The NBA's Global Game Plan


    The Dallas Mavericks are winning big with international players

    Adjusting to the daily grind, physical play and endless stream of hotel suites can be tough for any rookie in professional basketball. But when the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki first moved to the NBA four years ago, he faced more of a culture shock than most. Nowitzki, a seven-footer from Germany, couldn't play much defense (which earned him the nickname "Irk") and was briefly tagged, as many European imports are, a "soft" player who shies away from contact. He often found himself riding the bench, so he had lots of time to work on his English.

    Now he couldn't feel more at home. An All-Star for the second straight year and the league's sixth leading scorer, Nowitzki, 24, like Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Sacramento Kings forward Peja Stojakovic, belongs to a swelling corps of international players who are winning hearts, minds and dollars, both in the U.S. and abroad. While helping make basketball arguably the world's fastest-growing sport, he and the other sharpshooting globetrotters have managed to captivate hard-to-please hoops fans in the U.S. "Nowitzki's just a freak. He's too big for the small forwards to guard and too quick for the centers," says Aaron Offeyer, 23, a Dallas native and Maverick fan who was sporting his hero's jersey at a road game against the New York Knicks.

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    Memphis Grizzlies sensation Pau Gasol, a gangly 7-ft. native of Spain who can handle and shoot the ball like a 6-ft. guard, last year became the first European player to win Rookie of the Year. This year Yao is a favorite to become the first Asian to get the honor. Meanwhile, Russian-born 6-ft. 9-in. forward Andrei Kirilenko is helping his elders John Stockton and Karl Malone keep the Utah Jazz in the play-off hunt. "There are going to be a lot of us," says Gasol. "We're proving we can play here."

    They are also proving that the game can play overseas. The NBA is putting the finishing touches on plans to hold several of next year's preseason games in Europe, Latin America and Asia, including China. By the end of the decade, predicts NBA commissioner David Stern, "there will be multiple NBA teams in Europe," either as regular expansion franchises or in a separate league. Developers are starting to build modern European arenas to help promote expansion of the game. Some observers have suggested staging a Ryder Cup of pro basketball, with U.S. stars battling a team of their international colleagues, perhaps in place of the traditional East-West All Star matchup, as the National Hockey League now does.

    What began as a trickle in the 1980s, with the arrival of occasional foreign stars like Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria) and the late Drazen Petrovic (Croatia), has turned into a flood. This season a record 65 players from 34 countries and territories outside the U.S. are suiting up, accounting for 16% of the league's rosters, compared with only 6% a decade ago. A third of the 18 players chosen for the All-Star Weekend's Rookie-Sophomore game came from overseas, among them standouts like San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (France), Denver Nuggets forward Nene Hilario (Brazil) and Orlando Magic guard Gordan Giricek (Croatia).

    Six players, including Yao, were taken in the first round of last year's draft, and 10 or more could go that high this year. Serbian seven-footer Darko Milicic, 17, is widely expected to be the second pick after LeBron James, the high school sensation from Akron, Ohio. It's no coincidence that the three best teams so far this season (and those with the best shot at dethroning the L.A. Lakers as NBA champs) are the Kings, Mavericks and Spurs, all aided by an abundance of foreign talent. (With Stojakovic and center Vlade Divac on the Kings, some fans have dubbed the team the Sacramento Serbs.)

    None of this comes as much of a surprise to Commissioner Stern, who has been consciously building the NBA into a global brand since before the Dream Team made its debut at the Barcelona Olympics a decade ago. "These kids have grown up watching Michael Jordan," Stern says of the NBA's new foreign stars. "Basketball is a universal language, and it's about to bloom on a global basis." Stern is counting on that, especially at a time when the NBA's popularity, at least judging by TV ratings and attendance figures, seems to have reached its peak in the U.S.

    The global appeal is filling the NBA's coffers. About 20% of all NBA merchandise — including NBA Cologne in Spain and NBA school supplies in Latin America — is now sold outside the U.S., providing an extra $430 million in annual revenue. And that doesn't include the countless knock-off jerseys with creative team names like the San Jose Bulls that fly off Third World shelves. The NBA is building an NBA City theme restaurant in the Dominican Republic (the other one is in Orlando, Fla.) and is thinking of opening freestanding NBA stores in Asia and Europe. Separate NBA boutiques exist in big department stores like El Corte Ingles in Spain. Nearly 15% of the league's $900 million in annual TV revenue (excluding local broadcasts) is now derived from its 148 television partners in 212 countries and territories. Some 40% of visitors to (which includes sites in Spanish, Japanese and, since mid-January, Chinese) log on from outside the U.S., and a million fans pay $10 a month to listen to streaming English or Spanish audio of almost any game.

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