THE ROMANCE between the NBA and its millions of international fans plays out largely unnoticed on these shores, both because we are too busy lodging complaints about pro hoops--So many tattoos! No fundamentals!--and because, well, U.S. fans don't give an Italian fig for what goes on beyond their borders. But international NBA relations will get even more intimate, perhaps even steamy, in 2006 and the years beyond.
Four teams will hold their training camps abroad next fall and play exhibition games against top European clubs: the San Antonio Spurs (Lyon, France), Phoenix Suns (Treviso, Italy), Los Angeles Clippers (Moscow) and Philadelphia 76ers (Barcelona). There will be ongoing talks between NBA officials and European titans of industry about an extension of the league into Europe. Those talks will center the major logistical obstacle to NBA expansion overseas: arena construction. And look for David Stern & Co. to amp up their marketing efforts in Europe, Central and South America, Australia and Asia, particularly Yao Ming's native China.
The NBA has a number of solid reasons to love foreign soil, not the least of which is a greater tolerance across the pond for the league's hip-hop culture. International fans were first drawn to the game by NBA stars such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But, unlike their transoceanic brethren, they are not turned off by the current tatted and cornrowed stars, such as Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace. What many American fans see as cultural blasphemy, international fans see as progress. The NBA has always been ahead of the curve in selling the game; now that domestic sales are down, the NBA will only look to stretch its global reach.
SHORTS STORY A star will don a pair of '80s-style John Stockton shorts for a game, after which long baggies will be out and shorties back in.
HAIR APPARENTS In June, with their coifs in full blossom, Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace will engage in an old-fashioned Finals 'fro-down.
DUKEOUT Resented by opponents for the pub he's received, J.J. Redick will find himself on his butt four minutes into his NBA debut.