It could be that Knicks fans, having memories so long they are out of date, were thinking of Frenchman Frederic Weis when they roundly booed team president Phil Jackson’s use of a first-round draft pick on a tall lad from Europe. Weis, of course, was the 7-foot-2 Frenchman chosen No. 1 by the team in 1999 who never played a minute in the NBA and is mostly remembered as the victim of one spectacular Vince Coleman dunk—literally flying over the seemingly helpless Weis—in the 2000 Olympics.
Just as likely, though, the negative fan reaction to picking 19-year-old Latvian Kristaps Porzingis was a form of the unattractive xenophobia that characterizes American basketball provincialism almost 30 years past its shelf life.
Somebody needs to remind those folks—as well as Carmelo Anthony, whose egocentric playing style tends to dismiss the comparative competence of even American-raised teammates—that the NBA is crawling with talented fellows from across the pond.
And it would help that they had a little history lesson.
As far back as 1988, the Americans couldn’t get past the USSR in the Olympic hoops semifinals. That game did not resemble the controversial 1972 Olympic final, when the Soviets needed a pair of controversial do-overs to score the winning basket and end the Americans’ international dominance—a 62-game Olympic winning streak.
By ’88, the rest of the world clearly was catching up. And, while U.S. partisans regularly aired the excuse of not having NBA players eligible for international competition, it was, in fact, officials in the U.S. federation who were blocking the pros’ participation. (Those federation pooh-bahs figured our collegiate guys were plenty good enough to win all the time and, furthermore, understood that the entrance of NBA talent also would bring NBA officials to take their jobs.)
Anyway, before Magic, Michael, Bird and their NBA pals came to the Yanks’ rescue in the Barcelona Olympics, there were revealing developments at the 1990 Goodwill Games, a Ted Turner event staged that summer in Seattle.
There, the Americans soundly were beaten by a Soviet team missing fourth-fifths of its 1988 gold medal starting lineup—all Lithuanian citizens whose nation had just split from Moscow. (Among the missing from the Soviet side was Sarunas Marciulionis, the shooting guard who had just signed with the Golden State Warriors and would make over 50 percent of his field goals in a seven-year NBA career.)
In their Goodwill Games match, the Soviets left the Americans dizzy with their teamwork, by weaving passes at the top of the circle and kicking the ball outside to wide-open sharpshooters. An American spectator, at one point, called out contemptuously after a successful fast-break Soviet layup, “Look at that; they can’t even dunk.”
Just as scornful of the Soviets’ style, as if it were not only un-American but unfair, was the Goodwills’ celebrated U.S. coach, one Mike Krzyzewski. “Their penetration and pitching back out is a little unusual for American basketball,” Krzyzewski said.
Days later, in the tournament final, Yugoslavia dumped the Yanks, again mystifying the American players who, Krzyzewski admitted, “do seem, sometimes, to be puzzled by what’s going on out there.”
What was going on was that the Americans were laboring under the assumption that a slam-dunk-and-residual-hang-time-on-the-rim somehow counted for extra points, and were apparently convinced that their fussed over, televised collegiate careers—with the NBA always in the future—automatically made them a higher form of basketball life.
They gave no indication of a belief that the rest of the world could compete with them. “Our shots just weren’t falling,” was Syracuse University star Derrick Coleman’s excuse in the wake of the Yugoslavs’ clinical fast breaks, give-and-go moves, three-point accuracy, back-door cuts and relentless defense.
The Yanks were One-Pass Wonders on offense, mostly devoid of teamwork, with individual shaking-and-baking and ill-advised shot attempts, followed by standing around while the Yugoslavs threw touchdown passes for easy layups.
That U.S. collection of Big Name college all-stars was exposed as basketball neophytes. And any protestations that they had to make do without our nation’s best—Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, etc.—didn’t stand up so well to the reality that Yugoslavia also was without its prominent NBA heroes—Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic.
Since then it has been demonstrated, over and over, that a player need not be U.S. born-and-raised to excel at James Naismith’s sport—invented in Springfield, Mass., yes, but by a non-American. (Naismith was Canadian.) Fran Fraschilla, who made his name as a top U.S. collegiate coach, recently told the New York Times that the Europeans “took our game, which we imported, and made it more interesting. I fell in love with the way they played the game.”
A man who has been paying attention.
None of this is to say that top Knicks’ pick Porzingis, who is a spindly 7-foot-3, is guaranteed to be an NBA headliner. Or that he even will make the team. But that will have nothing to do with Frederic Weis’ failure to make it in New York 15 years ago or his martyr’s role in Carter’s “Le dunk de la mort”—“the dunk of death.”
Really, Knick fans ought to be a little embarrassed at disparaging young Porzingis before he has a chance to prove himself, merely because his is an unfamiliar name from across the pond. That ESPN didn’t broadcast the coming of Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki; Spain’s Gasol brothers, Pau and Mark; Poland’s Marcin Gortat; Montenegro’s Nikola Mirotic and Nikola Vucevic; Slovenia’s Goran Dragic; France’s Tony Parker and Rudy Gobert; and Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo—among many, many others—hardly demonstrates that those fellows don’t belong, prominently, in the NBA.
In 1967, Pete Axthelm’s book, “The City Game,” was based on a claim of New York basketball sophistication, of a “city that knows and loves [basketball] best….the most active, dedicated basketball city of all.”
That was a long time ago. And wouldn’t such a reputation indicate a worldliness that can acknowledge the 101 non-Americans on NBA rosters at the start of last season, 54 of them from Europe? Here’s a Phil Jackson quote that applies to those quick-to-judge Knicks fans: “Always keep an open mind and a compassionate heart.”
Hold the boos for now, at least.