It all started in the summer of 1992.
That's the line you'll hear from most everyone — scouts, players, coaches both foreign and domestic — whenever you ask for the moment basketball became a global game. While it had long been popular in places like the Baltics, the Balkans, and the Philippines, the sport had few fans in other pockets of the world until the Dream Team's summer of smiling, sanitized dominance.
While Michael and Magic and Larry made their historic run, a woman named Meriem Moktaa Fournier sat at home in Saint-Maurice, France, 665 miles from Barcelona. Pregnant with a son she would name Evan, she had taken a break from her competitive judo career. Three months later she would give birth, bringing Evan into a world in which the Dream Team had already won gold, where Parisian blacktops were already teeming with wannabe ballers, where his path to the NBA was already being paved.
He would be tall and agile and maniacally competitive. His parents' genes guaranteed that. He would not have to rely on political upheaval to open his route to America, like Vlade Divac once had. He wouldn't have to shut up scouts who doubted that Frenchmen could play in the league, like Tony Parker once did. Because he was born three months after Barcelona, he would hit adolescence around the time general managers had grown smitten by Euros, making millionaires out of boys named Darko and Zarko and Nikoloz. He would grow up to say of the NBA: "It's never been a dream. Only a goal. I always knew I was going to make it."
He would spend his teenage years playing against his continent's best — boys from Spain and Serbia and the Czech Republic and beyond. They would all believe they were destined to be the next Tony Parker or Pau Gasol, or at the very least, the next Vladimir Radmanovic or Goran Dragic. The NBA would welcome them. By now, it had been welcoming their compatriots for years.
But then in June 2012, Fournier would arrive Stateside, and he would travel around the country competing in workouts with other projected first-round picks. Only now, the other European kids were nowhere to be found. For years, there had been incessant transatlantic matriculation. But on this day, less than two weeks before the draft, the 19-year-old Frenchman would stroll through the lobby of his Dallas hotel, look around, shrug, and say with a knowing smile, "I'm the only one here."
If Fournier slips out of the first round,1 and if no other European prospect vaults up draft boards to replace him, then this would be the first draft since 1992 — about a month before the Barcelona Olympics began — with no international first-rounders.2 Some see this as nothing more than a historical fluke, while others blame last year's lockout or this year's strong crop of collegiate prospects. Still others point to Europe's economic woes or to lingering effects of long-ago wars. But even if this year is an aberration, a longer-term trend persists. Assuming Fournier is the lone first-rounder, that will make 20 players from outside North America chosen in the first round in the last five years, down from 36 in the previous five-year period.
So after years of unchecked player migration, has the impact of foreigners begun to decline?
Foreigners have been in the league since the beginning. Henry Biasatti, an Italian-born Canadian, played in the NBA's first-ever game on November 1, 1946.3 Seven years later, a Vancouver native named Bob Houbregs became the first non-American to be chosen in the first round of the NBA draft, going second overall to the Milwaukee Hawks. But through the first several decades of its existence, the league was composed almost entirely of Americans.
In the 1973 draft there was Swen Nater, a Holland native who moved to California as a boy, eventually playing for UCLA and seven different NBA and ABA teams. Through the '80s a number of other foreign-born players used the NCAA as a springboard to the league — guys like Hakeem Olajuwon and Detlef Schrempf and Rik Smits. And then there was Georgi Glouchkov, a Bulgarian who came to the Suns in 1985 but then went home a year later, hounded by rumors of steroid use and overwhelming evidence that he just wasn't very good.
But in November of 1989, the same month the Berlin wall came down, players from the Soviet Union (Sarunas Marciulionis) and the Yugoslav Republic (Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic) began long and successful NBA careers. "I call those the Jackie Robinson years of international basketball," says Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks general manager and longtime pioneer in relations between the NBA and international leagues. "For years we'd been dealing with people saying, 'Those foreigners aren't athletic enough. They're not tough enough or defensive-minded enough. They just can't play our game.' If they got over here and flopped, we would have had eight more years of that."
Nelson leans back in his office chair, flanked by Mavericks player personnel staffers, deep in the bowels of the American Airlines Center. He's surrounded by printouts and markers and whiteboards covered top-to-bottom with prospects' names, all signs of the chaos that must be made orderly by the time draft night arrives. But for now, he takes a break from thinking about who the Mavs will take with the 17th pick and reflects on the last two-plus decades of the NBA's international relations.
The key, Nelson believes, was Divac, who became an immediate contributor to the Showtime Lakers in 1989-90. "The most important relationship in the history of all of this was the relationship between Magic Johnson and Vlade," Nelson says. "Magic was a worldly guy. He understood the politics. But most importantly, he understood how good Vlade could be. So you have one of the true ambassadors of the game, a world champion, and he's taking Vlade under his arm. Because of that relationship, it became acceptable and even chic to have these European guys on your team."
Divac and Marciulionis (whom Nelson helped bring to the Warriors) both had long and effective, if unspectacular, careers. Petrovic, however, appeared to be the best of them all, making the All-NBA third team before he was killed in a car crash in 1993. Croatian Toni Kukoc joined the Bulls in 1993, and Lithuanian Arvydas Sabonis, then hobbled by injuries, arrived in Portland in 1995.4 "After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was like the dam opening up," Nelson says. "All these players who hadn't been able to come were all of a sudden coming, and they were showing that they could play." Still, few teams had the relationships in Europe necessary to effectively scout and vet prospects. So despite the success of Soviet bloc players, there were only three first-round picks from overseas between 1992 and 1995. But by the late '90s, it had become fashionable to draft foreigners. "We're a trendy league," Nelson says. "General managers and team presidents decided they wanted to go over there and look around. Everybody wanted at least one or two foreign players on their team."
The 1996 draft welcomed Steve Nash, Peja Stojakovic, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and other foreigners to the league, breaking the record with six international players chosen in Round 1. Two years later, Milwaukee chose Dirk Nowitzki at no. 9 and promptly traded him to the Mavericks.5 Though he had dominated the Nike Hoop Summit exhibition game against American high school stars, Nowitzki had yet to prove himself in Europe. "Even the people who knew the European game — none of them could believe this kid was going so high in the draft," Nelson says. "Dirk was an anomaly. Germany was not a basketball country, and he wasn't even playing in the first division. People were like, 'Nowitzki? That's not a Slavic name. Who is this guy?'"
By his fourth season, Nowitzki was an All-Star, well on his way to a Hall of Fame career and already drawing comparisons to Larry Bird. Suddenly, everybody wanted their very own Dirk. And, the thinking went, all they had to do was head over to Europe and find one.
Despite Nowitzki's role in paving the way for future European players, Fournier didn't grow up rooting for the big German. Nor, for that matter, did he care too much about Tony Parker, his countryman. "If you're French, you definitely have to respect Tony Parker for what he did," Fournier says, "even if you're not really a fan."
Unlike the generations of players before him, Fournier grew up in a flattened, post-nationalist European basketball culture. Sure, he appreciated Parker's Spurs, but his all-time favorite NBA team remains the 2002 Kings. "I still can't believe they lost that (Western Conference finals) series to the Lakers," he says. "That was the series that made me love basketball." Today, when Fournier wears the number 10 on his jersey, he does so in honor of his favorite player: Mike Bibby.
Fournier's story is not one of a childhood spent dreaming of riches and glory in a faraway land. He was not plucked from obscurity or given his big break by an intrepid and eagle-eyed scout. Instead, Fournier's tale sounds more like the biography of any number of players from Brooklyn or Atlanta or Compton. He played and he grew and he developed, always believing the NBA was within his grasp, until one day, it became clear, he was right.
Had he been born 10 years earlier, this probably wouldn't have been the case. By the early 2000s, NBA executives had begun coveting European talent, but they still hadn't figured out how to effectively evaluate it. Few teams had full-time overseas scouts. If they took an international trip and saw a player have a bad game, they wrote him off. If they brought someone in for a workout and he shined, they assumed he'd become a star. The openness to imports was there. The understanding of proper context was not.
"There was an overreaction during those years," says Nelson. "We went from having no emphasis on international players, to the '90s when we had the 'Jackie Robinson' years, to bringing in Gasol and Nowitzki and Parker and those guys, and then all of a sudden it went too far." Players showed up on NBAdraft.net, then the most popular site for draft geeks, with grainy photos and tales of pterodactyl-like wingspans and flawless shooting strokes. In 2002, 19-year-old Georgian 7-footer Nikoloz Tskitishvili went no. 5 overall to Denver, on his way to averaging 2.9 points in
eight four seasons in the NBA. The next year, 7-foot Serbian teenager Darko Milicic went no. 2 overall, ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.6
"In the 90s, you could go to a major European game, with tons of NBA-ready players, and not see a single NBA scout in the building," says Rich Sheubrooks, executive director of global and pro scouting for the Jazz. "And then in the early 2000s, you'd show up to a game somewhere obscure like Austria, and there's six NBA guys in there watching."7
At the rookie orientation meeting in 2002, former NBA point guard and current TNT commentator Kenny Smith lit into the American draftees while giving a seminar. According to Harvey Araton's book Crashing the Borders, Smith spoke of the foreigners by saying, "Are they better than you? I don't think so. Are there some who have been drafted but they're not as good as you? Who knows? But they have a perception about you." When someone asked about that perception, Smith continued: "That you're lazy, you don't work hard, you're not coachable, and you're arrogant. And the perception of the foreign players is that they work hard, love to be coached."
Despite all the newfound love for foreigners, some still slipped through the cracks. Manu Ginobili went no. 57 in 1999.8 Tony Parker went no. 28 in 2001. That same year, Andres Nocioni went undrafted. "You could still get unbelievable value on players if you really did your homework," says Pete Philo, an international scout with the Timberwolves who founded the Reebok Eurocamp, which has become a must-visit pre-draft event for NBA personnel. "There was so much misinformation out there, you had to have guys with the relationships and understanding in place. You might have a talented player who's not performing because he doesn't fit into the system.9 You can't write that guy off." Teams also struggled at times to put players' performances in the proper context. "When you're scouting college kids, you can watch your team play one night, and then go watch North Carolina and Duke play the next night," says Nelson. "The comparison is right there. If you stay over in Europe too long, you're not used to the athleticism of our league. You're watching slow on slow. Anybody with any kind of quickness all of a sudden looks like he's Tony Parker." For that reason, Nelson prefers to send scouts on short-term trips abroad, with the speed of the league still fresh in their minds.
And yet despite the need for relationships, for context, for understanding of the international game, proper evaluation still comes down to one thing. "You either have an eye for talent or you don't," Nelson says. "You can do all your homework and have everything properly organized and have it all lined up, but when it's draft night and you're on the clock and you have three minutes and your coconuts are on the table — when it's nut-cutting time, as we say — that's when you separate the boys from the men. You either can tell who's going to become a good player or you can't."
In the summer of 1992, while the Dream Team romped through Barcelona and Meriem Moktaa Fournier prepared to give birth to her NBA-bound son, on the other side of Europe a far bleaker reality persisted.
The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia — home to Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, and Dino Radja — was dissolving into a handful of independent states, all ripped apart by various interlocking wars. In Yugoslavia's place emerged such countries as Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They were free nations, but they were trapped under the shadow or deep in the throes of war. Historically, this was a region where basketball players were born. But now, few people were having children at all. Between 1991 and 1992, the birthrate in Croatia declined dramatically, only to rise again after the war in ended in 1995.10
"No one was having babies there in 1992 and 1993," says Philo, "and this is a place where there are a lot of players. Well, now it's 2012, and there's this small generation of players who would be 19 or 20 now but were never born."
That's one theory as to why we're seeing a sudden dip in international talent. Another: Europe's economic woes have impacted basketball clubs, harming the quality of the continent's coaching ("I don't buy that at all," Nelson says). Most everyone agrees that this year's crop is particularly poor in part because a number of players declared last year instead. "We had the lockout, so a lot of the college players decided to stay," says Sheubrooks. "Then you had agents telling their international players, 'This is a good draft for you — you should come out.'" But that only explains this year's dip. If you look at the last several years, you'll still see a significant decline from the early- to mid-2000s. "During those years, everyone and their uncle decides, 'There's gold in them there hills,' and they all have to go check it out," says Nelson. "So you get to a point where any guy you can find, as long as he has an "-ic" in his name — Stojakovic, Vrankovic, whatever — all of a sudden his stock doubles."11
Nelson explains his job this way: "We're projectors of human beings. Some people project real estate. Some project art. We project basketball players." Scouts are paid to speculate — to estimate future value of a human asset. So perhaps in the mid-2000s, the NBA just endured a Euro-centric "speculative bubble," and today's regression is nothing more than an industry-wide self-correction. Or maybe it's something even simpler: Scouts and general managers have gotten better at their jobs.
Nelson does have one other theory, however, hatched during his time working with the Lithuanian national team. "When the breakup of the Soviet Union happened, we told Arvydas that if he cared anything about the future of basketball in his country, he would go back and fuck every chick he could possibly find. And he better not use the blanks — he better use the 7-foot-4 cartridges. Then in 2010, Lithuania would have all this talent. Obviously, he didn't listen, because I don't see any 7-foot-4 kids out there."
Though Fournier insists he has always viewed the NBA as less a dream than a goal, he admits to giddy anticipation about the moment when he'll shake David Stern's hand. In fact, Fournier plans to be in Newark on draft night, bedecked in a well-tailored suit and ready to hop out of the stands and onto the stage as soon as his name is called. He does not care that the NBA hasn't invited him to sit in the green room. Nor does he care about the Internet infamy that most certainly awaits. "Of course I'm going to be there," he says. "I have to put on the hat and shake the hand. Why would I want to be anywhere else?"
He certainly doesn't want to be back in Europe. Unlike many internationals who stay overseas after being drafted, Fournier can't wait to move. While sitting in his hotel, he says of Dallas, "It reminds me of Paris," becoming almost certainly the first person to ever make that comparison. He reflects on what he's most looking forward to about the NBA: the competition, the facilities, and the fact that he'll never get called for traveling.
I ask if he takes any pride in representing his country, joining the growing French contingent in the league. "Not really," he says. "I don't think about being from France. I only think about being myself."
And with that, he gets up and walks away, through the cavernous atrium of a faceless hotel in the latest stop on a long foreign tour, back to his room, alone.
Editor's Note: A footnote was added and a sentence deleted after this story was originally published to clarify how complicated it can be to define "international" players in the NBA.
Jordan Conn (@jordanconn) wrote The Defender: Manute Bol's Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.
Fournier's agent, a Dallas-based Gambian-Frenchman named Bouna Ndiaye, says that from his perspective, the second round is better than the first. "You have more leverage," he says. "You're not tied to one team for four or five years. You can sign whatever kind of contract you want." But, he concedes, "There isn't a player on the planet who will listen when you tell him that."
Defining who is and is not an "international player" is complicated. Andrew Nicholson and Fab Melo were both born outside the United States, but both played for U.S. colleges and can be seen as products of the American game. "Can you call guys like Rik Smits and Detlef Schrempf (who played for Marist College and the University of Washington, respectively) 'international players?" asks Donnie Nelson of the Mavericks. "I don't know."
The league was then called the BAA, Basketball Association of America.
"Before he got hurt, Sabonis was just like Dirk," Nelson says, "only he was 7-foot-4, he had bulk, and he could pass as well as any point guard. You had to be an idiot if you didn't realize that guy could have been a star in the NBA."
Nowitzki was traded along with no. 19 pick Pat Garrity for Robert Traylor, who never averaged more than 5.5 points per game. Dallas then sent Garrity (and a future no. 1 that became Shawn Marion) to Phoenix in exchange for Steve Nash. Not a bad night for Nelson.
Tony Ronzone, a longtime NBA scout and executive, was with the Pistons in 2003. "If not for the fact that he was in that draft class, I think Darko wouldn't be thought of as a bust the way he is today. It's not that he became terrible — he's still in the league. It's just the other guys were so great. Also, I think he could have done better if he had gone to another team. We were loaded then. We won the championship the next year. That wasn't a good situation for someone like him to get minutes and develop."
The globalization of the game has given rise to a community of basketball lifers/vagabonds, including Nelson, Ronzone, and others. "Guys like me and Tony will go coach a clinic in Nigeria for nothing more than a bowl of soup," Nelson says. Some of the 70+ stamps on Ronzone's passport: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sri Lanka, where he was once caught under gunfire from Tamil Tiger rebel forces.
Not that this was cause for complaint. "I'd prefer it for guys to go undrafted," says Herb Rudoy, Ginobili's agent. "That way, once they're established in Europe, they can come over and have teams bidding on them."
Or, perhaps, because he's deferring to teammates. Says Ronzone, who recently spent time working for the Timberwolves: "Everyone wondered what was wrong with Ricky Rubio during the years he was with Barcelona. Well, the problem with Ricky was that he had a teammate named Juan Carlos Navarro, and that guy's a legend in Spain. So he deferred to him, because that was the way he'd been taught. There was nothing wrong with him at all, and as soon as he got over here, he showed that."
See Fig. 3 [PDF].
Jason Kapono once told reporters that if he moved to Croatia and changed his name to "Kaponovic," he'd be a lottery pick. Instead, he went in the second round.