It would be difficult to find a more unlikely international provocateur than Jiri Welsch. If you've heard of Welsch, you know he's a little-used Golden State rookie, an undistinguished member of one of the NBA's most undistinguished teams. He is shy and nonthreatening, a reserved reserve.
But his reticence, and the attendant lack of profile, makes Welsch an intriguing case study in the future of an increasingly multicultural NBA. The rise in foreign-born players-now comprising roughly 17% of the league-has set up a collision of nationalism and globalism.
And in the NBA, where marketing and crafty commercials could airbrush the Trail Blazers into Up With People, there is just enough unsettled air to suggest an impending storm. The evidence is still of the early warning variety, a stay-tuned teaser delivered with Stone Phillips-like concern. But dozens of interviews with players, executives, scouts and agents indicate that the NBA's love affair with foreign players-bring us your huddled masses and their textbook jumpers-bears watching.
Take the case of Jiri Welsch v. Kenny Smith. During a session of the NBA's Rookie Transition Program last September, Welsch-the first player to be drafted directly out of the Czech Republic-stood up and challenged Smith, the former NBA player and current TNT commentator, while Smith was in the process of delivering a fervent speech on the supremacy of U.S. basketball.
In a room filled with more foreign players-and their translators-than ever before, Smith called the rising number of international draftees a flavor-of-the-month fad. He said teams were drafting for nonbasketball reasons, fueled partly by the NBA's push for global marketing. To the international players, the message was as subtle as a finger poke to the chest. He's talking about us like we're not here, Welsch thought. What about Dirk Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic and Pau Gasol? First, Welsch seethed. Then he asked for the microphone.
"I don't think what you say is true," Welsch told Smith in front of the group. he looked out and saw eyes widen and bodies squirm. "I think you are showing disrespect to the international players."
Smith later apologized, but the exchange remains significant: It marked an early milestone in the direct backlash against foreign players. From a marketing standpoint, the influx of players from around the world creates a borderless, limitless, highly attractive commodity. From a basketball standpoint, however, especially for a young man growing up in an American city with designs on playing in the NBA, it's something altogether different. "They aren't afraid anymore," Portland guard Damon Stoudamire says of the foreign players. "They can play, and they know it. I used to think this was a fad. I don't anymore. I think American players should be worried."
So when Shaquille O'Neal adopts a mock Chinese accent and embarks on an ill-conceived "comedy" routine aimed at Yao Ming, perhaps a deeper issue needs to be addressed: Is Shaq responding to Yao as an individual, or is his attitude a symptom of a growing friction in the NbA?
There's an entire trove of conspiracy theories and scurrilous suggestions swirling around this issue, and there's probably a germ of truth in each.
The influx is an indictment of American amateur basketball, which is almost universally viewed as disorganized, if not corrupt, boosting young egos and creating money-hungry entourages rather than producing sound basketball players.
* It's marketing, nothing more than a way of selling T-shirts in Shanghai and Buenos Aires.
* It's a racial thing, a way for the NBA to pitch a predominantly African-American league to white corporate money. This theory cites the adjectives tossed around to describe Europeans-hard-working, fundamentally sound, coachable-and implies an indirect stereotype of African-Americans.
The only certainty, it seems, is that foreigners have made a huge impact, and more are on the way. Tony Ronzone, an international scout for the Pistons and a one-man PR firm for European basketball, says, "Two years ago I said 40% of the NBA would be foreign in five years, and I see no reason to change that. What's not to like? They're never a problem. They're on time. They work hard. They're good people. They live in the gym. As an employer, what more could you ask for?"
Toronto point guard Rafer Alston, who grew up a prodigy in New York but has struggled to stick in the NBA, says, "In the U.S., we get told we're better than we are. From 12 years old, someone's telling you you're the greatest thing that ever walked, and you end up believing it. Over there, they're telling them they've got to work hard and get better and listen to their coaches."
To torture the storm metaphor a bit further, consider the clouds gathering over this year's draft. Amid the coast-to-coast coronation of LeBron James, some NBA people believe seven-foot Yugoslavian Darko Milicic might be the better long-term choice. But Milicic, who will turn 18 just 39 days after the league-mandated day of declaration, needs the NBA Players Association to adopt his cause if he is to be eligible this year. How aggressively will the union-with no foreign players among its player reps-pursue his fight?
Thus far, there are no overt signs of backlash in NBA locker rooms, where performance still overrules ethnicity or origin. But at the high amateur levels, where players grapple with the idea of pitting themselves against some unseen competition half a world away shooting jumpers eight hours a day, the response has a harsher edge. At the elite ABCD camp in New Jersey last summer, Tracy McGrady stood in front of a group of about 300 of the best high school players in the nation. During a question-and-answer session in a hotel ballroom, one of the campers stood up and asked an apparently innocuous question.
"Tracy, what do you think of the foreign players?" before McGrady could answer, boos ripped through the gym like the report from a shotgun. The kid slumped to his seat. McGrady tried to answer, saying there weren't any foreigners on the Magic, but his words were irrelevant. The message had already been sent.