the best basketball players are more and more foreigners

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Luka Donjic vs. Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics in MarchCreate Getty Images

Luka Donjic, a brilliant 22-year-old playmaker from Slovenia, single-handedly cradles the favorite Los Angeles Clippers. Joel Embiid, born in Cameroon and measuring 2.13 meters, dominates the champion of the Philadelphia 76ers. Denver Nuggets’ multi-level Serbian Nikola Jokic (2.11 meters) is the favorite for the MVP, an award given to Greek-Nigerian Giannis Antetokonmo (Milwaukee Bucks) over the past two seasons.

The quartet is just the tip of the iceberg.

Almost a quarter of NBA players this season were not born in the United States. For the seventh consecutive year, more than a hundred foreign basketball players are playing in the league. This year there are 107 players from 41 different countries (plus ten other double contract players who switch between the NBA and the Development League).

Each of the 30 teams employs at least one foreign player. In the mid-1990s, just over 20 non-Americans were still active across the league.

The first impetus for globalization was the visit of the Atlanta Hawks NBA team to the Soviet Union in 1988, at the request of CNN founder Ted Turner. Soon after, the Olympic basketball champion Soviet Union allowed the players to leave for America for the first time.

In 1989, Šarūnas Marčiulionis was the first of the Golden State Warriors. The citizens followed his example and the players of the Yugoslavian era were very popular with recruiters in the NBA.

In 1992, during the Barcelona Games, young basketball players around the world fell under the influence of the American Dream Team, which included stars such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They were a source of inspiration for foreign players who came to the United States in the 1990s and 2000s.

The advent of the Internet has brought NBA champions closer together. “Before, I could watch one or two games a year,” Vladi Divac, the Serbian center who made his Los Angeles Lakers debut in 1989, told a press conference several years ago. Illustrated sports. “Not live, but on VHS tapes.”

In Cameroon, high school student Joel Embiid, who is currently with the Philadelphia 76ers, has spent hours watching YouTube videos of Kobe Bryant imitating him in neighboring fields decades later. The National Basketball Association felt very close to him.

In China, the first American game was broadcast on national state television in 1987, and more and more since. In 2002, tall Yao Ming (2.29 meters) was drafted by the Houston Rockets as China’s first star player.

At first, the new arrivals were confronted with the necessary adaptation problems. In their country they were great, in the often meaningless NBA with harsh names (to Americans). The stars were an exception.

Croatian Drachen Petrovic made a name for himself with the New Jersey Nets from 1991 to 1993, before he died in a car crash. Hakim Aliwan, a Nigerian-turned-American, became the first foreigner to win the MVP award in 1994.

Influential was Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, who played for the Dallas Mavericks for twenty seasons until 2019. Standing 2.13 meters tall, Nowitzki was one of the NBA’s top scorers, especially for his height. After him he also began to build other centers and in front of him at a greater distance.

The German, in turn, was an example for young Luka Dončić, who took charge of him in Dallas in 2019. As a teenager, Dončić was his continent’s best player at Real Madrid, and led Slovenia to the European title in 2017. However, doubts remain. About this in America: For a long time Europeans had the character of not being able to withstand physical games in the NBA.

What if Dončić could do that in America too? After three seasons (averaging over 25 points), he is considered the successor to LeBron James’ contender for the NBA MVP.

Other non-Americans, such as Joki, Antetokounmpo, Embiid and French tackle Rudy Gobert, are also among the absolute best. Eight of the 24 players selected for the traditional All-Star Game earlier this year grew up outside the United States. Last season’s top fifteen selection included six “international” basketball players.

The National Basketball Association is driving globalization, including offices in cities such as Johannesburg, Mexico City, Madrid and Hong Kong. In 2001, the league launched the “Basketball Without Borders” program, which gives top foreign talent the chance to prove themselves to the coaches and players of their dream league. Of the 107 foreigners currently playing in the NBA, 34 participated in the program in their youth.


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