Weekly Countown: Stern takes global initiatives all the way to UN

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Today, we take a global view of the NBA, starting with a highly unusual cocktail party two weeks ago to which I was invited, with the unspoken understanding that I refrain from pestering the guests.

• A night with the UN. While other leagues have holiday parties this time of year, Stern prefers to entertain the 15 representatives of the United Nations Security Council. "Five end their terms on Dec. 31, and five start on Jan. 1, so we invited all 20," he said. "Eighteen came."

The event was held at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 1, a night when the Knicks happened to be roughing up the visiting Suns 126-99. Stern was seated precariously on a tiny round end table wedged into a corner of the two upper-level suites occupied by his party. The ambassadors roamed in and out of the rooms, several of them wearing blue and orange Knicks caps and/or T-shirts.

"The big guy is here too: Secretary-General," said Stern, pointing to the name of Ban Ki-moon on the manifest. "It's just a place for them to relax in a casual setting outside of the UN, and the ones who have been here in the past, they remember the times they've had."

They dined before the game in a private room downstairs amid welcoming speeches by Stern, Knicks owner James Dolan, New York Mayor MichaelBloomberg and Condoleezza Rice. Next they were led upstairs to the suites in time to hear President Obama's live speech outlining his policy on Afghanistan.

"Right here," said Stern, pointing up at a small TV screen on the wall. "We turned up the sound in both suites and we watched it here."

Retired shot-blocker Dikembe Mutombo, who was scheduled to depart the following day to dedicate new basketball courts on behalf of the NBA in India, was engaging in humorous evangelism with anyone who wished to come by. "They're getting a big kick out of him," said Stern. "We're stressing to the representatives that sport has transcendent value. Yes, there's a business, but more important, teamwork, discipline, exercise, fitness, health -- they're becoming more relevant, having to do with healthcare and the like. And as values, they're actually more important than ever."

This evening was a prominent example of how fast and far the NBA has surfed the changing global waves, from the Cold War through the Dream Team, and now into this melting-pot arena in which players and UN ambassadors pass by from all corners of the world. As he made the rounds, Stern chatted with the Turkish ambassador about the FIBA World Championships coming next August to his country, and the French ambassador about his 10 countrymen playing in the NBA, and the Nigerian ambassador about the legacy of Hakeem Olajuwon.

"By the way," said Stern, "we've got Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina here too." He looked as happy as a commissioner can be in the midst of a recession, with a potential lockout around the corner.

• The Afghan women. Last month, a delegation of women basketball players from Afghanistan -- all 17 and under -- visited the Washington Wizards and the Knicks as part of an international sports program drawn up by the U.S. State Department. "It was amazing just to see the looks on their faces, to talk to some of these girls who lost their families and the things they have to deal with in their lives that we have no concept of," said Wizards VP Tommy Sheppard. "We had a great time before the game, we watched warm-ups, put them up in a suite. You forget how fun it is to meet an NBA player until you watch somebody else [meet one] for the first time.''

The girls had been drawn from a variety of provinces. "It was overwhelming to hear the stories of what it took for them to practice, to get everybody under one roof for one night," said Sheppard. "And then for them to go play a game was such an unbelievable undertaking.

"Basketball is not big there, but this was a really big thing to see their amazement at being able to take in an NBA game and watch players play a game these girls know how to play, and to see the skill level. They saw Gheorghe Muresan [who is 7-foot-7] and they saw Earl Boykins [5-5]. One of the girls said, 'Every basketball player comes in different shapes and sizes.'

"I really try to share with a group like this that we all have one thing in common. We all love basketball. You're from Afghanistan, I'm from New Mexico. We have nothing else in common, but when we talk about basketball we all have a lot in common. We all have dreams, we all love the game.

"There's something about that look in the eyes," said Sheppard. "These kids have all seen too much at such a young age."

• The hoops ambassador.Kim Bohuny was launching her career as research manager for the Goodwill Games when she met Stern in 1988 during an Atlanta Hawks' tour of the Soviet Union. "He was already planning to expand globally," said Bohuny via e-mail during a trip this week through Frankfurt, Germany. By 1990, Stern had hired her to develop international coaching clinics as well as NBA games and other events abroad.

"I travel about 35-40 percent of the year,"' she said. "During the season, I try to visit each of the [83] NBA international players." And that appears to be the least complicated of her duties.

It's easy to understand why Bohuny was needed. Consider the larger basketball world Stern sought to invade after he became commissioner in 1984: It was a world of amateur federations and career politicians who claimed to pursue an agenda that transcended profit and loss, and here came young Stern, overseer of the only profitable basketball league on the planet.

Bohuny became his ambassador. She developed relationships with the 213 basketball federations and professional leagues around the world, dissolving the tensions and misunderstandings and creating unlikely partnerships. No executive in American professional sports has a job description quite so nuanced as the NBA's VP of basketball operations-international. Bohuny oversees Basketball Without Borders and other camps and clinics around the world, she works closely with USA Basketball to plan the annual schedule for the Olympic team and she deals with the U.S. government on all kinds of larger basketball initiatives.

The small talk with foreign ambassadors, the goodwill visits by young players from every corner of the planet, the overseas work of NBA players and coaches visiting foreign countries on behalf of Basketball Without Borders -- all of it advances the NBA's mission, as Stern sees it. These non-profit works help introduce the NBA as an American business with interests that go beyond the pursuit of profit. Everyone understands the ultimate goal is to make money -- Stern's plan is to grow revenue from the seeds he has planted around the world -- but the goodwill gestures and the diplomacy of Bohuny and her international staff have helped find middle ground with federations that have no understanding for the bottom-line needs of business.

"We see that as a huge opportunity," said Stern of charitable programs like Basketball Without Borders. "And honestly, our biggest concern is whether we're up to doing justice by it ... It ultimately is good for business. It's a very important thing for our employees, my colleagues. It motivates us in what we can do, it's good for our communities, for our players, our owners and teams."

• The tall Russian. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is on the verge of becoming the first foreign-based owner of an NBA team. He won't buy the New Jersey Nets unless they're able to consummate their long-anticipated move to Brooklyn, but the franchise appears to be closer than ever to that goal. "The New Jersey sale is just a new chapter in U.S. sports, but [elsewhere], it isn't so new," said Stern. "The Mariners have been owned by a Japanese enterprise for 15 years."

English soccer clubs are owned by Russians and Americans, in addition to Brits themselves, and Stern envies that model. Not only does it further connect the NBA beyond its American borders, but it opens the league to new waves of cash with the prospect of raising the prices of NBA franchises, much the same as values of English clubs have grown amid the international competition to buy them.

"The second branch of this internationalization issue is now we're in the process of approving a Chinese owner for a limited partnership in Cleveland to become minority owners of the Cavaliers, a Russian owner for a majority share of the Nets, and we have four important Chinese enterprises that have invested in the NBA In China," said Stern, who went on to name all four. "We like the idea that they're becoming more interested in the NBA in the U.S., and that's very consistent with a rise in franchise values."

• The NBA dream. Midway through his teenage years, Omri Casspi found himself dreaming of playing in the NBA. He had no reason to think such thoughts: He was from Israel, a small country that had never produced an NBA talent. "Anybody that plays basketball dreams about NBA," he said after a pre-game shootaround with the Sacramento Kings on the day of a recent game in Portland. "That's the best thing in the world. I dream about being the best in my country, and then when I got older I started dreaming about the NBA."

Last spring, during a trip to Barcelona to write a story on Ricky Rubio, I ran into Maccabi Tel Aviv president Shimon Mizrahi. We were staying in the same hotel, and over breakfast, he, too, spoke with pride and hope that Casspi would be drafted and play in the NBA -- even though it would mean losing his best player. Now, Casspi is averaging 11.4 points off the bench for the Kings and playing with a ferocity that makes not only his fellow Israelis proud, but also the Kings for being smart enough to pick him in the first round (23rd overall).

"Who is your favorite NBA player?" I asked Casspi last week.

"No favorite player," he said. "Not anymore." They are all his rivals now.

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

• What's the chance of the Bulls getting Elton Brand from Philadelphia? The Bulls apparently are willing to give up on [Tyrus] Thomas, and desperately need reliable scoring. While it's clear they've positioned their roster for the next free-agent class, would having Brand as another scoring alternative make them more appealing to a small or shooting guard? The absolute inability of the Bulls to score on a regular basis is driving Bulls fans crazy.-- Loren, Chicago

Maybe they would yield Thomas in a trade, but only in return for something very good. And maybe they would be interested in Brand, but only if the package would include further cap relief to improve their chances of recruiting LeBronJames, Dwyane Wade or Joe Johnson this summer.

Word around the league is that Kirk Hinrich may also be available for a package that includes expiring contracts.

Brand won't likely return to his near-MVP level of 2005-06, when he led the Clippers to the second round while averaging 24.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. But he isn't all washed-up either. He doesn't fit with the Sixers' young roster or their style of play, and his onerous contract ($62 million over four years) will prevent Philadelphia from dictating the terms of his trade. But we've seen bad contracts traded many times before, and if Chicago can improve its frontcourt while clearing space, then maybe there will be cause for discussion -- at least, that's what one NBA official suggested to me Wednesday.

• Does anyone else think that the Sixth Man Award is a joke? Last year, Jason Terry played the third-most minutes for the Mavs, and the year before that, Manu Ginobili did the same. Basically, if the Cavs started LeBron on the bench, then put him in the game during the first dead ball, he would rack up the awards with dunks. I think the player on each team with the sixth-most minutes per game should be eligible. Your thoughts?--Armin Khansari, Houston, Texas

I see where you're coming from. But look at it this way: Most established NBA stars, like Terry or Ginobili, aren't willing to come off the bench. Why not reward them for accepting a role that helps the team? This is a nuanced award that recognizes a form of sacrifice that is unpopular, but necessary.

• On the Donaghy/betting/Stern issue, isn't it more likely that allowing gambling on the NBA will actually help to insulate it from Tim Donaghy-like issues in the future? I watched 60 Minutes and didn't find him to be grinding an axe at all. I found him to be a forthcoming guy who got caught up doing something stupid. But as for the NBA, are they acting like it's not going on? If we know it's going on and the benefits go to the shady folks (casinos, off shore and the mob), why not just legalize it, get ahead of things and grab the benefits? Let the government tax winnings and move on. As much as [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell won't embrace or endorse gambling, that is a HUGE reason why the NFL is so popular. Wouldn't it stand to reason the same would happen [with the NBA]?-- Eric Relkin, West Orange, N.J.

Donaghy may not act like he's grinding an axe, but of course he is. That doesn't change the fact that his allegations should be taken seriously by the league and investigated (whether or not the NBA admits to the investigation) and, if true, prevented from recurring.

A common reaction to my story last week -- in which Stern suggested an open-minded approach to legalized sports gambling -- has been to ask why he would be open to such a thing in the middle of the Donaghy scandal. But I see the other side of it.

When you think about how deeply sports leagues have feared the prospect of a gambling scandal, this was akin to an act of nonviolent terrorism by Donaghy when he bet on (and almost surely fixed) games that he officiated. Now that such an attack has taken place, isn't it Stern's job to reconsider all of his options in order to prevent similar attacks from happening again? I'm with you on this, Eric: I think it would be criminal if Stern didn't reassess his league's relationship with sports betting at this time, given everything that has happened.

• Ian, in three years, which Gasol brother will be more valuable?-- Norman Gray, Framingham, Mass.

Marc Gasol has lost weight and become a very good center, and if he played for a better team he would be appreciated even more. But I can't see how he'll ever surpass his All-Star brother's ability to help a team in a variety of ways, whether from the perimeter or the post.

Then I read The Art of a Beautiful Game, the new book by SI colleague ChrisBallard, a former Division-III guard who sought first-hand lessons and insight from NBA players, coaches and trainers. Not only has Ballard broken down the NBA game from the inside, he has produced a handbook that can be applied by pickup players the world over.

• Why does Steve Nash wrong-foot his layups? In 10th grade, Nash sprained his left ankle and tried to play through it, weakening his ability to launch off his left leg. "It really made it much harder to finish with my right hand," Nash told Ballard. "I'd make most of them of course, but I had to really concentrate."

That weakness influenced Nash to develop his unorthodox style around the basket. Because he continues to jump off the wrong foot, he remains difficult for defenders to read, especially while they're worried about his ready selection of leaners and floaters and passes off the dribble. "You'd never teach a 13-year-old to do a lot of what he does," Suns coach Alvin Gentry told Ballard. "But it sure does work."

• Who is the best free-throw shooter in history? It has to be Tom Amberry, who, in 1993 at age 71, set a Guinness World Record by making 2,750 free throws in a row over 12 hours at a southern California health club in front of 10 paid witnesses. He didn't miss a shot; he was forced to stop because the gym was closing for the night.

Amberry was a junior college All-American at Long Beach City College in the 1940s who went on to play briefly in the American Basketball League (which existed before the NBA came to be). Part of Amberry's step-by-step technique was to point his middle finger at the inflation hole, to help him line up the shot while focusing on a detail that fends off the evil counterproductive thoughts. After meeting with Amberry, Ballard tried his checklist -- feet square, three bounces, thumb along the black line of the ball, elbow in, bend the knees and so on and so forth -- and he struggled initially as he found himself thinking too much.

"I did feel like his method was helping me," concluded Ballard, while also acknowledging that NBA players weren't as willing to try the Amberry mantra. Former Bulls coach Bill Cartwright brought Amberry to Chicago to work with Jay Williams from Duke, but the rookie didn't go for it. "He was the No. 1 draft pick, so he was busy doing commercials," Amberry said.

• Can Steve Kerr still shoot? He used to write a profane, two-letter acronym across the toes of his shoes to remind him to shoot regardless of circumstance. By the end of his career Kerr had turned into the NBA's version of a prolific field-goal kicker, coming off the bench to make shots and win championships for the Spurs as well as the Bulls. Now 43 and in his new sedentary role as GM of the Suns, he agreed during the 2008 preseason to engage Ballard in a contest -- 25 college threes, 25 NBA threes and 10 free throws. "Here was a once-great shooter being pulled off the top shelf of a musty closet and dusted off," wrote Ballard. "Would all the parts still work?"

"I'm out here shooting threes cold, and you're going to write up the results and I'll be judged by this," said Kerr. "That's actually a lot of pressure."

For a moment, Ballard thought Kerr might be in trouble after missing three of his first six from the floor. I won't give away the ending, but let's just say shooters don't forget how to shoot. And after reading this chapter on shooting, you realize why this is so.

How does a non-NBA player earn the right to run an NBA team? Blazers lead assistant Dean Demopoulos is working toward that goal.

• Be patient. Demopoulos was an assistant to Temple's Don Chaney for 17 years. But he is no longer viewed as a college coach after spending nine years alongside Nate McMillan -- first in Seattle where they coached an older team, and now in Portland, where they have presided over a successful rebuilding with youth. "Even though he knows a lot already, Nate is always open to learn," said Demopoulos. "For a lot of guys with success, it's not as easy as someone might think. Nate is a guy who is always looking to improve, and that's how he sets the example for everyone. I admire that from afar, and he's consistent in his effort to do that. So you're go to be pretty special at the end of that process, because he maintains a very high standard.''

• Make the best of opportunities. When Achilles tendon surgery prevented McMillan from joining the Blazers on a four-game trip to the East last week, he put Demopoulos in charge of the team under difficult circumstances. Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw and Nicolas Batum were all injured and unavailable. Yet, the Blazers came within a possession of winning games at Cleveland and Indiana, in addition to their victory at Indiana.

"In Indiana, we had a 20-minute talk [with the team] and he said, 'This is the last time we're going to talk about injuries, now we're going to go out and play as hard as we can,'" said Brandon Roy. "You need to see your coach be confident in what he's calling, or even in pregame, and he had all of that. He didn't have that, 'Hey, I don't want to rub anybody the wrong way.' He was confident, he got on guys when he needed to and, more than anything, he made us feel like we were supposed to win those games."

• With 20-year-old Tyreke Evans. The Kings' rookie point guard was talking about his coach, Paul Westphal. "I heard back in his time he was a good player, that he used to dunk on people," said Evans. "So when he comes over and tells me something, I'm ready to listen."

I mentioned Westphal's prominent role in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals. Evans replied with a blank stare.

"It's known as the greatest game of all time," I said. "Triple overtime? Garfield Heard and his last shot? You've never heard of it?"

"No," said Evans, smiling politely.

"Anyway, Westphal had a great game that night," I said, and I told him how his coach scored 25 points against his former team, the Celtics, and how creative he was as a finisher around the basket.

"Yeah, he does that a lot in practice," said Evans. "He'll shoot it off the wrong foot and still make it. People say that's the way he played."