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Foreign Players Add New Dimension to NBA - 2003-02-27

The Dallas Mavericks are more than just the top team in the National Basketball Association this season. They are also the top example of the international appeal of the game, with almost half of the team's players born outside the United States.

The Dallas Mavericks currently boast the best record in the National Basketball Association, as they have all season long. They also happen to have the most players born outside of the United States; seven players from five countries.

Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Bradley are natives of Germany, while Antoine Rigaudeau and Tariq Abdul-Wahad were born in France. Raja Bell comes from Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands, while Steve Nash grew up in Canada and Eduardo Najera was born in Mexico. VOA Sports spoke to Dallas Mavericks' team owner Mark Cuban at a recent game in Washington, and in an attempt to be humorous he kidded about the make-up of his team.

"I prefer foreigners," he said. " Americans are really nasty people and I hate to have them around. You know, growing up in Paris and being a native Francophile, it really disturbed me to come here and see all these Americans playing basketball. Particularly when I see them come into our French restaurants and [they] do not speak French. So I got really upset and had to change it."

Mark Cuban's joking aside, NBA team owners want to win, and so they have pursued the best players around the world. There are currently 65 international players from 34 countries and territories on NBA rosters, and they are having a huge impact. Tim Duncan, the league's reigning Most Valuable Player of the San Antonio Spurs, is from the U.S. Virgin Islands. The 2001-2002 Rookie of the Year was Memphis Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol of Spain, while last year's top pick in the NBA draft by the Houston Rockets was Yao Ming from China.

Throw in 2002 All Stars like New Jersey Nets center Dikembe Mutombo of the Congo, Sacramento Kings forward Peja Stojakovic of the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia and Montenegro), and you're looking at a league that reflects the growth of the game around the world. Dallas's Canadian guard Steve Nash, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, agrees.

"I think the game is growing. I think the NBA has done a great job of marketing itself so players around the world have a measuring stick," he said. "They can watch it on TV and see the level of the game and where the game has gone, and try to catch up to it."

International Basketball has traditionally been dominated by teams from the United States. Only twice has the U.S. failed to win the men's gold medal at the Olympics. But that too may be changing. At the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, the Americans barely squeaked by Lithuania in the semifinals by two points, before coming back for a 10 point victory over France to win the gold.

At the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana, Team USA was a major disappointment, finishing in sixth place. But Dallas' German forward Dirk Nowitzki told VOA why he thinks it happened.

"They just did not send their best team. And I think if they did send their best team, I feel like no one in the world can beat them," he said. " But you saw it in the World Championship, if they do not send anyone [their best players], the rest of the world is getting better and the competition is better every year."

The American team of NBA players needs to finish in the top three at a qualifying tournament this August in Puerto Rico in order to make it to the 2004 Athens Olympics. But there will be a lot of teams from all over the world waiting to knock Team USA off its Olympic throne if, as expected, the Americans make it.