said. “The movie industry and the music industry…in Eastern Europe, in China, they have paved the way a little bit for us. You can talk to the kids who have experienced our culture. It has softened the difference. And of course anything to do with the NBA means a lot everywhere we go.”
Still, the cultural differences are huge when a kid, often a teenager, gets off a plane from Belgrade or Beijing and is suddenly alone, without family or friends but with huge pressures.
Stefanski admits that when the Nets drafted their first international player, choosing Planinic from Cibona, the same team that had produced Petrovic, they made some mistakes.
“Adapting is an issue,” he said. “It was a big issue for Zoran. It was very difficult for him. I put too much pressure on the kid. I projected him higher than he should have been, because he did have such a difficult time adjusting and because of who we wanted him to back up in his first year, Jason Kidd! He was the first foreign player I dealt with so I wasn’t prepared either.
“None come over fully prepared, “ Stefanski added. “We are involved in finding places for them to live, finding them banks, teaching them how to use ATM’s…very simple things, giving them the names of restaurants where they can get some of their national dishes. Z branched out, but he needed a little more help.”
Then, last year, when Krstic came over, help came from an unlikely place.
“A few people on the outside questioned us bringing over a Serbian when we already had a Croatian on the team, but we knew something others didn’t about Zoran,” said Stefanski. “His agent had a few of his clients living with him that summer before the draft: [Darko] Milicic, [Sasha] Pavlovic…Serbians. They took to Zoran immediately.”
Stefanski talks about how much the Nets owe Planinic for how he helped Krstic.
“Zoran put his arm around Nenad and helped Nenad in a number of difficult situations. He was terrific. He helped him with his English. His facility is much better than Nenad’s. Zoran was terrific with Nenad.”
Krstic has publicly acknowledged his Croatian friend’s help, telling a Serbian radio station last year: “When I came here, it was all 180 degrees different. Everything from the food, culture, language, all up to practices…but I'm advancing every day, always learning something new. When I first came here, I couldn't put together a simple sentence, but Zoran Planinic helped me a lot.”
Krstic also had other help, says Stefanski. “Nenad brought his girlfriend over…he brought his mother over for a time. I could see him putting on weight when he mother was here. When she left, I became more worried about his weight!”
Nelson says that kind of in-house infrastructure is critical, noting how the Mavs’ first big European investment, Sarunas Marciulionis, even needed help setting up a personal checking account. “He was from the old Soviet Union, after all.”
“You have to let everyone know from the training staff to the ball boys, all the way, that this kid is here to make a contribution and is valuable to the team. If he needs a ride, make sure he has one. You have to act as a family. We have to treat them like sons so they feel the compassion.”
But Nelson admits, there are stories of international players being shunned by American teammates.
“There have been nightmares of foreign players who were ostracized, who were left in gyms without a ride home.”
“General hazing is part of it, of course,” he said. “Everyone, particularly rookies, gets hazed. But if you’re from another culture, you don’t understand that happens to everyone. The kid gets a misconception of what is going on. In his country, culturally, not saying hello in the morning is an affront. Soon, the kid is thinking ‘Everyone hates me.’ ”
“A player’s on court performance is impacted by what’s going on off court.”
It can appear comically trivial, said Nelson. “A player might say: ‘My wife thinks there is too big a selection in the stores for her’ or ‘She can’t find transportation for the kids because she doesn’t drive’. But if it’s bothering him, it’s not trivial.”
Nelson added that sometimes the Mavs have had as much difficulty helping American inner city kids and American farm kids integrate within a team structure, but integrating international players presents another dimension, one he thinks is almost uniquely equipped to deal with.
“Unless you have traveled, have lived overseas, you don’t have the same understanding of the cultural issues. I have 14 years coaching experience in Lithuania, and go there two or three times a year. I speak some Lithuanian and a little Spanish. I can read a menu, get directions, speak basketball jargon,” he noted.
Not everyone is as enthused — or as experienced — with scouting and developing international players. The New York Knicks general manager Isiah Thomas, who also did some international coaching — albeit in Toronto — has only begun to embrace the trend.
Historically, the Knicks’ forays into the international arena have been busts, the leading one being Frederic Weis, the 7-2 center taken in 1999 and never signed with the team. His one trip to New York, after the draft, turned into a fiasco when he showed up out of shape and was pictured on the back page of the New York Daily News with the headline: “French Toast.”
Thomas has made three overseas trips this year, using his own special advantage — being a Hall of Famer — to make connections. But the Knicks have only one scout. Thomas, though, is hopeful.
“We have a great European scout in Kevin Wilson and he constantly keeps us abreast of what is going on and what our options are,” he said in a brief e-mail exchange. “My trips were very productive in terms of building relationships for both the short and long term, and we intend to continue to have a strong presence and make sure we have all our potential opportunities addressed.”
Thomas did note the Knicks have had two international players on the roster last season, 7-2 Polish center Cezary Trybanski and 7-2 Croatian center Bruno Sundov, an interesting statement considering both were bench warmers whose skill sets seem barely more advanced than Weis’s.
Without referring to the Knicks specifically, Nelson says it’s difficult to deal with international basketball without a lot of effort.
“Teams that didn’t have the necessary information on the international scene made some mistakes,” he said. “Anyone can look good in one game, but without a backup infrastructure, you can get fooled.” Nelson does admit drafting international players has taken a hit in recent years because highly hyped kids from places like Georgia and Senegal failed miserably. “I think there has been an overemphasis on trends that worked in the past, like drafting international players. The international trend became too chic.”
Terry Lyons, the NBA international rep, dismisses the allegation that international players fail at a greater rate than college or high school players.
“It reflects what happens everywhere,” said Lyons. You see Dick Vitale hyping a kid from college who doesn’t make it. I don’t think it’s any different. There are going to surprises like Parker and Ginobili as well as kids who are busts. May the best players play! I think any one of our teams truly judge their players to do what’s best for our teams.”
But it doesn’t hurt the league’s bottom line, either. This year’s finals reached fans in 205 countries. The league licensed 106 telecasters in 45 different languages. The international audience for the Spurs and Detroit Pistons was estimated at 110 million viewers, 50 million of whom were in China! Compare that to the 10 or 11 million watching at home in the United States.
And Friday, the papers in Buenos Aires were filled with headlines like "Ginobili: An Argentine Passion, Again the King of the NBA!" and "Ginobili, Glory Again". It was the first time the Finals were carried live on Argentine television. It’s unlikely to be the last.
“People assume that China is only interested when Yao plays,” Lyons said. “Not true. We have seen steady increase in the games broadcast. There had been interest in Yao. But what we saw there in China was this: The NBA had been on CCTV, the government network, over there but after Yao, more broadcasters took an interest. Regional networks became interested. It would not have happened that fast.”
Lyons points out that a lot of seeds for the league’s international growth were planted long ago…with the biggest growth coming as a result of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. Everyone everywhere suddenly wanted to “be like Mike”. But for some, it goes back further.
“We had the Atlanta Hawks go off to Lithuania in 1988 with Dominque Wilkins. Zydrunas Ilguaskas, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was one of the kids who saw that game,” he noted. “The 1992 Olympics increased that exposure. In fact, I often wonder what things will be like 10 or 15 years down the road. No one could have predicted what the Dream Team would do for the international nature of the game in 1992 and I suspect no one now knows what the effect of Yao or Manu or Bogut will mean down the road.
“It will be interesting to watch.”
Robert Windrem is an NBC investigative producer with a passion for basketballView original article