DENVER — The referee blows his whistle when a Denver Nuggets player accidentally strikes the ball with his foot. "Kicked ball violation," the announcer intones. The ref rolls the basketball toward Steve Nash of the Dallas Mavericks to throw it back in play.
The Canadian-born point guard considers the rolling ball, but suddenly something snaps. Nash takes it in his instep and flips it in the air, like the expert soccer player he is. He kicks the ball again with the outside of his foot and bounces it on his knee. Only then does he pick it up, finally remembering which game he is playing.
Nash played the world's sport, soccer, for most of his childhood. But now he's part of a boom in foreign-born players performing in the National Basketball Association, playing a sport born in the United States and, until now, dominated by American players.
This year, NBA rosters include 46 foreign players from 28 countries. That's up from 36 players and 26 countries just a year ago.
The Mavericks alone have three notable foreign-born players. Along with Nash there's Eduardo Najera, the first-Mexican-born player in the NBA. Najera, who starred at the University of Oklahoma, has been injured much of the season.
But Dallas fans are ecstatic over a third import, Dirk Nowitzki: the fluid 22-year-old forward from Germany who's already being compared to some of the all-time NBA greats.
Nowitzki is not the first German recruit to join the Mavericks. In 1995, the team drafted two German-born players: center Uwe Blab out of Indiana University, and University of Washington star Detlef Schrempf, who is still in the league, with the Portland Trailblazers.
As Dallas assistant coach Del Harris observes, "No team is more attuned to international basketball than the Mavericks." The team has scouts in Africa and Asia as well as Europe.
Nowitzki, now in his third NBA season, is a product of Wurzburg, Germany. His first sport was handball; his father coached the local team. Basketball was a sport for the women in the family. His mother played for a German national team, and his older sister, Silke, had taken up the sport as well. Young Dirk was 13 before he tried it for himself, and discovered that he loved it.
"I was a big fan of the Chicago Bulls," he remembers. "We'd get one or two NBA games a week on TV. Michael Jordan! Scotty Pippen! Dennis Rodman!"
These days, Nowitzki is attracting fans of his own. A nimble 7 foot forward who moves more like a 6-foot guard, he's averaging 21 points and 9 rebounds a game at midseason. A number of NBA analysts thought that he should have been chosen to play in last weekend's All Star Game.
"He's a threat without the ball. He is athletic. And he has size," All-Star Allan Houston of the New York Knicks told the AFP news service, calling Nowitzki the game's most glaring absentee. "He is not only big, he is talented, and he has helped them win a lot of games."
"He was the most skilled person I ever saw at 19," Dallas coach Don Nelson told AFP. "I'm not just talking about [in] Europe. He was the most talented player I had ever seen at 19." Period.
Watching Nowitzki play, one sees traces of Pippen, another mobile forward. Some have compared him with Boston Celtics great Larry Bird, although Nowitzki demurs. "That's not fair to Larry Bird; I'm still at the beginning of my career," he says.
In the last analysis, Nowitzki is a phenom in his own right, with a cluster of skills that may never have been seen in one player. He's ambidextrous, for one thing - shooting and dribbling with either hand. It's a trait that may relate to years spent playing handball. In a recent game versus Denver, he blocked a shot, snatched the ball in midair, and dribbled the length of the floor full tilt. He might have capped the play with a thundering slam dunk, suitable for national TV highlights that night. But instead he unselfishly spotted teammate Nash on the perimeter and fed him the ball for an open jump shot.
Nash himself is another rising international star. A Canadian from the unlikely basketball environs of Victoria, British Columbia, he's the first foreign-born point guard in the NBA.
(In basketball, that's comparable to a player from another country quarterbacking a pro-football team. The point guard is the floor general, requiring an intricate knowledge of the game.)
Nash plays point guard like a dervish. Darting around the court, playing low to the floor, he sometimes looks like a refugee from soccer that he is.
His father and an older brother played soccer professionally, and Nash grew up on soccer and ice hockey. So, how did he choose basketball? With a wry grin, he concedes, "It was purely for social reasons. I was at a sports camp when I was 13, and no one was into soccer or hockey. All my friends were playing basketball."
Nash became a fan of the Seattle Super Sonics via TV and went on to star at Santa Clara (Calif.) University. Today, he's regarded as a rising star of the NBA - like Nowitzki, a player with obvious All-Star potential.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society