There are very simple ways to spice up the NBA All-Star Game, give it not only sizzle but anticipation and a sense of importance. Scrap East vs. West and match the United States against the Rest of the World. It wouldn't have worked 10 years ago, back when the Dream Team wreaked havoc and when a good college all-star team could dominate international competition. But not only would such a format work now, it would be downright seductive.
The two compelling story lines here during all-star weekend have been Michael Jordan's finale and Yao Ming's debut. And the truth is, Yao's arrival and the international buzz it creates is in some ways more important to the NBA as the celebration of its departing icon. While it's expected that more than 200 million households in China will watch Sunday's 52nd All-Star Game, mostly because of Yao's presence in the starting lineup, six international players took part in all-star Saturday's rookie game, three-point shooting and dunk contests, and six more will play Sunday.
Instead of genuflecting before U.S. players and posing for pictures with them just before tip-off as the international players of the previous basketball generation had, the Europeans and Asians and South Americans now are successfully competing for roster spots, starting jobs on playoff teams and all-star status. And that's never more evident than Yao being voted to start Sunday's game at center for the West over the shrewdly marketed and fully vested Shaquille O'Neal.
The influx of talented players outside of America -- there are 66 from 34 countries on NBA rosters today, and 27 of 29 teams have at least one international player -- is certain to increase and has even caught the NBA by surprise. When asked if he envisioned such a global explosion back in 1992 when the NBA players took the court for the first time in Olympic competition, Commissioner David Stern said, "I wish I could say we planned this, but what we had was a lot of dreams. I couldn't have suggested I'd be sitting here with Yao Ming on the cover of [Sports Illustrated] or Time International . . . We were planning this but not really sure what we were planning for. We're about to see a flood, and we're planning to take advantage of the opportunities. It's going to be organic and geometric."
But the international players are coming so quickly, and there are so many of them coming from so many countries that Stern wondered aloud Saturday night during his state-of-the-league address, "What do we do now?"
Anybody suggesting Stern is overstating the worldwide interest in playing basketball only has to look at the roster of countries televising the All-Star Game for the first time. It includes 7TV in Russia, NTV in Turkey, TV Danmark in Denmark, TV Galaxie Sport in the Czech Republic, Urheilu TV in Finland, Telesport in Romania, Chanel 31 in Kazakhstan and TVM in Mozambique.
John Salley, the former Pistons, Bulls and Lakers center who now co-hosts "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" on Fox, recalled the Pistons receiving their second championship ring in the fall of 1991 from deputy commissioner Russ Granik, and not Stern as had been the practice. Stern was in Japan and then China. Salley remembers thinking that Stern must have been on to something really huge. "The man was a visionary," Salley said.
But not really, Stern said Saturday night. What happened on that trip? "I was in Beijing in 1991, sitting in the lobby of China Central Television, trying to get an appointment with Mr. Lee, who said he didn't know us." Stern said he decided to remain in the lobby until Lee emerged from his office, and the commissioner's stubbornness paid off in the form of the first TV deal to show games in Asia. These are games which Yao, among others, say captivated them and triggered their obsession not just with basketball, but with the NBA.
Yao, a rookie who didn't arrive here until nearly November, now needs security virtually everywhere he goes. He was the biggest attraction by far on Friday's media day. He'd clearly be the centerpiece of any team that might play against the U.S. players for the next 10 years. Those who think such a matchup would result in a blowout might want to consult the poor fools who thought a group of NBA players -- any group of NBA players -- would never be seriously threatened in NBA competition, much less lose. But that, of course, happened in August when a U.S. team of NBA players finished sixth in the world championships.
One would think a U.S. all-star team would win handily the first few times, but even that would be more meaningful than East vs. West. And recent basketball evolution tells us the International squad would probably be ready to challenge in four or five years, perhaps sooner.
Imagine a squad that has Houston's Yao (China) and Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Lithuania) at center; Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and Memphis's Pau Gasol (Spain) at power forward; Sacramento's Hedo Turkoglu (Turkey) and Utah's Andrei Kirilenko (Russia) at small forward; Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic (the former Yugoslavia), San Antonio's Manu Ginobili (Argentina) at shooting guard; Dallas's Steve Nash (Canada) and Tony Parker (France) at point guard. There would be plenty of reserves, including Denver's Nene Hilario (Brazil), Sacramento's Vlade Divac (the former Yugoslavia), Philadelphia's Dikembe Mutombo (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Seattle's Vladimir Radmanovich (the former Yugoslavia).
Asked who would win a U.S. vs. The World all-star game, Kirilenko said this week, "I think it's pretty hard to say. I think American all-stars would win the game, but it would not be an easy game, probably a difference of eight, 10 points.
Either way, the NBA knows such globalization has changed the sport forever. "You need to commend David Stern [for] the expansion and globalization of basketball," Michael Jordan said Saturday. "David expanded it to where European players understood the competition and the glamour that came along with it and to experience playing against the best. Then the Dream Team came into place, where they got to see it first hand. You had 12, well, 11 of the 12 greatest players -- not counting Christian Laettner. The European players saw that as an opportunity. The way the league expanded gave them the opportunity to come and see what if? As much as it's been myself as an [ambassador and endorser] and an endorser of NBA basketball, it's been Stern opening up the doors and understanding how to market the league to where the European and Asian players want to play at the highest level."
Very few of the international players have had off-court troubles. And more often than not, the international players have justified their draft position. Yao, for example, is everything the Rockets could have asked for. "Look man, a lot of NBA general managers don't want long-term projects," Seattle's Gary Payton said. "And overseas guys come here already-groomed. They know what a jump-stop is, they know how to shoot three-pointers."
Folks back in China are paying incredibly close attention, and the NBA is feeding the new obsession even more by taking more exhibitions and even regular season games overseas. Stern said Saturday the league is "close to announcing" preseason games in Spain, France, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and not surprisingly, the People's Republic of China. "We're getting to the point," Stern said, "where we're going to need a traveling team for all the requests that are coming in" for a view of the NBA product.
And now that people in 212 countries are going to see the All-Star Game, and a portion of that the NBA playoffs and Finals, "it's going to have," Stern said, "an enormous influence on our game."