INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE FROM LITHUANIA TO SLOVENIA, FROM CHINA TO GREECE, NBA SPIES--ER, SCOUTS--ARE IN HOT PURSUIT OF TALL MEN WITH LONG NAMES

October 22, 1995

A hint of just what in the whole wide world the NBA is coming to
surfaced last June in the polyglot, north-of-the-border city of
Toronto. There, deep into the second round of the NBA draft, the
Seattle SuperSonics used the 54th pick overall to choose ...
well, it was hard to tell exactly whom the Sonics chose. A fax
sent to curious officials at the European championships in
Athens identified the pick as "a Lithuanian." The next day USA
Today reported him to be a 7'1" center named Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
In fact, the Sonics had chosen another 7-footer from Lithuania,
Aurelius Zukauskas, whose rights they would trade to the
Milwaukee Bucks.

I say Ilgauskas, you say Zukauskas, and marble-mouthed,
jet-lagged NBA player-personnel types must be tempted to call
the whole thing off. But they would do so at their own peril.
For behind all that draft-day confusion stands a crystalline
truth: A gangly adolescent from Lagos, yanked out of a soccer
goal and handed a basketball, has grown up to be the dominant
player in the game and the leader of the NBA's reigning,
two-time champs. With Yugoslavia's Vlade Divac, Zaire's Dikembe
Mutombo, Germany's Detlef Schrempf and Holland's Rik Smits
joining Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria as stars in the league; with
Romania's Gheorghe Muresan and Croatia's Toni Kukoc and Dino
Radja only a season or two away from similar status; with the
late Drazen Petrovic of Croatia and Sarunas Marciulionis of
Lithuania having already left their marks; and with recent
European players of the year Arvydas Sabonis, 30, of Lithuania
and Predrag Danilovic, 25, of Yugoslavia making their NBA debuts
this season in Portland and Miami, respectively, the worldwide
search for players is no transient vogue. "The question isn't
whether he can play," says Sacramento King player-personnel
director Jerry Reynolds of Dejan (White Magic) Bodiroga, the
6'8", 22-year-old Yugoslav swingman whose NBA rights the Kings
hold, and who'll play this season for Stefanel Milano of the
Italian League. "The question is whether we can get him."

Why does Atlanta Hawk G.M. Pete Babcock have a European-gauge
videotape player in his office to supplement a standard VHS? Why
are the Toronto Raptors considering having a scout brave the
dodgy political climate in Algeria to scope out December's Cup
of Nations Tournament? Why is the smattering of Russian and
Serbo-Croatian spoken by San Antonio Spur G.M. Gregg Popovich
more than just gilt on his resume? And why has every scout in
the league heard and told all the jokes about Gregor Fucka, a
6'11", 23-year-old prospect from Italy whose surname is
pronounced, mercifully, FOOTCH-kuh?

Part of the answer lies in the simple need of the league,
bloated now to 29 teams, to stock its rosters. Further, the
rules and styles of the international and NBA games are becoming
more and more similar; that makes it easier both for scouts to
judge, say, a foreign three-point specialist and for that player
to make the transition from the international game to the NBA
version. In addition, with the draft now scaled back to two
rounds, a club can't afford to spend a pick and $20 million on
anyone but the very best available player on the planet. And now
that the NBA has spilled into Canada, set its sights on Mexico
and begun televising its games and selling its stars in more
than 150 countries, that planet is taking on an increasingly
pebble-grained cast.

But in fact the explanation may be no more complicated than that
ballplayers overseas are darn good, getting better and in more
and more cases clearly superior to those available domestically.
At the junior world championships in July, the U.S. finished
seventh, losing to Argentina, Croatia and Greece by nine points
or more and failing even to reach the medal round. "It wasn't a
fluke," says Minnesota Timberwolf player-personnel director Rob
Babcock, Pete's brother and one of 15 NBA scouts who witnessed
the dismal showing of a U.S. team led by Georgia Tech
freshman-to-be Stephon Marbury. "Our guys right now aren't
learning to play the game of basketball."

Other factors are driving all this scouting with subtitles. They
include:

The search for centers. No team wants to miss out on the mother
of all Fuckas. Four of the top eight pivotmen in the
league--Olajuwon, Mutombo, Smits and Divac--first drew scouts'
attention overseas. The 7'7" Muresan may soon crack their ranks,
while the 7'3" Sabonis joins the league this season. An improved
Stojko Vrankovic, the 7'2" Croat who played for the Celtics from
1990 to '92 and would have signed with Milwaukee if not for the
lockout this summer, may return to the NBA after a stint in
Greece this year. Seven-footers Constantin Popa (a Los Angeles
Clipper from Romania by way of the University of Miami) and
George Zidek (a Charlotte Hornet from the Czech Republic by way
of UCLA) have taken the collegiate route. "Big players are
coached a little differently overseas," says Trail Blazer scout
Bucky Buckwalter. "They're better outside shooters and are
forced to become passers. With our centers that's not always the
case."

The Yugo factor. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the chaos from
the war that still rages there have given the many well-coached
and richly skilled players from that part of the world every
reason to look into the lucre of the NBA. Further, as Celtic
G.M. Jan Volk says, "It seems that whatever position people from
[the former] Yugoslavia play, they're big for it." Their size
hasn't impeded the ability of Divac, Radja or Kukoc to run,
pass, dribble and shoot. Especially shoot. "A guy like Petrovic,
four mornings a week he would just go out and shoot until he
made 500 three-pointers," says Dan Peterson, the American who
won 10 European and Italian titles as a coach in Milan and
Bologna, of the Net guard who was killed in a 1993 auto
accident. "Then in the afternoon he'd go to practice."

The dearth of skilled Americans. Nowadays the best U.S. college
kids run, jump and jack up three-pointers for two years, max,
before turning pro. Thus many reach the NBA without being
grounded in fundamentals. "Everybody thinks you're great if you
win the slam-dunk contest," says Peterson. "Kenny [Sky] Walker
won it, came over to Italy and got cut. He couldn't make a shot
under the basket. It's like, if you can jump, you're good. The
U.S. kid has it all backwards. European kids aren't thinking
about jumping; they're thinking about getting their game down."

Adds Rob Babcock, "At the junior worlds our team was the most
athletic, and the ball-handling skills were terrific. But our
shooting ability has fallen off dramatically. The rest of the
world shoots the lights out. They pass the ball better too."

Anywhere from 10% to 20% of a typical NBA club's scouting
resources are now expended on identifying shooters and passers
outside the U.S. Some clubs--Atlanta, Chicago, Golden State
(under Don Nelson), Houston, Milwaukee and Portland among
them--have been in the vanguard of the move abroad. Others (e.g.,
Minnesota, Phoenix and San Antonio) have made some embarrassing
choices in the past but with recent steps have appeared
determined to redress those errors. Still others (such as
Charlotte, Philadelphia, Seattle and Utah) are like slacker
undergrads who slink sheepishly into the dean's office to try to
get out of their foreign-language requirement. But even they
know they have to keep up. "You used to be on your own scouting
overseas," says Jim Kelly, a quadrilingual scout for the Raptors
who formerly worked for the Bucks. "Now there's an NBA liaison
waiting for you when you walk off the plane, and there are a
dozen of us at a major international event. There aren't any
secrets anymore."

If you ran into NBA scouting director Marty Blake and didn't
recognize him by sight, you would know him by the joke he has
told and retold in hotel lobbies from Australia to Spain, from
Russia to Puerto Rico: "The towels in my room are so thick, I'm
having trouble getting my suitcase closed." Blake chose the
office he so rarely occupies, in a redbrick building in the
sleepy north-Georgia town of Alpharetta, because of its
location: hard by the post office. A typical daily delivery will
fill up as many as four P.O. boxes and might include a parcel
containing videotape from some international competition, a
newsletter with the latest skinny on the Australian league or a
postcard from some globe-trotting colleague ("I've looked all
over Athens and couldn't find you!" Buck vice president of
player personnel Lee Rose wrote recently).

Blake derives a kind of bittersweet vindication from the recent
boom in international scouting. In 1970 he tried mightily to get
the Hawks, for whom he was then general manager, to sign two
foreigners: Dino Meneghin, a 6'9", 240-pound Italian power
forward who will someday be in the Basketball Hall of Fame; and
a 6'5" scorer from Mexico named Manuel Raga, whom Blake still
calls "the Jerry West of international basketball." But everyone
else in the Hawks' front office thought Blake was indulging in
more of his Borscht Belt humor. "Here was an opportunity to
steal two guys, guys who would have played for $40,000 apiece,"
he says. "We did win a division championship, and if we'd had
those guys we could have won another. Instead they just said,
'Blake's at it again.'"

Even though he's an advocate for the potential impact an
international player can have, nothing peeves Blake more than
what he calls the "immediate-gratification syndrome," a malady
afflicting most clubs as they scout, draft and sign new talent,
whether domestic or imported. All rookies need time to develop,
but none more so than those who also have a new culture to adapt
to. Blake warns teams not to expect a return on a foreign player
for at least two years. Smits, Divac and Petrovic took time to
blossom, but blossom they did. By contrast, Zarko Paspalj, the
chain-smoking Montenegrin whom the Spurs signed for the 1989?90
season, was released before the playoffs. And Bulgaria's Georgi
Glouchkov, whom the Suns went to great lengths to make the first
Eastern European to play in the NBA, didn't last longer than the
1985-86 season, a victim of wine, women and the strange song
that is the English language. So burned did Phoenix feel as a
result of its experience with Glouchkov that general manager
Jerry Colangelo passed up a chance to take Divac in the '89
draft, even though Blake had rated him No. 1 among centers that
year.

"I had G.M.'s tell me Divac didn't speak good enough English,"
Blake says, all but rolling his eyes. Cultural ignorance, it
seems, is a two-way street.

Running alongside the NBA's growing fascination with
international players is an interest among NCAA schools in
imported goods. The only category of American outnumbering pro
scouts at the junior worlds last summer was college recruiters.
Mid- to low-caliber Division I schools realize that by searching
overseas they'll pick up a better player than they could
scavenging Stateside through the seconds and thirds that the
big-time schools leave behind. The colleges' interest is fine by
the NBA; stopovers at NCAA schools, after all, enabled such raw
talents as Olajuwon, Mutombo and Schrempf--all of whom came from
countries with little basketball tradition--to develop the skills
that put them on their way to spots in last February's NBA
All-Star Game.

The fact is, though, that for players in countries like Italy,
Spain, Greece, Israel, Turkey and Australia, where basketball is
popular and the indigenous national leagues are composed of
well-funded club teams, the offer of a free ride from some
college in the States doesn't hold much allure. If an
18-year-old Turkish kid with a pretty jump shot can stay in
Istanbul and pocket five figures playing for the club he has
grown up with, why should he cross the ocean at his own expense,
play for a college team that can't pay him a legitimate penny
and sit through classes conducted in some baffling language? "A
lot of kids will make more in one month with one of our clubs
than his father will make in a year," says Turgay Demirel,
president of the Turkish Basketball Federation. "I can't say to
him, No, don't make the money, and, No, don't stay close to your
family."

NBA scouts are most fastidious about keeping tabs on those
stay-at-homes, as well as on the older players who, for one
reason or another, weren't ready to make the move to the NBA the
year they were drafted. A team choosing a player holds the
rights to him in perpetuity, so it behooves the Blazers, who
acquired the rights to 6'10" Argentine forward Marcelo Nicola
last season, to keep up on how he's doing now at age 24 with
Taugres of the Spanish League. And it's worth the while of the
Timberwolves, who have asked 23-year-old, 6'11" Yugoslav forward
and '94 acquisition Zeljko Rebraca to work on his strength and
his English, to monitor how he fares in Italy with Benetton
Treviso.

Sabonis is the classic example of the virtues of patience. The
Blazers chose him in '86. They watched him kick around Europe
season upon season and gain weight and lose motivation, then
lose weight and gain motivation. They even helped him
rehabilitate an injured Achilles in '88. Finally, after nine
years, all that babysitting will pay off.

When Sabonis enters his first NBA game, Blake will celebrate the
moment as the ultimate repudiation of the
immediate-gratification syndrome. But he won't gloat for long;
there are new names on Blake's radar screen.

One of them seems to show up twice. Is it Alexander Kuhl? Or
Alexander Koul? They are in fact two different players, whose
names are pronounced almost identically. Which one is from
Germany and which one from Belarus, Blake knows; and by the time
next year's draft rolls around, the rest of the NBA will know
too. But for now all parties know the most important thing: Kuhl
and Koul are both 7-footers.

Cool.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO SERRA/GRAZIA NERI Danilovic (left) and Sabonis are two foreign imports set to make their NBA debuts. [Predrag Danilovic] COLOR PHOTO: BARDOU/PRESSE SPORTS [See caption above--Arvydas Sabonis] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERTO SERRA/GRAZIA NERI (3) Vrankovic (11) was bound for the Bucks, and Bodiroga (below, left, battling Fucka) is coveted by the Kings. [Stojko Vrankovic; Dejan (White Magic) Bodiroga and Gregor Fucka] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO SERRA/GRAZIA NERI (3) Milic looks--and sounds--like a future star in the U.S. [Marko Milic] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO SERRA/GRAZIA NERI The Blazers hope the 30-year-old Sabonis is worth the wait. [Arvydas Sabonis]

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