After Nikoloz Tskitishvili of the Denver Nuggets let fly with a perfect jump shot in a recent game against the Dallas Mavericks, Dallas center DJ Mbenga stepped up his defense. Sweat glistened on both men as the young Congolese refused to let down his guard on the quick-footed forward from the Republic of Georgia.
Two men from two continents were battling it out on a third - proving once more the international nature of the National Basketball Association.
In 1970, NBA teams drafted the first two foreigners. Now every team in the league except the Indiana Pacers has at least one international player. All told, there are 79 of them -- from 35 countries.
And with good reason. Tskitishvili, a former dancer now gracing the Nuggets' stage, says the rest of the world outfoxed the U.S. team at the Athens Olympics, and the American players are still amazed. "They've been saying, like, 'Wow, man, you guys can shoot…you guys were on the fire, make all the shots,'" he says. "That's what European players do, shoot all the time, six hours a day."
Increasingly, foreign-born players are making a mark. German Dirk Nowitski is averaging 27 points a game for the Mavericks. Spaniard Pau Gasol is scoring double digits for the Memphis Grizzlies. But sometimes the international expertise isn't a good match for the skills needed in the NBA. "Actually, we're trying to eliminate their style," says Mavericks assistant coach Del Harris.
Coach Harris says this is especially the case with Chinese players. Dallas drafted the first Chinese NBA player, Wang Zhizhi, three years ago. That paved the way for 2.2 meter-tall Yao Ming, who was drafted first overall in 2002 by another Texas team, the Houston Rockets.
At first, Yao Ming was a gentle giant, not nearly physical enough to compete in the professional game. It's a culture clash Del Harris encountered when he coached the members of the Chinese National Team at the 2004 Olympics. "They were thinking, 'We're not emotional, we're not physical, we're not aggressive,'" he recalls. "I said, 'Well, that's fine in your particular culture. But if you're going to compete in the international culture of basketball, that's a separate culture. And you have to separate that from who you are as a regular person. And it doesn't make you bad, or anything like that. You just have to adjust."
The most difficult adjustment for many international players involves encountering a new language. Players can't respond quickly to coaches' commands when they have to be translated and then passed on.
For the Mavericks' DJ Mbenga, English is coming easily. But his coach says the first-year player is having a harder time with the openness of American society. "The girls," Del Harris laughs, "apparently, they are quite friendly to this young fellow, and he thinks it's a good thing."
Yet this too might have been lost in translation. When asked about female fans, the 19-year-old Mbenga exhales and confesses that this is a big problem for him. He whispers that he had an NBA friend warn him about such temptations. "First, for the player, you have to respect yourself," he says. "For your job, your teammates and yourself. That is very, very important."
The Dallas center realizes that he has a country and a continent watching him -- just as he grew up watching fellow Congolese Dikembe Mutombo, a veteran player now with the Houston Rockets. Mbenga says Congo could provide even more prospects for NBA scouts, because "we are so many players, so many talents, so many athletes."
NBA officials once expected athletes from Congo and elsewhere in Africa to crowd the court. But Eastern Europe still provides the majority of non-American players in the league. DJ Mbenga says the Congolese talent pool will never be successfully tapped until players get the resources needed to improve their game. "We do not have the gym, the balls," he says. "You know, some guy might need shoes to play. He needs shorts. He needs everything."
The NBA's Basketball Without Borders program has poured money into Africa and other parts of the world to pay for courts and training. Still, most foreign players are pretty raw when they get to the NBA. Only eight of the 58 foreign players drafted in the last three years played any college basketball.
Until recently, Nikoloz Tskitishvili sat on the Nuggets bench most games, frustrated that he wasn't getting more playing time. But now he understands. "I wasn't ready for it," he says. "For example, I might have the skills, but mentally you aren't really ready to concentrate and focus on the game, whatever coach wants."
The globalization of the NBA is likely to continue. Scouts are scouring the planet, with a new emphasis on Japan and other countries in East Asia. In a way, basketball is returning to its roots. After all, James Naismith, who invented the game in a Massachusetts gym in 1891, was born in Canada.