My goodness, it is a small world, after all. That is a polite
version, anyway, of the thought that must have flitted through
the minds of U.S. college coaches who showed up in Athens for
the Junior World Basketball Championships in July 1995 and took
a look around the arena. It had sounded like a good idea: Take a
summer trip to lovely, faraway Greece, maybe spot the next
Detlef Schrempf or Toni Kukoc. The easiest thing to spot,
however, was the multitude of other U.S. recruiters sitting in
the stands, all trying to look nonchalant as they searched the
field for a sleeper.
"There may have been 50 or 60 coaches there, but in any case,
there were too many," says George Washington coach Mike Jarvis
with a sigh. "It may be time to find some other way to recruit."
Once the province of a small fraternity of adventurous coaches
like Jarvis, Jim Calhoun of Connecticut and Bob McKillop of
Davidson, the international recruiting scene now holds the
interest of clipboard wielders from up and down the U.S. college
basketball pecking order. They are driven by need, as tougher
NCAA academic requirements, a dip in the teenage population and,
to a lesser extent, the exodus of top high school players and
college underclassmen to the NBA have combined to shrink the
domestic talent pool. Even mega-programs like North Carolina's
have become multinational: This year the Tar Heels will include
five foreign-born players, one a transfer and the other four
alums of U.S. high schools. "The kids overseas are getting
better and better," says Arizona assistant coach Jim Rosborough.
"You would be crazy not to look there."
Forget the Dream Team and its Olympic dominance. At the junior
level, the U.S. has plenty of competition. Indeed, all those
claustrophobic coaches in Athens can take solace in the fact
that they didn't travel all that way merely to see American
stars shine: Even with such talents as Stephon Marbury, Tremaine
Fowlkes and Samaki Walker, the U.S. team finished a mediocre
seventh out of 16 teams as Greece beat Australia for its first
junior world title. The only other time the U.S. didn't win this
tournament, which has been staged every four years since 1979,
was back in 1987, when it finished second to the Yugoslavian
juggernaut that included Kukoc, Vlade Divac and Dino Radja.
"Quite simply," says Steve Costalas, a European scout for the
Atlanta Hawks and the general manager of the Panionios club team
in Greece, "the U.S. got blown out."
November 15, 1996
That fact should not be surprising, considering how huge the
game has become worldwide. FIBA, basketball's international
governing body, now has 201 member countries, up from 176 in
1990. Last year, NBA games were broadcast in 170 countries, up
from 70 in 1990. The modern version of the classic American
scene of a lone kid shooting baskets deep into the
Appalachian--or Kansan or Indianan--twilight is now being played
out in the fens of Finland, the pampas of Argentina and the
coconut groves of the Tuvalu Islands. "The biggest complaint I
hear from parents," says Costalas, "is about their kids playing
that Michael Jordan highlight tape over and over again, trying
to copy his every move."
How global is this game? A record six foreign-born players were
taken in the first round of the NBA draft this past June. (And
that doesn't include Chicago native Priest Lauderdale, who left
NAIA Central State to play with Peristeri Nikas in Greece for a
year before becoming the first-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks.)
Conversely, second-tier NBA free agents wanting more money or
more playing time are taking advantage of increased
opportunities in Europe.
But despite reports that agents for European clubs are scouring
the U.S. for high school prospects, the foreign exchange at the
amateur level is still, by and large, flowing westward, and at
an ever increasing pace. According to an unofficial count by the
NCAA, there were approximately 25 foreigners playing Division I
men's basketball in 1984. By 1993 that figure had jumped to 135,
and last year it was 213, or roughly 5% of the total Division I
player population. And though no such records are kept, it is
likely that most of those basketball immigrants had to duck when
they came through the doorway of the athletic office.
"Mostly, we recruit overseas to find big guys, because it's so
tough for us to get the good, young big guys in the U.S.," says
Santa Clara assistant coach Steve Seandel. "So we subscribe to
two or three foreign scouting services and try to get
videotapes." Wake Forest's Tim Duncan, a native of the U.S.
Virgin Islands, is the most notable of the current foreign-born
frontcourt phenoms. Other standouts include Liberty's Peter
Aluma, of Nigeria; Georgetown's Boubacar Aw, of Senegal; Boston
University's Tunji Awojobi, of Nigeria; Maryland's Obinna
Ekezie, of Nigeria; Indiana's Haris Mujezinovic, of Bosnia;
McNeese State's Alvydas Pazdradis, of Lithuania; and North
Carolina's Serge Zwikker, of the Netherlands.
Some coaches find recruiting overseas far less difficult than
trolling for players in the States. "The amount of time and
energy spent recruiting an international student-athlete is far
less than to recruit a top American player," says McKillop, who
has had eight international players in his eight years at
Davidson. "Here you might have 10 schools going for a top
player. Overseas it might be two, so you have to do less work
and you have a much better chance of finding a sleeper."
Jarvis, who has six foreign-born players on his George
Washington roster this year, agrees. He has three players from
Belarus, thanks to one 1993 Stateside exhibition game between GW
and the Belarussian national team, a game that Jarvis actually
tried to cancel. "If I had succeeded, we would not have seen
Alexander Koul [a 7-footer who pronounces his name "Cool"], we
would not have gotten him to come here, and he would not have
convinced two of his very good friends [guard Andrei Krivonos
and forward Yegor Mescheriakov] to join him here," says Jarvis.
"Getting a player is like being a successful restaurant: Doing a
good job creates word of mouth, which is what sells other people."
Well, sometimes. In 1988, first-year New Mexico coach Dave Bliss
had a much harder sell when he traveled to Australia to
re-recruit 7-foot sophomore Luc Longley, who wasn't sure he
wanted to return to the Lobos. "I went out bodysurfing with him
and I almost died," says Bliss, recalling the horror of being
pulled down under Down Under. "A wave caught me...but I guess
for a 7-footer, I would do it again."
Indeed, the prospect of a big man can make swimmers out of
landlubbers and drinkers out of teetotalers. When Utah coach
Rick Majerus flew to Finland to see freshman Hanno Matola last
year on the strength of a friend's recommendation, "it was a
white-knuckle trip," Majerus says. "I was hoping this guy was
really 6'8" and not 6'6"--because we can get 6'6" in Murray,
Utah." As Majerus waited for Matola to appear at a luncheon, a
local coach proposed a vodka toast. Majerus, who is not a big
drinker, at first refused. But when he saw the 6'9" Matola
stroll into the room, Majerus suddenly found his thirst. "I
would have gone through the whole bottle to ingratiate myself,"
he says. "Long live Finlandia!"
But even intensive cross-cultural groveling won't guarantee that
the big fish from across the pond lands on your shore. As the
game has grown internationally, so too has the money available
to the top players. Starting at the age of 16 or 17,
blue-chippers in Western Europe can make hefty six-figure
salaries; in the face of numbers like these, a diploma from a
U.S. college can pale pretty quickly. Note the recent experience
of Clemson, one school of many that pursued Oded Katash of
Israel, a top junior player who was also sought by Tel Aviv's
powerful Maccabi club. After narrowing his college choices to
Clemson and UCLA, Katash signed a national letter of intent with
the Tigers last spring. "But even after we signed him, we had to
keep recruiting him, because we knew Tel Aviv was not going to
give up easily," says Clemson assistant coach Dennis Felton. The
battle was fierce: One Tel Aviv newspaper actually called
Clemson coach Rick Barnes "a spy." In the end, Katash could not
resist Maccabi's three-year, $1 million offer, and he bailed on
Clemson in July.
The risk of losing players to professional teams is particularly
acute in countries with well-established pro leagues. "Greece,
Spain and Italy--we don't even bother recruiting there," says
Felton. But there are still places with strong basketball
traditions and struggling economies where players will jump at
the chance to play and get a college education at the same time.
"In Lithuania, you couldn't do both," Clemson sophomore forward
Andrius Jurkunas says of his native country. "You'd have to
Players who choose to leave home for an American experience
generally leave a familiar environment where they are stars for
an alien one in which they are just part of the supporting cast.
Add language barriers, cultural differences and intense athletic
and academic demands, and foreign players have what McKillop
calls "a plateful of challenges. It takes a tremendous amount of
courage for a player to face all that."
The transition period can be difficult--Jurkunas, for example,
understood so little English that the only homework he could do
in his first few months in the States was math--which is why a
lot of foreign players, Jurkunas included, make their initial
adjustments at prep schools or junior colleges. But little short
of boot camp can prepare most foreigners for the athletic
challenges of Division I ball. Washington's Patrick Femerling, a
7'2" sophomore center from Germany, thought he would die of
exhaustion after the first few minutes of his first game as a
Husky. "In Germany, the game is much slower, and they don't play
as much defense," he says. "Adjusting to the speed and intensity
here was tough."
Tackling America's gastronomic and linguistic quirks is not for
the faint of heart, either. Take the experience of UNC
Charlotte's German center, Alexander Kuehl, who, like GW's Koul,
not only pronounces his name "Cool" but is also over 7 feet
tall, wears the number 45 and will be in the paint at UNC
Charlotte on Dec. 30 for a game between the 49ers and the
Colonials. (Cool, huh?) Well, Kuehl looked the fool when he was
confronted by French toast for the first time; too embarrassed
to ask his teammates the nature of the dish, he garnished it
with ketchup. A few years ago Majerus spotted one of his
players, Ma Jian of China, using an unacceptable shooting
technique, the finger roll. "I told Ma, 'You and your finger
roll should go back to China,'" says Majerus. "The next day, Ma
came into my office in tears, saying he didn't want to go back.
I said I didn't want him to go back either, I was just being
sarcastic. He said, 'What's sarcastic?' After explaining sarcasm
to him for 20 minutes, he said, 'Why are you that way?'"
"If I had friends who were considering coming over here just to
improve as basketball players," says Kuehl, "I'd tell them they
shouldn't do it, not with the opportunities that now exist
overseas. But if they want the chance to experience much more
than that, they should. Living in another culture helps you grow
and experience things from a different perspective. I've loved
it. I want to live here."
How's this for a different perspective? Foreign-born future NBA
lottery picks Koul and Adonal Foyle of Colgate are enjoying the
college experience so much, they can hardly imagine leaving
before completing their four years. "I love school," says Foyle.
"I like being challenged by people who know more than I do."
"As an educator, I look at it as a wonderful experience," says
McKillop. "Because we've had players from places like Turkey,
Croatia and Slovenia, the American kids learn a lot. I mean, how
many American kids know about Slovenia? We once had a guy whose
home country was Yugoslavia when he came here and Slovenia when
he left. Another kid from West Germany was here when the Wall
came down. The other players got to see firsthand the impact
those transitions have on people. You can't buy an education
And who could put a price on the experience of seeing the 6'10"
Foyle, whose speech still retains some of the Caribbean lilt of
his native Grenadine Islands, play Stanley Kowalski in a
drama-class production of A Streetcar Named Desire? "It was a
real treat," says Colgate coach Jack Bruen. "If you closed your
eyes, you'd swear it was Brando."
The world doesn't get much smaller than that.