In the summer of 1992 at the Barcelona Summer Olympics, there was one group of men who took the summer festivities by storm and forever created a precedent that to this day has yet to be topped. These men representing the USA were appropriately dubbed the Dream Team.
Their talent-filled roster made them the epitome of fantasy sports and the envy of other organized athletics, but they were no dream. They were a reality. A reality that saw the Dream Team win games with an average of forty points or more, and a reality that saw each and every player enter the basketball hall of fame many years later. As they rocketed to prominence in full view of the rest of the world, international players and coaches (current and future) the globe over were quietly watching and learning, waiting for their chance to beat the Americans at their own game. This is the moment that international basketball was truly born.
In the years that followed, the game of basketball began to develop gradually as many nations outside the US created professional leagues of their own, as well as unique styles of play that differed greatly from the NBA’s. You can see this plainly in Tony Kukoc, a towering, 6’9” Croatian-Yugoslavian player, who became famous for his ability to handle the ball and launch from a long distance. After playing in Europe, he would go on to suit up for the Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. Before him (with a few exceptions) his brand of long-distance shooting was hardly ever seen on a nightly basis. Then came Dirk Nowitski, a player who would follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and take their skills to the next level. One could argue that Nowitzki pioneered the role of the stretch 4, which has since become a staple of every team’s rotation.
However, international talents do come with their fair share of criticism, especially as it pertains to European players. Many have criticized the Euro style of play saying that it’s too finesse-based, and much less physically demanding than the NBA’s. Also, the lack of defense is undoubtedly the target of choice when pointing out the flaws of its style. Former Raptors F/C (and first-ever draft pick from Europe to be selected at first overall) Andrea Bargnani has been widely maligned for not committing to the defensive end, whether that means following his man or, more noticeably, his lack of effort on the glass (he stands at 7’0 and has only averaged 4.8 rebounds his entire career). European players have also been criticized for not planting their feet to set up for a charge and even being known to flop on occasion (Vlade Divac did it long before it was known as “LeBroning”).
Although it’s easy to dissect the European (or any other continent’s) basketball program, there’s no way of ignoring the growth and progression of the sport outside the US. Over the last 10 years in Olympic and world play, several nations have either gotten the best of the USA (Argentina) or have made it a difficult task for the USA to win (Spain). Both the former and the latter have produced All-Star caliber NBA talents, and have also gone on to win championships. In fact, the core of the San Antonio Spurs all hail from different nations (Tim Duncan, Virgin Islands; Tony Parker, France; Manu Ginobli, Argentina).
Like the Spurs, teams such as the Dallas Mavericks and the Toronto Raptors have been known to have an international lineup, showing the diversity of the league and its evolution thus far. During his hey day, Yao Ming was a top-two center in the league representing China, which is now a hotbed for the game. Had it not been for chronic injuries, one could argue that Ming would have added on another championship banner to the pair that were won on the strength of yet another international sensation, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon.