Business Without Borders: The NBA and its International Feeder System

By: Dan Grant

It’s well known that international basketball is exploding, and has been for some time. Like soccer, basketball appeals to a mass audience because of the simplicity of the game. At the bones of it, all you need is a ball and a hoop and you can play. No expensive equipment, no facility rentals. Just a ball, a hoop and a (relatively) flat surface. Like soccer, it’s a great equalizer. There are different games to be played and different skills to possess but at the crux of things, there’s just one question.

Can you ball?

This is a question that can be answered in a variety of ways. As with any sport, different skill levels abound; rec leagues for both men and women can be found in abundance both in North America and abroad and more competitive leagues are growing here in Canada at the grassroots level, with appreciable results. These types of leagues have long been a backbone of American youth culture, nation-wide. Elite players would come up through the travel team system, play for the best high school in their area and wind up at a school in the NCAA that would give them the best shot at being taken in one of the NBA’s miniscule two draft rounds.

That was the formula. That was the dream.

For years, the NBA barely looked further than this way of operating. At the start of the 1991-92 season, of 400 potential roster spots, only 23 were taken up by players born outside the USA, from 18 different countries. At the start of last season, 2013-14, there were a record 92 international players (expansion means there are 450 jobs now) from 39 countries and territories. That’s an increase from just under 6% of the league to 21% of the league in just 22 years.

So what happened? Why are teams increasingly looking internationally for talent?

Three reasons: The Dream Team. Moneyball. And Basketball Without Borders.

Bird, Jordan and Magic pushed NBA basketball into the international spotlight

Bird, Jordan and Magic pushed NBA basketball into the international spotlight

The Dream Teams influence after appearing at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona can’t be overstated. Basketball was already popular in Europe, with professional leagues in Spain and Italy serving as outlets for players who were good enough to play professionally but hadn’t made the jump to the NBA. That aside, the NBA was far from the global juggernaut it is today. In the mid 1980’s the league was struggling financially, to the point that they were the first major professional sports league to introduce a salary cap, with the players begrudging blessing. The league managed to convince the players that without it, the NBA as they knew it would dissolve. The league championship was still shown on tape delay, rather than in real time. It was the least popular of the four major North American sports.

Then along came Michael Jordan.

While Magic and Larry saved the NBA from extinction, Jordan thrust the league into the international spotlight. His otherworldly celebrity, combined with the explosion of 24 hour sports television led to the NBA experiencing a massive surge in popularity towards the end of the 1980’s. Once the Dream Team rolled around, Jordan was a the height of his powers, coming off back to back NBA championships and teaming with Bird, Magic and Charles Barkley. They brought the best parts of the American game to the international stage and showed just how dominant the American side was over the rest of the world. A generation of kids suddenly wanted to be Michael Jordan, not just in the USA, but globally.

Still, as the 90’s wore on, the predominance of American players continued. The system took some time to change, as systems do. Eastern European stars such as Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic still emerged in the NBA from time to time; their arrivals hinted at the talent yet to be found but for the most part, the old formula stayed the same.

Around 2000, when Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane was beginning to think about the strategies that would become the book/movie Moneyball, many other professional sports franchises were doing the same thing. Instead of following a tried and true blueprint, they began treating sports like a business and as such, sought to look for market inefficiencies to exploit. The restrictive NBA draft and the lack of a true minor league system meant that teams either had to hit a home run with their draft choices or pay free agents exorbitant sums of money. Some of the more creative teams, most notably the San Antonio Spurs, began to think outside the box. By drafting international players and allowing them to develop overseas, teams could grow and develop their assets without having to use a roster spot or salary cap space on them. They retained the players rights but really had no responsibility towards them at all. They only question was whether these international players could play at a high enough level to make the strategy one that was worthwhile.

When the Spurs began winning championships in the mid 2000’s, people began to take notice. The 2003, 2005 and 2007 championship teams heavily featured Argentinian star Manu Ginobili and Frenchman Tony Parker. While Parker was drafted conventionally, Ginobili was not, instead being allowed to develop in Europe. Parker was also unique in that he’d played professionally since he was about 15, as opposed to coming through the American feeder system. Complimentary players with names like Oberto, Nesterovic and Udrih became the norm for a team that seemed to be playing a different game than everyone else, both on the court and off. Fast forward to 2014 and the Spurs are reigning champions again: Parker and Ginobili are still  dominant presences, but so is Brazilian Tiago Splitter, (stashed for three full years before appearing in an NBA game), and Australian Patty Mills. Italian Marco Bellinelli and Frenchman Boris Diaw played large roles as well, despite not being drafted or developed by San Antonio. Such is the Spurs culture and mystique, that a player like Diaw, though to be washed up, could have his career revived among his international peers. The Spurs hold the draft rights to 11 players currently active overseas; along with players in the new NBA Development League, it allows them to retain access to nearly double the assets they would have been allowed with a basic NBA roster.

spursmap

While Moneyball’s Oakland A’s are still searching for that elusive World Series win, the Spurs’ differing philosophy has led to four championships in the past 11 seasons. They simply ignored a formula that never quite made sense anyway. Of course there were going to be great players overseas. The USA, while a large country, contributes about 5% of the worlds population. Odds were, there were going to be some people elsewhere who could play ball.

All of this brings us to Basketball Without Borders (BWB).

BWB’s mission statement is:

The NBA and FIBA’s global basketball development and community outreach program that unites young basketball players to promote the sport and encourage positive social change in the areas of education, health, and wellness.

Started in 2001, BWB now runs five camps on five different continents each year. Over 1,000 players from over 100 countries are invited to the camps and benefit from the involvement and teaching of NBA players, executives and speakers. It’s a wonderful program and something the NBA is visibly and justifiably proud of.

It is, however, also an international scouting system for a league that is becoming increasingly hamstrung by NCAA regulations. While rarely stated on their Wikipedia or player bio page, most international NBA players will now have had at least some involvement with BWB, particularly those coming from South America and Africa. Whether they mention it in a throwaway interview or not at all, it’s omnipresent. Again following the soccer model, where teams can sometimes lock up the rights to players as young as 13 or 14, NBA general managers and scouts who participate in the program get a chance to get an in depth look at the best and brightest of each continent’s players when they are still in their formative years. That is who attends the camps. It’s not for anyone and everyone. It’s for the best of the best.

Relationships developed during BWB can become vital as well. Take current Raptors guard Greivis Vasquez for example. He met current Toronto General Manager and BWB stalwart Masai Ujiri at a BWB camp back in the early 2000’s. Ujiri recognized his talent, helped Vasquez move to the US and play at an elite prep school, which led a four year NCAA career at Maryland and a promising NBA career. Vasquez and Ujiri stayed in contact and joked that they’d one day love to play for the same team. Now it’s happened and the Raptors have benefited; Vasquez undoubtedly could have left this off-season as a free agent but his loyalty to Ujiri was a deciding factor for staying in Toronto. Ujiri first saw current Raptors first round pick and lightning rod Bruno Caboclo at a BWB camp. Many were shocked by his selection, but for Ujiri the risk will be worth the reward if Caboclo can live up to his potential. These are just a couple examples – imagine how many more untold stories there are, considering the role BWB plays in the lives of many of these young athletes.

Ujiri has been a cornerstone of BWB for years. He travels to South Africa each year to participate in the camp there and frequently visits camps on other continents on both scouting and outreach trips. Born in Nigeria, he played in the US college system and professionally in Europe. He then returned to Nigeria to become a youth coach before becoming an international scout and eventually, the NBA’s first international general manger. It’s understandable that he would have such passion for a program that must resonate deeply with his personal experience, so inextricably tied to his roots. It’s also win-win. Every team wants to the first one in on a potential unknown star. Ujiri gets to help players that come from the same beginnings he came from and he also gets to be at the forefront of the scouting boom, something that is a huge advantage when stacked up against his competition.

Masai Ujiri is a key cog in the Basketball Without Borders program, which could be a huge advantage for the General Manager

Masai Ujiri is a key cog in the Basketball Without Borders program, which could prove to be a huge advantage for the Raptors GM

Kathleen Behrens, NBA Executive Vice President, Social Responsibility and Player Programs on BWB:

“With the help of countless players, coaches and partners, the camp has developed into a powerful vehicle that allows us to use our sport to draw attention to important social issues while cultivating top youth basketball talent around the world.”

‘Cultivating’. A telling choice of word. FIBA and the NBA are big business and they’re not paying for these camps just to be nice. While the intention and execution of Basketball Without Borders is noble – of course a huge percentage of these players will never make it to the pros – the gamble is calculated. They know that while there may be only a few out there, running these camps will lead to the discovery of players like Serge Ibaka and Joel Embiid. The funding for these camps comes from the leagues themselves, meaning that it comes from the team owners and league sponsors. As international scouting grows and the infrastructure becomes more developed, the market inefficiency the Spurs pioneered is going to evaporate. Many teams now invest heavily in international scouting, a trend that will continue to rise. BWB opened it’s first Asian camp this past year in Tokyo. Yao Ming opened the door to the world of Chinese basketball and now owns a franchise in his home nation. I’m fairly certain there might be one or two NBA calibre players hiding in a nation of over a billion, let alone in all of continental Asia. It’s another step towards to comprehensive global scouting, another step towards a market correction.

But until that happens,  Basketball Without Borders is the gateway to the final frontier of untapped talent.

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