Off-season roadtrips: NBA players canvass the globe to spread the game of basketball
- From sumo wrestling in Japan to army bases in Kuwait to cricket in England, NBA players have traveled the world this summer to represent the league.
Of the 445 players on NBA opening night rosters last season, 100 (or 22.5%) were international players. Since then, two more league records were set with 14 international players selected in the first round of the 2016 NBA draft and 26 hearing their names called altogether.
Many around the league credit the NBA’s global development to its efforts to send players all over the world and spread the game of basketball. For international youth to experience players up close and personal, it makes their NBA dreams feel more like a reality.
“Once they actually see you and feel you and touch you and things like that, it makes the dream that much more able to come true,” Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas said. “They’re usually only able to see us on TV and things like that, so when we’re able to come out here for preseason games or in the summer time appearances, it just only helps the brand of basketball and it helps everybody come together.”
Over the past several weeks, SI.com spoke with a handful of current and former players who went overseas to represent the NBA and lend a hand in a humanitarian way. In addition, the players also had their world’s opened to new experiences, from sumo wrestling in Japan to army bases in Kuwait to cricket in England. Scroll down to read about their summer roadtrips.
Andre Drummond: England
Looming large in the affluent, northwest London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood, the Lord’s Cricket Ground has served as the house of cricket for over 200 years. Its namesake, Thomas Lord, founded the grounds back in 1814 after a first-class cricket career. Lord was a giant in the sport, but the 5’9 bowler’s stature pales in comparison to Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond. The 7’0 All-Star center would have made Lord blush as he batted the cricket ball all over the Ground’s outfield in early June.
Drummond received a private cricket lesson from two of today’s most talented cricketers, Eoin Morgan of Middlesex County Cricket Club, and Brendon McCullum of the Otago Volts. Morgan is renowned for his end-of-innings hitting ability, while McCollum has performed as an epic big hitter, holding several all-time records. “Those guys are legends of their sport,” Drummond told SI.com “So getting a first hand lesson from them was an outstanding, humbling moment for me.”
The cricket tutelage was one of the first stops of Drummond’s eastern European tour this summer. He walked the streets of downtown London, gazing up at Big Ben before strolling along the south bank of the River Thames in relative anonymity. “They didn’t really know who I was but they were like, ‘Who is this large human being that is walking in front of me?’” Drummond said. It was Drummond’s second time touring London after the Pistons played against the Knicks in The 02 Arena in January 2013.
While the pedestrians were unaware of Drummond’s celebrity, his reputation was well known at the second-annual NBA 3X Odense, a competitive 3-on-3 tournament with free interactive basketball activities for fans of all ages. The tournament featured 100 teams, 30 more than in 2015, comprised of various teen age groups, recreational and elite men’s divisions, a wheelchair cohort and an invitation-only International Division featuring teams from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
Drummond took immense pride in serving as the lone player representative at the NBA’s overseas event. “The opportunity to represent the league is definitely an honor.”
Bradley Beal: Japan
The raised platform sits at the center of the arena, marked by a white circle with two parallel lines painted in the center. Amidst the sea of hundreds of spectators, two mammoth Japanese men huff and puff and squirm and shove. The event is Wizards guard Bradley Beal’s first sumo wrestling experience. “It was dope,” Beal told SI.com. “It was definitely a culture change.” Beal sat cross-legged atop a pillow for hours as pairs of fighters continually stepped into the ring and grappled. “The fights were good. It’s crazy, they only last anywhere from one second to a minute,” Beal said. “It’s literally the first one to touch the ground with any other body part besides their feet loses.”
The 23-year-old sharpshooter visited Japan on behalf of the NBA in late May. Beal joined a playoffs viewing party at Ebisu Act Square on May 19 and held multiple youth camps. Tokyo's renowned architecture made a deep impression on Beal, as well as stark differences in the country’s culture from the American lifestyle he’s always known. “I left a tip and they brought it back to me,” Beal said. “I was kind of thrown off by that.”
The young players Beal met at his clinics also surprised him. “They got handles,” Beal said. He flashed his own dribbling prowess when a 7-year-old camp attendee challenged Beal one-on-one at his opening camp. Beal performed his best John Wall impression as he sliced to the rim. “When he challenged me, I’m not gonna back down from a challenge,” Beal said. “I don’t care if you’re two years old or 86 years old.”
The chance for Beal to serve as the league's lone representative across the globe was humbling. “Without those blessings and without their support, you wouldn’t be where you are,” Beal said. “And it motivates me to continue to work hard because you know you have fans everywhere and there’s people that probably never seen you play before.”
Isaiah Thomas: China (Beijing)
Isaiah Thomas hopped off the Phoenix Suns’ team bus, unloaded his luggage and re-routed to Boston in a matter of minutes. As the whirlwind of the 2015 NBA trade deadline sounded, the Celtics acquired the lightning-quick point guard and forged into the NBA playoffs. Now, Thomas is an All-Star and a 13-hour flight to represent the NBA in China is nothing compared to packing up his life up and instantly switching coasts. “When the NBA asked me to do this, I didn’t think twice about it,” Thomas said. “It’s something that I want to do and I want to be able to travel the world to show the world what it takes to become an NBA player.”
Many around the league credit the NBA’s international growth to players like Thomas, traveling all over the world. “Once they actually see you and feel you and touch you and things like that, it makes the dream that much more able to come true,” Thomas said. “They’re usually only able to see us on TV and things like that, so when we’re able to come out here for preseason games or in the summer time appearances, it just only helps the brand of basketball and it helps everybody come together.”
Thomas, along with Lakers guards D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson and reigning Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, trekked to China in early June to interact with thousands of young fans. They hosted numerous Jr. NBA clinics, visited several schools and public courts and appeared at NBA Finals Game 1 and 5 viewing parties with around 2,000 students.
The NBA has interacted with Chinese basketball for decades, including first hosting the Chinese National team in 1985. In 2004, the NBA became the first American professional sports league to play games in China, with two games between the Houston Rockets and the Sacramento Kings in Shanghai and Beijing. The league has now played a total of 20 games in China.
Having travelled Europe with the Celtics for two preseason games last fall, Thomas was eager to experience the Asian culture and communities. He had previously visited China last summer, but had to drop in global cities like Shanghai or Beijing. “The buildings are huge,” said the diminutive star. “It feels like you’re a little kid out here with all the skyscrapers and things like that.”
Gary Harris: China (Shanghai)
A few weeks after Isaiah Thomas’s excursion, NBA China launched the 100th NBA Style Store in China at the Solana Mall, one of Beijing’s most iconic fashion and lifestyle destinations, on June 30. Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, proudly standing in front of the venue’s golden NBA logo that commemorated the milestone. NBA has now built 100 stores in 55 cities across China in less than two years. “It’s huge,” Harris said. “I’m just thankful I got the opportunity to come out here, being able to experience another country and help grow the brand of basketball.”
Harris intimately experienced Chinese basketball by attending the inaugural NBA 5v5 tournament. After debuting on July 2 in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, the tournament will bring together 16 of the top basketball teams in China to compete for a total prize up to RMB 1 million for the Regional Finals and National Finals. Four teams played in regional tournament hosted in Shenyang, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Nanjing, with each regional champion advancing to the National Finals in Shanghai July 30-31. Legends Dominique Wilkins, Alonzo Mourning and Tracy McGrady joined Harris for the beginning segments of the competition.
“You’re seeing so many more international players come into our league, it just shows you that the game is growing outside of the United States,” Harris said. “It’s crazy how many people are in tune with what’s going on back in the states. For them to be able to go around and be able to experience, and watch the guys help motivate them to possibly reach that level, it’s huge.”
Harris has personally experienced the NBA’s international boom in Denver, with eight current Nuggets hailing from countries outside the United States.
Paul Pierce: China (Guangzhou)
When Paul Pierce joined the Wizards in 2014, teammate Marcin Gortat told him about being a 16-year-old kid in Poland and staying up late to watch Pierce’s Celtics in the 2001-02 playoffs. That story resonated with Pierce, who gained a better appreciation for the NBA’s global reach and traveled overseas to China on the league’s behalf this summer.
“As a kid, you dream of making the NBA one day, but you never thought the game of basketball would take you around the world to places like [China] and enjoy fans and be a part of something, a part of a global game that’s gone worldwide.” Pierce said.
Pierce joined the middle leg of the 5V5 tournament in China, appearing at a half-court shot contest with RMB 1 million and a trip to the 2017 NBA Finals on the line, an ice bucket obstacle course and free-throw shooting challenge, a skills challenge, a 24-second three-point shooting contest and several other events. “There’s a lot of excitement around the game of basketball,” Pierce told SI.com from Guangzhou. “A lot of Paul Pierce Celtics jerseys, I can tell you that.”
The 2008 NBA Finals MVP first visited China with Shareef Abdur-Rahim after his second year in the NBA in 2000. “It’s a whole lot different now than it was then. As you can see, they have basketball facilities now,” Pierce said. “I don’t even believe they had basketball arenas then when I first came over. Now they have facilities, they host NBA games, the Chinese League is filled with a lot of American players who love to come over here and play. Those leagues weren’t around when I first came into the league. It just shows the connection between the NBA and China and how much it’s grown over the years. It’s almost like a second home for NBA players.”
The NBA can only play so many games overseas each season, which Pierce says makes traveling in the summer that much more imperative. “With so many NBA fans, this gives us a chance to come over, do small camps, meet the fans here, because they’re so excited about the game of basketball,” Pierce said. “The whole business of basketball with China, it’s just a huge business that enables us to come over and connect with them and continue that fan affair.”
Dante Exum: Australia
The Melbourne, Australia suburb of Dandenong lies roughly 30 kilometers southeast of the city’s central business district, sitting at the foothill of the gorgeous Dandenong mountain ranges. The rolling landscape serves as the namesake of the town’s Women’s National Basketball League squad, the Dandenong Rangers.
Dante Exum grew up craving the Dandenong Stadium’s stage. “Everybody that plays junior basketball in Melbourne knows the Dandenong Stadium,” Exum said. The Utah Jazz guard played countless junior tournaments at the arena and even claimed a state championship on the fabled court. “That was probably one of the biggest things that came to mind just going back there again.”
Exum returned to the familiar court in late June to host the first Basketball without Borders Asia Camp in Australia along with fellow Aussie NBA players Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles and Patty Mills. Milwaukee Bucks guard Khris Middleton and tens of other NBA personnel joined the event as well, as 45 boys from 17 countries flocked to Dandenong. A hoard of NBA coaches led an international coaching clinic, too. “Just to have it in Australia and, not only spread the game of basketball, but give everybody in Australia a chance to get a taste of NBA basketball and how it’s coached over there,” Exum said. “I hope it inspires kids to keep pursuing their dreams.”
For international youth to experience NBA players up close and personal, it makes the dream feel more attainable. Since 2001, Basketball without Borders has reached more than 2,500 participants from 130 countries and territories. The program is a large factor in the league’s international influx: 22.5 percent of the 445 players on 2015-16 opening night rosters last season were international.
Australian basketball, in particular, has flooded the league. Seven players born in the country, including NBA Finals standout Kyrie Irving, appeared on NBA rosters last season. Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers’ No. 1 overall pick in year’s draft, became the second Aussie to be selected No. 1 overall after Andrew Bogut. “I’ve known Ben for a while,” Exum said. “I just can’t wait to get on the court and be able to play against him like old times.”
Exum thinks New Zealand may be next. Shortly after Steven Adams, a self-proclaimed Kiwi, starred for the Oklahoma City Thunder during the Western Conference Finals, his fellow countrymen impressed Exum at the camp. “Every kid that I’ve seen that’s been real good has been a New Zealander,” Exum said.
With continued Basketball without Borders efforts from the NBA, basketball will only continue to grow in Oceania. “It goes a long way,” Exum said. “Hopefully it inspires some of the guys who aren’t some of the best at the camp to go back and use what they’ve learned from the NBA guys and get better.”
Greivis Vasquez: Venezuela
The La Cota 905 sector of Caracas, Venezuela has been ravaged by crime. “That’s a really, really violent neighborhood,” says Brooklyn Nets guard Greivis Vasquez. Just in late June, a community activist, Elizabeth Aguilera, was killed by alleged members of a paramilitary gang in the area. On the rare occasion a Cota 905 native can rise from the neighborhood’s ashes, it’s a cause for celebration. That jubilation stretched acriss Vasquez’s face as he awarded his inaugural Los 24 Elite Basketball Camp MVP award to a player from La Cota in early June. “His whole neighborhood was so proud of him because he was the MVP and he was smiling and all that stuff,” Vasquez says. ”So to me, that’s very important because basketball is great, but life is more than basketball.”
Only 12 years ago, Vasquez was just another Venezuelan kid harboring an NBA dream that could elevate him from the poverty-stricken country. Before he morphed into a Maryland Terrapins great and a shimmying, playoff hero with the Toronto Raptors, Vasquez participated in Basketball without Borders Americas in 2004 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Dikembe Mutombo, Leandro Barbosa, Nene, Eduardo Najera and Felipe Lopez all served as coaches at that camp, providing Vasquez with a glimmer of hope his own dream was attainable. “It changed my life,” Vasquez says. “That camp definitely changed my whole life and now I’m living the dream and I don’t want to wake up. I always dreamed about doing the same thing in my country for the kids.”
Los 24 gathered the two dozen top basketball prospects in Venezuela, exposing them to the NBA stage in early June. Vasquez cherished the opportunity to work with the 13-17-year-old players. He scouted them thoroughly, planning how to enrich their lives with scholarship opportunities to prep schools across the United States. “Instead of being in the streets, they can be on the court playing basketball and doing sports,” Vasquez says. He first arrived in the United States mere months after his Basketball without Borders experience, enrolled at Monte Christian in Rockville, Md. as a 17-year-old and the rest, as they say, is history.
While he has traversed the NBA landscape, Vasquez has consistently kept his country in his heart and jumped at the opportunity to create Los 24 through his foundation. The camp extended far beyond the court, employing speakers to educate the young players about sexual education, nutrition and media training. The camp gathered over 500 coaches to learn from former Raptors assistant Tom Sterner as well. “Basketball here is growing, it’s growing,” Vasquez says. “It makes me very, very proud. I love my country, I love where I came from, that’s the most important thing for me and my family.”
Sam Perkins: Kuwait
Tracy is a military contractor, currently stationed at one of the United States’s four Kuwait bases while her husband and daughter in South Carolina await her imminent return home. Tracy’s transition from service in the Middle East to an American homebody may prove as daunting a task as her responsibilities overseas, although it’s a change 18-year NBA veteran Sam Perkins feels he can identify with.
“We talked about transitioning and what she’s gonna do after is almost similar to a basketball afterlife. That was a common thread with her, ” Perkins says. The North Carolina product shared a lunch with Tracy and hundreds of other troops during a week-long USO Tour in May. “We just sat down and I talked about transitioning college players to the pros. And then once I played 18 years, I had to transition myself to see what was next and fortunately I have people that wanted me to do several different things for the NBA.”
Following his retirement in 2001, Perkins has represented the NBA in several of the league’s initiatives as gracefully as he scored 22 points on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals. From May 15-22, Perkins took part in a variety-style USO entertainment tour, headlined by the Chief of the National Guard Bureau for the first time in the USO’s 75-year history. Along with Scorpion star Robert Patrick, platinum-selling country star Jerrod Niemann, actor Matthew Lillard and UFC middleweight Tim Kennedy, Perkins visited with thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Djibouti and Jordan.
“He’s a sports legend,” says Rachel M. Tischler, Vice President of USO Entertainment. “Sports are really important to the military because it’s a way to really stay connected back home. When you have a break in whatever job you’re doing, it gives you something to look forward to. Everyone relates to their favorite teams and they love to know what’s going on and there’s obviously nothing more magical than having a superstar of whatever sport you follow, in particular basketball, show up at whatever base you’re serving at, in person, to hang out with you and talk with you and eat lunch with you and tell you how important you are. That’s just the crux of what we do.”
“You find a common thread over lunch,” Perkins says over the phone from Kuwait. Despite towering over most soldiers, Perkins shined in his ability to connect with the troops. “He has such a wonderful grace about him and an ease of talking and relating to people,” Tischler said. Perkins met a 20-year-old young man from Georgia who was forced to drop out of college and work maintenance on southern railroad tracks to help support his family. “He found himself in a quandary, so he wanted to do something better than what he was,” Perkins says. “He just wanted to finish school and make something of himself and his family and at the same time serve.” Perkins was humbled, overcome with emotion as he learned of each man and woman’s unique background.
The tour reached roughly 1,000 soldiers each day. Perkins posed for pictures with everyone as basketball dominated his discussions. The NBA has permeated throughout the world, and the sport is alive and well on U.S. bases overseas. In every U.S. state that houses an NBA franchise, also exists a USO center. The league and USO have partnered to do hundreds of military appreciation events because of that proximity. “It’s a partnership that we’re looking to continue for another 75 years,” Tischler says.
On one Kuwait base, Perkins was led to a small, makeshift court the troops had built. A far cry from an NBA hardwood, the three-point lines overlapped one another. “I was like, ‘This is the smallest court I’ve ever seen!’” Perkins says. Amidst the 140-degree swelter, Perks opted out on hoisting a few jump shots with the troops. “They play outside in that hot desert sun that kisses your skin,” Perkins says. He did learn of the base’s co-ed league, however, which features four teams. The games are organized by a 6’7” commisioner who played Division III basketball. “I never thought they would have a league on a base,” Perkins says approvingly.
Back stateside for this July 4 weekend, Perkins now harbors a deeper appreciation for his freedom his country provides. “It’s a great gratification to personally meet someone to say thank you,” Perkins says. “They’re doing something worthwhile to make it happen, to make us safe.”
Sean Elliott: Mexico
The NBA Finals stage brings back fond memories for Sean Elliott. He averaged 11.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 40% shooting from beyond the arc as the San Antonio Spurs marched through the 1999 playoffs en route to the franchise’s first championship. Elliott retired from the league following the 2000-01 season having spent 11 of his 12 seasons in San Antonio. He entered a career in broadcasting and returned to the Spurs in 2004-05 as their local broadcast’s color commentator.
Elliott recognizes the ability to watch Spurs games on television, let alone be a part of the game presentation, isn’t one to be taken for granted. The two-time All-Star forward, representing the NBA, travels to Mexico several times a year to help promote the league and expand the game of basketball. “Those guys don’t get to watch NBA games live all the time,” Elliott told SI.com from Hermosillo, Mexico. “The fans are incredible. They are as rabid as anywhere out there. They love the NBA. Obviously soccer is the biggest game in Mexico, but basketball is on the rise and the people really have an appetite for it. It’s a lot of fun to watch the game grow down here. “
In June, Elliott ventured south of the border to help host an NBA Finals viewing party. The game was broadcasted on different screens set up as a jumbotron. “When you grow the game and you expose people to the game, you’re only going to create more fans and that will create more players and you’re starting to see that now,” Elliott said.
Many around the league credit the development to the NBA’s efforts to send their players all over the world. For international youth to experience players up close and personal, it makes the NBA dream feel more attainable. Elliott has been a large part of the efforts, visiting Turkey two seasons ago and Berlin, Germany a year ago in addition to his frequent trips to Mexico. “I just think that the kids in Mexico, they’re just like the kids in Australia and Europe, and it’s just a matter of time before you see more talent in NBA coming from these countries.”