The coronation of the Boston Celtics last spring underlined a recurring red, white and blue theme in an NBA infiltrated with foreign talent the last decade.Although the 2008-09 season tips off Tuesday with nearly 20 percent of the league's players born outside the U.S., the best way to build a championship team is still with homegrown talent.
Yes, the San Antonio Spurs have won three rings with Frenchman Tony Parker and Argentine Manu Ginobili in the starting lineup and a supporting cast loaded with international players. But they're the exception.
2008-09 NBA previews
- Charley Rosen division previews:
East: Southeast | Atlantic | Central
West: Northwest | Pacific | Southwest
- Kahn: 10 storylines to follow
- Rosen: Who made the right moves?
- Kahn: Best and worst awards
- Galinsky: Preseason power rankings
- Kahn: My top 50 NBA players
- Hill: Disasters waiting to happen
- Rosen: Where each coach stands
Marques Johnson video previews
- East: Central | Atlantic | Southeast
- West: Southwest | Northwest | Pacific
The rule: Since 2000, none of the other six champions started an international player. Combined, the Los Angeles Lakers, who won in 2000, 2001 and 2002, Detroit Pistons (2004), Miami Heat (2006) and Celtics had only four foreign-born players on their rosters.
Three the 2000 Lakers, Heat and Celtics had no international players. In sharp contrast, the Lakers team that lost to the Celtics in five games last June featured five international players.
"It's our game,'' says Shaquille O'Neal, the Big American with four rings three with the Lakers and one with the Heat. "It's what we dream about, so hunger may have something to do with it.''
That's Eddie Johnson's theory. Johnson played 17 years in the NBA and one in Greece, where he discovered a mentality that feeds his belief that foreign imports aren't as invested in winning an NBA title as they are in accumulating world championships and Olympic medals for their home countries.
"I had a hard time understanding why the European fans were so passionate,'' says Johnson, who played for Olympiacos in Greece in 1994-95. "That's because I didn't live it. I had a hard time understanding why they would be up singing songs the whole game and hating one another at the game.
"I had a hard time understanding at first that if we lost to Turkey, it wasn't going to be a good day for us the next day. (Johnson says he had rocks thrown at his house after the loss). I knew the Euro Cup was big, but I didn't value it. My teammates did, but I always longed for that NBA trophy.''
The reverse, says Johnson, holds for foreign-born players who join the NBA. "They're not soft individually, but they're mentally soft,'' says Johnson, a member of the Phoenix Suns television team. "They don't hurt as much when they lose it. I didn't hurt as much in Greece. They had to live in that and deal with it the whole year.''
Johnson led Olympiacos to the 1995 Euro Cup final, where the team lost to Real Madrid. Olympiacos, however, won the Greek title that season.
"When we won the Greek championship, I didn't understand why they were jumping around and wanted to kiss on me,'' says Johnson. "I was brought up watching NCAA championship and NBA championship games. I had to change the way I thought.''
So do international players who join the NBA, he says. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen grew up watching the Celtics and Lakers battle for titles. They understood what was at stake last spring. "They all grew up longing for it,'' says Johnson.
Did Sasha Vujacic, D.J. Mbenga, Ronnie Turiaf, Pau Gasol or Vladimir Radmanovic of the Lakers?
"Those guys value winning world championships and Olympic gold medals more,'' says Johnson. "It's the way they were brought up. They're not as hungry because they don't understand it. They're competitors. It's not that. It's hunger for the prize.''
International players measure themselves by how many world and Olympic titles they have won, says Johnson. Not so in this country.
Karl Malone and Charles Barkley struck gold in the Olympics, but came up empty in the NBA, a legacy that still haunts them. "Here, you can win all the gold medals you want, but if you don't win an NBA championship, it doesn't matter,'' says Johnson.
General manager Bryan Colangelo has mined international talent for two teams, drafting Leandro Barbosa of Brazil and trading for France's Boris Diaw while with the Suns and making Andre Bargnani of Italy the league's first European No. 1 pick with the Toronto Raptors.
Colangelo doesn't buy into Johnson's theory, largely because the Spurs, who set the standard for scouting and finding international talent, have won three times.
"If you can tell me with all sincerity that Dirk Nowitzki isn't hungry for a title, I'll laugh,'' says Colangelo. "He's as hungry as anyone.''
The German star led the Dallas Mavericks to the 2006 Finals, where they were six minutes away from taking a 3-0 lead in the series only to lose a 13-point lead and the next three games.
And what about Yao Ming, asks Colangelo? "He bleeds for a title,'' he says of the Houston Rockets star from China. "You can see it. He's carrying the weight of an entire nation behind him. You can't generalize and say international players don't care or aren't hungry.
"By virtue of these players coming over, facing stern odds with respect to acclimating to the NBA, leaving their home countries and sometimes families, there are all sorts of circumstances they overcome to perform at a very high level.''
Adds Diaw, "Wherever you play, you want to win a championship. That's the goal for any world player. Hunger isn't a factor.''
Ironically, star homegrown players may soon find themselves judged the same way overseas. U.S. talent a cut below NBA standards has always filled out rosters in Europe, but with mid-level talent Josh Childress's departure from the Atlanta Hawks to Olympiacos for a three-year deal worth $20 million this summer, the raiding of NBA stars may be on the horizon.
The deal is the richest in Euroleague history. With the strength of the euro against the dollar, who's to say future free agents like Kobe Bryant, Chris Bosh and LeBron James won't uproot themselves with lucrative deals that surpass the NBA maximum?
"I could never rule it out because there are deep pockets and sports is an ego-driven business,'' says Colangelo. "I would never rule out the crazy dollars for top-flight free agents.''
Colangelo says Childress holds the key to the future for mid-level, maybe even top-tier, talent bolting aboard. "It's made it interesting for mid-level players to have an alternative,'' he says. "Whether the insane money is handed out with frequency like the Childress contract will probably be predicated on how he does this season.''
In other words, exactly how hungry is he for a Euroleague title?