How NBA stars learned to love soccer

Vlade Divac is laughing at the memory, some 15 years later, chuckling at the futility of his begging. He can still feel the sting of rejection even now.

It was the dawn of a new millennium and a new day in the NBA, too. The long-dormant Sacramento Kings, with Divac suddenly flanked by two more fancy passers in Chris Webber and Jason Williams, were playing the most exciting basketball on the map. It certainly didn't hurt that those Kings, to fuel the show, also quickly built up some of the best chemistry around.

With one notable exception.

The battle for the remote control in the trainer's room was often heated. A battle Divac usually lost.

Weekday Champions League broadcasts on ESPN were a relatively new phenomenon at the time, much to Divac's delight. Access to his favorite spectator sport from back home in Serbia was, without warning, back in his life again after years of deprivation. All he had to do after practice, during those bonding sessions, was convince C-Webb, J-Will & Co. to keep the TV tuned in to soccer.

"Only Peja [Stojakovic] and Hedo [Turkoglu] were on my side," Divac said this week, replaying the scenes of so many failed pleas from his new office in Sacramento, having returned to the franchise this year and emerging in April as the new lead voice of Kings management.

"The guys would say: 'Soccer?' Why would we want to watch that? There's no stats.'"

The NBA that welcomed Divac back this spring, after he spent nearly a decade back in Europe, is mercifully a different place. There's no comparison, really, when it comes to the foothold that proper football has gradually seized in hoop circles over the past five years or so.

Striking up a soccer conversation in the locker room during his Los Angeles Lakers heyday was such a long shot that Divac was forced to invite a lowly sportswriter to accompany him to the Los Angeles Galaxy's first home game in Major League Soccer, in 1996, since he couldn't convince any of his teammates to join him.

Nearly 20 years later, soccer has broken through to the point that Saturday's Champions League final in Berlin pitting Barcelona against Juventus is sure to dominate discussion even in the NBA's corner of the Twitterverse.

Even in the midst of the NBA Finals.

"Our time has come," says a beaming Steve Nash, two-time NBA MVP and, along with Divac, one of basketball's all-time leaders in terms of trying to promote The Beautiful Game.

"When I was in college, or even my early years [in the NBA], there's no way you would have thought what we're seeing now was possible," Nash continues.

"Especially with all the doubters and naysayers about the sport in the U.S., there's no way you would have predicted that you'd have soccer highlights on SportsCenter, or scores on the ticker, or soccer regularly [shown] in the top 10 plays.

"The game's become exponentially more visible."

So what triggered the revolution?

Among a number of factors, alongside the obvious boost that comes from the ever-increasing migration of foreign-born players into the NBA, one stands out.

A video game.

Simulated soccer.

EA Sports' FIFA franchise is ridiculously popular with the modern NBA player. Perhaps even more popular than "Madden NFL" or "NBA 2K," iconic games that, like a great Brazilian soccer player, are so ubiquitous that they carry one-name status.


Four letters that carry only positive connotations in the NBA world.

A sample glimpse of that mindset was provided by Indiana Pacers star Paul George while away on Team USA duty last year, mere days before the gruesome fall in Las Vegas that left George with a compound fracture in his right leg and sidelined him for much of last season. In happier times, on July 28, 2014, George tweeted the following to liven up an otherwise sleepy summer night:

"They're all into 'FIFA' now, so they know a lot more about the sport," says Marc Gasol, Spanish-born center of the Memphis Grizzlies and a lifelong Barcelona fan who'll be watching Saturday's proceedings intently.

"They sure know who Leo Messi is."

Says Luis Scola, Indiana's veteran big man from Argentina: "I think 'FIFA,' the video game, changed that a little bit. Guys play the game, so they know the names, and that got players into soccer a little bit more. When I got here, I don't think players were interested in soccer at all. Now it's a little bit more."

Adds Portland Trail Blazers forward and French national team stalwart Nicolas Batum: "I play more 'FIFA' than '2K.' No, really. Ninety-five percent of the time, I play 'FIFA.' I play 'FIFA' way more.

"When I got here in '08, nobody cared about soccer. I would talk [about it] to the two Spanish players we used to have, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez, but that was it. We talked because we grew up with it, but I didn't talk with nobody else. But now? Wes Matthews and all those guys ... video games help a lot."

This video game, in particular, has become a staple of daily NBA life. That became evident during the recent Western Conference finals, when Houston's Trevor Ariza and Nick Johnson revealed that the Rockets stage 'FIFA' duels obsessively, both at home and on the road.

And with young forward Clint Capela banned from joining in because he's Swiss and deemed by the Americans to be too good.

The freshly minted MVP, meanwhile, likewise can't resist 'FIFA's' strong lure. Stephen Curry says he's by no means a regular soccer-watcher in real life, but stepping into Messi's virtual boots through the aid of an Xbox controller?

"All the time," Curry confesses.

The "FIFA" video game craze, though, is merely the catalyst for some familiar names who've gone next level in their soccer fandom. It's all getting increasingly participatory for NBAers and their footy interests.

Future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett is the most prominent example of the NBA's self-made soccer fan. He adopted newly minted Premier League champions Chelsea as his favorite club years before it (or "FIFA" gaming) was fashionable, thanks largely to a friendship he struck with Chelsea legend Didier Drogba when KG was still playing in Minnesota.

And when he finally got the opportunity to make his maiden pilgrimage to Stamford Bridge last season, visiting London as a member of the Brooklyn Nets in January 2014, Garnett was openly giddy about the opportunity to see the whole Chelsea operation up close.

"I'm like a kid in a candy store," Garnett proclaimed that day.

Gasol's Memphis teammate Mike Conley, meanwhile, is a more recent convert who's making up ground fast on the passion scale. Conley describes himself as "a huge soccer fan," crediting the influence of both his foreign teammates over the years such as Gasol, as well as the hypnotic powers of virtual footy ... while revealing to ESPN.com that his favorite player on Earth is Paris Saint Germain's flamboyant striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

That's right.

The unofficial and famously understated captain of the NBA's All-Underrated Team can't resist the charms of world soccer's cockiest rebel.

Then there's Toronto Raptors forward/Manchester City superfan Patrick Patterson. Just last week, in an extensive interview with City's official club website, Patterson detailed how his "FIFA" jones, mere months before he was selected by the Houston Rockets as a lottery pick in the 2010 NBA draft, has led to a closet full of City jerseys.

When City invaded Canada on May 26, on the first stop of its North American postseason tour, Patterson got the chance to meet the likes of England goalkeeper Joe Hart, City star attackers Sergio Aguero and David Silva and his favorite player: Ivory Coast midfield colossus Yaya Toure.

"This is definitely one of the highlights of my life," Patterson said of the whole experience.

The allure of soccer's charms that has gripped Patterson was never more evident than at last summer's World Cup in Brazil, which attracted the likes of Liverpool minority owner LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as spectators who couldn't resist flying over to see it live.

After acquiring a minority ownership stake in the famed Liverpool football club in England, James made his visit to Anfield in October 2011 and tweeted several pictures (like the one below) from the trip.

Said Warriors guard Leandro Barbosa of the flood of NBA players to visit his homeland to take in the world's biggest sporting event: "I saw Joakim Noah. I saw John Wall. I saw Harrison Barnes. I saw Kobe. It was just crazy how many basketball players were there.

"I was impressed and happy they were enjoying the World Cup in my country. I was surprised."

Understandably so. In his early days in the NBA in Phoenix, only Nash, among his fellow Suns, showed any interest in the sport that borders on religion for Brazilians. Barbosa would try to engage teammates, frequently juggling a basketball with his feet to try to get the conversation going, but it wasn't until the 2009 arrival of Shaquille O'Neal in the desert that Barbosa and Nash had much luck.

"Shaq always [wanted to be] the goalie after practice," Barbosa said.

Fast-forward a half-decade and it's a different universe.

Example: Messi unexpectedly shows up at a Pacers-at-Wizards game in March while in the States for a friendly with the Argentinean national team and sets off a hashtag frenzy from George on Instagram.

For more than a decade, Nash has traveled abroad to visit various international megaclubs and found that top soccer players were always so excited to meet an NBA star. One of the two-time MVP's proudest moments, to this day, is the training session he completed at his beloved Tottenham Hotspur in the late 1990s and holding his own in a post-practice shooting contest with then-Tottenham star David Ginola.

Nash's good buddy Thierry Henry has been a frequent visitor to the NBA Finals in the years since. David Beckham, of course, was a courtside fixture at Lakers games when he lived in Los Angeles while playing for the Galaxy. Yet all it takes is a click to those springtime pictures from George and Pacers teammate George Hill to see how strongly that excitement is reciprocated these days.

"Soccer doesn't have the same kind of stigma it had 20 years ago," Nash says. "The connotation now is that soccer is big-time. People in America have embraced it all. The World Cup. The star players. The marketing machine. The cool uniforms.

"The game's become exponentially more visible," adds Nash, who for nearly a decade has been hosting an annual "Showdown" charity match on the day before the NBA draft that brings together professional footballers and NBA players in an eight-a-side soccer match.

"People have embraced what the sport means not only in the United States, but what it means traditionally around the world. The visibility and branding and awareness of the stars of the sport ... they're kind of global icons that have cracked the culture in America.

"It's a sick sport," Nash concludes.

The latest evidence to back those claims comes Saturday afternoon. Cue Champions League fever ... right in the heart of the NBA Finals.