Sports Nut

In Search of Dirk

Basketball writers span the globe looking for the next big thing.

Click image to expand. No need to search the wilds for talent like Ginobili
No need to search the wilds for talent like Ginobili

On Tuesday night, foreign-born stars Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker combined for 50 points to lead San Antonio to victory in the Western Conference Finals. That same evening, representatives of the NBA’s bottom feeders gathered for the NBA draft lottery. A curiosity just a decade ago, foreigners now saturate the league to the point where mediocrities like Bostjan Nachbar have taken bench-warmer jobs from American stiffs. Despite flameouts like Darko Milicic and Frederic Weis, five or six lottery teams will probably select foreign players in next month’s draft. But how are fans to know whether his team is picking the next Nowitzki or the next Tskitishvili?

Leave it to ESPN.com’s Chad Ford. Or maybe don’t. Perhaps to justify his expense reports, Ford turns every long-armed Slav into Sidd Finch. Darko Milicic was better-prepared for the NBA than LeBron James because he “played against a much higher level of competition.” Recently, Ford anointed a Lithuanian guy “the best shooter in Europe and possibly in the world” after watching him shoot 7-for-14.

As NBA personnel men have taken to trekking from Almaty to Zagreb in search of talent, the international basketball travelogue has become the hottest new trend in sports journalism. No one matches the hyperbolic heights of ESPN’s Ford, but writers like Alexander Wolff, Ric Bucher, and Grant Wahl have also taken to scouring the globe for 7-footers. (For some good recent examples of the genre, check out Wahl’s Sports Illustrated African journey “On Safari for 7-Footers” and Jeff Coplon’s New York Times Magazine story on basketball in China.)

For those unfamiliar with the roundball odyssey format, there are a few standard observations that every intrepid hoops reporter must make.

This guy you’ve never heard of will turn into this other guy you have heard of: According to the New YorkTimes Magazine’s Coplon, “Yi Jianlian, the 6-foot-11 16-year-old … reminds some of a young Tim Duncan.” The new favorite appears to be Tayshaun Prince.  Ford likens both Turk Ersan Ilyasova and Russian Yaroslav Korolev to the lanky Pistons forward—on the same trip. It’s hard to blame writers for this trait—after all, comparing players to known quantities is the language of scouting. But if I had a dime for every Thai who was “like Allen Iverson—only tougher,” I would have my own beach house in Krabi by now. 

This country/continent has loads of potential: Eastern European nations are blessed with squadrons of talented shooters, if only they could overcome poverty. Africa has any number of potentially great players, if only they had shoes. And no story on Chinese laankau is complete without rumors of thousands of unschooled 7-footers wandering the countryside—”Here Be Dragons … and Power Forwards With Handle.”

Tony Ronzone says … : The Detroit Pistons talent-spotter has been on the international scene for decades and has never met a reporter he couldn’t dazzle. Ford is awestruck at the Runyonesque character’s “amazing ability to get out of tight spots,” e.g., talking his way into Russia when his passport gets stolen in Germany. Despite his supposed scouting prowess—among Ronzone’s supposed discoveries are Yao Ming and Mehmet Okur—he seems more concerned about beer and food. Ford claims that Ronzone “loves meat more than anyone I’ve ever met.” Keeping the super scout’s belly filled appears to be the key to Detroit’s continued success.

My journey was incredibly arduous: Ford recaps one recent voyage thusly: “nine days, 14,587 miles, a strikeout in Turkey, a terrible case of food poisoning and tanks rolling down the streets in Moscow.” Wahl’s pilgrimage to the “Dark Continent” reads like something out of Henry M. Stanley: “To find the most prized big man at the world’s most remote big-man camp, you have to take four flights, hop on a pothole-weary bus and light out through the desert of northern Nigeria … until you come upon an astonishing sight: a Hoosiers-style gymnasium, rising from the scrub in the town of Zaria.”

Despite what Ford and Wahl might tell you, watching games abroad isn’t as taxing as tracking a yeti across the Himalayan steppes. I know whereof I speak—as producer of The Asian Basketball Show, I spent the better part of four years watching Yao and Wang Zhizhi toy with continental competition. The biggest discomforts I faced in traveling abroad to watch hoops were jet lag and secondhand smoke.

I saw Sarunas Jasikevicius, the Lithuanian point guard whom Ford recently swooned over, play earlier this year while on holiday in Israel. It was a harrowing experience. I flew into the Israeli capital, and although it took many hours, the book I read (Krakatoa) made the flight seem short. The next day, my buddy Yaron drove us to the arena. We scalped two tickets and had a decent hummus dinner for about $20 each. Then we watched Jasikevicius and Maccabi Tel Aviv edge AEK Athens. After the game was over, we went back to Yaron’s flat and watched Pitt and UConn on ESPN.

Granted, life on the international hoops trail isn’t always fun. I almost went down with heatstroke in an unventilated Kuala Lumpur gym while watching Yao and Japanese waterbug Yuta Tabuse in an Asian junior tournament in 1998. On the other hand, the recovery wasn’t bad—sipping cold beers while watching the sunset in the company of merry Australian cameramen and gorgeous Malaysian women. At that moment, I realized that covering overseas basketball had plenty of upside.