The NBA's Great International Hope

Dirk Nowitzki (Getty Images)
Dirk Nowitzki (Getty Images)

Outsiders might reasonably assume that there is enough money in professional sports to be shared amicably among players and owners. But as both the NFL and the NBA have proved this year with their respective lockouts, there's never enough cash. To quote Patrick Ewing when he was president of the NBA Players Union, "Sure, we make a lot of money, but we spend a lot, too."


A more ridiculous argument for trickle-down economics has never been made, but the owners aren't exempt from the absurdity. They expressed the same sentiments then and still do — they're just more artfully veiled through nebulous statements of profitability and balance sheets.

For those wondering how thorough the NBA lockout, which began last Friday, is, one need only look at the snapshots of suggestively clad cheerleaders and retired superstars that have replaced images of current players on the league's websites. In accordance with the collective bargaining agreement — or, in this case, in accordance with the lack of one — and its 30 individual subsites were forced to purge all images of current players.

Nobody knows when the labor dispute will be resolved and pictures of players will resurface on the league's websites. But when it happens, there will be fewer African-American faces. Slowly but surely, the league is investing more and more resources overseas to develop talent to populate its websites and rosters.

The numbers have been steadily increasing since the 1990s, and it's a calculated business decision on the part of Commissioner David Stern to globalize the game and entice not only a growing international audience but also a larger white audience here in the States.

It's no secret that there are people, including league insiders, who share the belief that the game is too black, on and off the court. Whereas Major League Baseball has a glaring absence of African-American players, the NBA, conversely, has too many in the eyes of some. This, along with a desire to increase market size and revenue, has been a catalyst to infuse the league with "others."

It's not a nefarious plot to rid the game of black players. However, it's definitely a trend that's picking up speed and that will dramatically change the complexion and style of the game more and more in years to come. But Stern isn't stupid. He fully embraces the black superstars of the game, past and present.


Since becoming the head honcho in the mid-'80s, when the NBA was in a shambles, Stern has witnessed the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James spawn the massive popularity that his league currently enjoys. However, there was also this unassuming white guy named Larry Bird who wreaked havoc on the hardwood for years and who played a huge part in the restoration of the league.

This is the same guy who several years back said that the league needs white superstars because of its white fan base and who has also been questioned about his racial preference regarding drafting as the current president of the Indiana Pacers. But as a player during the 1980s and early '90s, Bird gave the league a semblance of counterbalance. The crafty superstar from small-town Indiana was the textbook example of the "great white hope."


The problem for Stern was that, unlike Magic and Michael, Bird didn't have an heir apparent to fill his shoes. But not one to lay back and twiddle his thumbs, Stern had a plan. The search for the great international hope(s) was already under way.

Going back to the first years of his tenure, Stern became quick allies with Boris Stankovic of the FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball), or what we may recognize as the International Basketball Federation. Shortly thereafter, the pipeline from Europe and other continents into the NBA was opened. To call it a tidal wave would be overreaching. Instead, the increase in international players is more in line with the anecdote about boiling a frog in slowly heated waters.


The boiling point became inevitable this past June, the month that saw the coming-out party for the great international hope(s). First, Dirk Nowitzki became the first international player to lead his team, the Dallas Mavericks, to a title, showing that a white European could do so despite the rap that they were too soft to compete at that level. There he stood, all 7 feet of his gangling frame, hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy while casting a looming shadow over the home court of the more gifted LeBron James, the league's new anti-emblem of urban swagger.

Several weeks later, in the 2011 NBA draft, teams selected a record number of foreign-born players — 14 out of 60, and four among the first seven. To be fair, those numbers include several rookies from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and Sudan.


Lay all of that on top of the proud announcement at the start of the 2010-2011 season that the league now featured a record 84 international players. Tied for the second-highest number of internationals on their roster at five was the Mavericks, the motley crew of characters who convincingly powered their way through the playoffs against more conventional teams. To think that other owners aren't sitting back, taking notice and making plans of their own to diversify the complexion of their lineups is to put your head in the sand.

In 2006 George Raveling, Nike's director of global basketball, said, "NBA teams are realizing it's less risky to draft internationals because they're more coachable, more socialized, have no posses and have not been Americanized." I take issue with much of that blanket statement. Nonetheless, he predicted that international players would make up 50 percent of the NBA by 2010. His prediction was off. The figure is currently about half that, but it's still a far cry from even 20 years ago.


More telling, this is a statement from a high-ranking official at Nike. Though it's just the opinion of one man, it speaks to the direction that many corporate sponsors and partners are urging the league to pursue.

Kobe may be ruminating over plans to take his talents to China during the lockout, but when it's all said and done, it's players coming to play in the United States who are going to shift the tectonic plates of the NBA as we know it.


International men can't jump? That may or may not be true, but they definitely can win. And the league is taking notice.

Mason Jamal is a contributor to The Root. Read more from him at Follow him on Twitter