The Foreign Invasion of the American Game

Euro: New Currency of the NBA

"The style of play in the NBA is different now, sure," says former NBA player Kenny Smith, who prepped at Archbishop Molloy in Queens and is currently a commentator on TNT. "If Shaquille O'Neal gets 20 points by powering the ball in from five feet away, and Dirk Nowitzki gets 20 points by shooting threes, it's still 20 points for both guys. It all depends on what style of ball you like."

What has changed in the perception of black and white basketball through the years is on the defensive end. When the Knicks hired Pat Riley in the early 1990s, he found few players with offensive skills. So he used the athleticism of his black players to shut down the opponent's offense. Soon, final scores were in the 70s, the Knicks were winning, and other coaches followed Riley's lead. The game became one of stifling defenses, which caused teams to isolate one or two players on one side of the floor to try to generate some scoring.

It was this sluggish style of play that led the league to allow zone defenses. The game has suddenly opened up (for teams with the right kind of players), with more room for three-pointers, more spacing for passing, and the ability to try to hide a bad defensive player by making him responsible for an area, not an opposing player. For black players in the NBA, the changing of the rules holds an ironic truth. For years, black ballplayers were stereotyped as not being interested in playing defense. When black players became very good at defense and began to dominate the league on the defensive end, the NBA loaded the dice. And this is precisely where the Euro players stepped in.

illustration: Stanley Martucci and Cheryl Griesbach

I used to joke with players going on tours of Europe, and especially when the 'Dream Team' played in the 1992 Olympics, that if they did their jobs well, they would be putting themselves out of work," says Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at Berkeley, longtime activist, and consultant to players and teams, currently director of the City of Oakland Parks and Recreation Department.

Sitting in Europe in those days were guys like Andrei Kirilenko, a Russian who dreamed of playing with the "gods that played in the NBA"—and who now does so as a Utah Jazz forward. Germany's Dirk Nowitzki had a poster of the Chicago Bulls' Scottie Pippen on his bedroom wall. The young Euro players, including Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic, emulated what they saw as the NBA game: the high-octane, offensive-minded game of the NBA superstars. Maybe it was the nature of blowout Olympic games, but the Euros tended not to notice the defensive game that guys like Charles Barkley, Pippen, and Michael Jordan also played.

The foreign players have succeeded because of a big advantage in the European system of developing basketball players. Players overseas can join pro teams while still in their teens, they practice every day against pros, and they are required to learn passing, ball-handling skills, and three-point shooting, regardless of their size. American players have practice limits in high school and college. But more importantly, American players are not developing a complete game. College coaches, who might have a great player for only one year before he turns pro, aren't generally interested in teaching the kid ball-handling skills or helping him develop a jump shot. Players are calling the shots.

The export of NBA basketball to foreign countries and the hybrid style that has boomeranged back to these shores a decade later are not unlike the British invasion of rock music in the 1960s. Black musical stars like Little Richard and Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters became big stars in England, and kids like John Lennon and Mick Jagger were listening. A few years later, the music came back to the U.S. as "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Then it morphed into Sgt. Pepper. And as a result of the British invasion, soul music was marginalized to the edges of the American music charts.

"The NBA is a uniquely American institution, and a black institution as well," says Edwards. "It's the equivalent of jazz. For many years, jazz tried to get away from its roots, to bring in a larger audience. As a result, jazz is now a marginalized music form. When you change the style of music, there are consequences, so I caution the NBA to think of what style they are changing the game into."

But the predominant color of 21st-century NBA basketball is neither black nor white; it's green. "The race thing right now is incidental to economics," says Edwards. "The game has always changed due to market forces. They brought in the Harlem Globetrotter style of play when the game got stagnant in the '50s and '60s. They did the same thing when they emphasized Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Their latest capitalistic ploy is globalization. The problem is the style of play has been changed to accommodate the market. Do we want to watch basketball as it is played in Yugoslavia? At some point you might be marketing garbage, and it could become so discombobulated culturally that it could become ugly."

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