With NBA Chinese New Year celebrations taking place around the globe, renaming the NBA the World Basketball Association sounds like a nifty idea. In honoring the New Year, Monday night’s Bulls matchup against the San Antonio Spurs was broadcast to China bringing the festivities into the homes of international fans.
The Bulls were at the forefront of teams expanding their brand across international borders with three-time champion Toni Kukoc among the first wave of European stars to bring their talents to the States.
“It was actually scary at first. We had no idea, we just saw these videos of NBA players and we talked about it. I can’t explain it. It was like Columbus getting on the Santa Maria and who knows what’s going to happen …that’s how we were thinking about it,” Kukoc said. “Then we got lucky to play these games against players our age that we knew after college. There was a period when they went from college to the NBA -- Gary Payton, Larry Johnson -- all of these guys we had to play.
We were actually able to beat [them] and were becoming All-Stars and it proved that we might be good enough to go over there and play. Not just go over there to sit on the bench, but actually play and be significant for our team.”
Mirroring the Bulls’ path to Kukoc, the Spurs adopted this new idea of searching overseas for an innovative kind of talent -- fundamentally sound, detail-oriented and crafty. With this new objective in mind during the 1999 draft, San Antonio selected Manu Ginobili from Argentina and over the next few years selected Tony Parker (France), Tiago Splitter (Brazil) and Argentinian Luis Scola who never officially wore a Spurs uniform.
Most, if not all, credit is attributed to head coach Gregg Popovich who has always had an eye for international talent. The extent of his vision has forever changed the international integration of talent in the league.
“When I came into the league in ‘88, I went over for the European Championships, in Cologne, Germany, I believe,” Popovich said. “In those days it was Serbia, Yugoslavia, Russia. These teams were unbelievable and you knew right then that there were a lot of great players. I tried to get some of those players here.”
Four championships later, Popovich and the Spurs seem fit for a new title holding the best record in the Western Conference.
Further reviewing Monday night’s rosters, there were a total of 11 players of international descent: Parker, Ginobili, Boris Diaw (France), Splitter, Nando De Colo (France), Aron Baynes (New Zealand), Patty Mills (Australia), Luol Deng (Britain), Marco Belinielli (Italy), Joakim Noah (France), and Vladimir Radmanovic (Serbia). Tim Duncan, although a U.S. citizen, is a native of the Virgin Islands.
Today the NBA has become a melting pot of talent and ethnicities, making it a league of no borders.