The NBA's Global Game Plan


    The Dallas Mavericks are winning big with international players

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    Gatorade, Lego and Adidas, among others, have signed on as the NBA's global marketing partners, spreading the basketball gospel through clinics, festivals and tournaments. In October another marketing partner, Reebok, launched Philadelphia star Allen Iverson's sneaker, the $130 Answer 6, across much of Western Europe. It sold out in six weeks. International markets now account for 30% of Reebok's sales, up from 10% two years ago. Thanks in large part to the Yao-inspired basketball craze in China, Spalding's international sales grew 44% in 2002. And Sprite has joined with players like Nowitzki, Stojakovic and Parker to help peddle the soft drink in their native lands.

    The NBA's moves, however, aren't working on every court. In many foreign countries, pro athletes have less of a tradition of endorsing products than their American counterparts, and some of the league's newest stars aren't quite ready for their close-up.

    "I don't like to be in the spotlight too much," says the shaggy-haired, goatee-sporting Nowitzki. As a teenager, he would stay up most of the night with his buddies to watch NBA play-off games on TV and then stagger into school bleary-eyed. The late-night airing of games continues to pose an obstacle to the league's growth, causing many overseas companies to shy away from sponsorship deals.

    As the world's game, basketball remains a distant second to soccer, which has fans in almost every country, totaling more than 1.25 billion. But there's no denying that basketball's appeal is on the rise, especially among younger, urban and middle-class fans. Like soccer, basketball is a relatively cheap game and easy to start playing. It requires only a ball and a makeshift hoop hung on a tree or the side of a house. In Mexico, there is scarcely a town that doesn't have at least one court, and even in impoverished Nigeria, many homes have a rim at the back, sometimes fashioned out of a bent tire iron. Basketball is the most popular school sport in China, where an estimated 250 million players shoot the ball with an NBA-influenced aggressiveness and flash that were seldom seen just a few years ago.

    The league's new diversity is also building enthusiasm at home. With four of their combined 10 starters hailing from Canada or Europe, Sacramento and Dallas are the league's two most exciting teams, playing an up-tempo, international style with lots of movement and passing. It's a welcome departure from the NBA's one-on-one isolation game, in which eight men are mere spectators on many plays. Thanks to their firm grasp of the fundamentals, "foreign players have added the skill factor back into the game," says Kings head coach Rick Adelman.

    Just as important, most of the foreign imports "are complete players, not specialists," notes Hall of Fame center Bill Walton, now an analyst for ESPN. The Europeans, in particular, are typically taught the basics by iron-willed coaches who have zero tolerance for showboating or big egos. The players learn to handle zone defenses, which, unlike man-to-man, require every player to hit the outside shot. And pressure doesn't faze them.

    "Playing for their national team, it's not unusual to have an entire nation watching their every move, shot and pass," observes Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who has used foreign players like the Mavs' Mexican forward Eduardo Najera to market the team to Hispanic fans in Texas.

    But sheer skill or poise may not be the only reason these new arrivals are generating so much excitement. It's no secret that over the past few decades the NBA has been dominated by African Americans. Some observers argue that the addition of high-profile white and Asian stars is bringing new fans to the sport, both in the U.S. and abroad. Stern insists that "race is not a factor anymore" for those fans. But a 2001 study in the journal Economic Inquiry examined Nielsen TV ratings for local NBA broadcasts during the 1996-97 season and concluded that "all else equal, more fans tune in when there are more white players to watch."

    In the quest for foreign stars, every team today employs scouts on three or four continents. They show up at tournaments and team practices all over the world. "There are no sleepers anymore," says David Fredman, assistant general manager for the Denver Nuggets. Many European teams play only two games a week, giving scouts fewer opportunities to see prospects in action. To protect their talent, some coaches often won't play their stars when an NBA scout is visiting. Lately scouts have been journeying to Brazil, Eastern Europe, Senegal and, of course, China in their search for the Next Big Thing.

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