How foreign players have played huge roles in the NBA Finals.
Just because a reporter is wearing a shirt with the Turkish flag on it, doesn’t mean he’s Turkish.
He’s obviously Polish. Seven journalists (three other Polish reporters covering the games lived in the states) made the long trek from the eastern European country to watch their beloved Polish Hammer dunk, block and post-up his way through the NBA Finals (even if he only sees the court 3-4 minutes a game).
Marcin Gortat doesn’t care if he’s not at the podiums set up around the Amway Arena court surrounded by mobs of journalists—he’s got his buddies surrounding him. It was like they were back home at a pub joking around and drinking lager. Sitting in the stands a few rows up during Wednesday’s press availability, Gortat and the only other tall, blue-eyed, blonde-haired (or bald) guys in the arena were slouching in their chairs talking their native language and letting out big laughs.
They were having a jolly old time and Gortat was basking in it. On the other side of the world, over 5,000 miles away, Polish revelers are running around in fake Gortat jerseys (because apparently they can’t find the authentic ones there) cheering on a guy playing a sport they didn’t even care about two weeks ago. “He’s famous because he’s in the Finals,” one Polish reporter says.
“He’s the Polish Dwight Howard,” another exclaims.
He is. Just like Hedo Turkoglu is the Turkish Michael Jordan.
Oh, and the Turkish reporter. He was the one not wearing the Istanbul shirt.
Eight players playing in the Finals are from countries around the world. The usual reporter questions lobbed during press conferences or in the locker room now have sly French accents, thick Turkish accents or heavy Polish accents. And some broken English from Chinese reporters.
The international superstars speak the most of their respective languages they ever have in the locker room. (According to Jameer Nelson, the American Magic players don’t even try speaking their teammates’ languages, but they crack an occasional joke or throw out a confused look when Gortat or Hedo jumble a sentence).
But Pau Gasol, Hedo and Mickael Pietrus are bringing more to the table than just paella, kebab and French fries [kidding]. They’re bringing double-digit scoring, clutch three-pointers and off-the-bench energy.
“It’s really fulfilling as a [international] player… It’s pretty amazing the situation and the spot we’re in today. That’s why we’ve got to make the best out of it and make sure we complete our dream,” Gasol said.
Gasol’s 48 minutes away from doing just that. The Spaniard took over the game for the Lakers Tuesday night when Kobe Bryant, the League’s best closer, was or was not tired, forcing up shots and missing free throws. He was controlling the tempo of the game, hitting shots and getting the and one. He’s been the jelly to Kobe’s peanut butter all season.
Throughout these Finals and in previous series, these players must have been eating their Wheaties. Remember the closeout Game 6 against the Sixers? Magic were missing Dwight Howard after a one-game suspension and guess who stepped up? Gortat.
He played 40 minutes, shot 62.5 percent from the field and netted a double-double in Superman’s absence. “I bring a lot of culture to my team. I’m helping with my energy—I’m the white guy who’s athletic and you can’t find many,” Gortat joked.
What about Air France outscoring the entire Cavs bench in the ECF? During the playoffs, he’s stopped Andre Iguodala and Paul Pierce, slowed down LeBron James and is only second to Carmelo Anthony this post season as top defenders of the Black Mamba (holding him to 15-34, 44.1 percent).
And the Turkish Jordan? He’s hit some pretty important shots this post season (that’s an understatement). He angered Kobe with the last-second, behind-the-back block to secure the Game 3 win. He even scarfs down pizza before a game and doesn’t throw up. Must be a Turkish thing.
These players’ teams have been relying on them all playoffs. Kobe looks to Pau when he’s doubled, Stan Van Gundy runs plays for Hedo in the final seconds of the game, and the Magic are all hoping Pietrus can smack talk in français into Kobe’s ears down the court.
This year boasts the second-highest total of international players in the Finals—the record was nine in 2007. The largest impact global players had in the playoffs had to be the Spurs-Suns semifinal two years ago. Can anyone forget Eva Longoria’s suave Frenchman Tony Parker? Or his childhood buddy Boris Diaw? Some of the biggest names on those teams were ones that originated in places other than America: Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Leandro Barbosa, Manu Ginobili.
When asked what the NBA would be like without its international flair, the Lakers’ long-haired Slovenian Sasha Vujacic said: “I can’t imagine it. The game of basketball has become so global and everybody so good at it that you take the best from wherever you can.”
Let’s be real here. Football (soccer) is the world’s pastime. But basketball transcended overseas, and players are making their way across the waters to the land of the hamburger and fries. Maybe it’s the fact they feel a responsibility to their country. Or because they don’t feel entitled and have something to prove.
On more than one occasion, the European work ethic and focus was brought up.
“I think it’s a tremendous statement for the work ethic we have overseas,” Duke Tshomba, a Belgian national player says. “It’s a mix of both worlds. We have great athletes, obviously, but we also have great fundamentals.”
“Each guy is bringing something from European experience,” Gortat explains.
“They make it world-wide,” Nelson echoes. “They bring a different dynamic to the game.”
They also bring 30 million page views daily to NBA.com, 250 journalists from 32 countries and millions of fans across the globe staying up until 6 a.m. to catch the games.
These days, the global talk doesn’t stop at the Finals. You’ve got Chinese investors becoming minority owners of the Cavs, mumblings of an All-Star game in London and the 2009 Eurocamp bringing top international prospects to the Draft (Jonas Jerebko, Nando De Colo, Rodrigue Beaubois).
“The NBA is one big business. There was not that many people in Poland who knew what the NBA was and all of a sudden you have a guy playing in the NBA and you have half the country knowing what the NBA is,” Gortat said. “It’s huge for the NBA. It’s big business.”
And it’s huge for the Magic and the Lakers. Without Pau, the Lakers would need Josh Powell off the bench, and if it weren’t for Hedo or Pietrus, the Magic would be relying on Tony Battie and J.J. Redick.
Yeah, it’s that huge.
Nada Taha covers the Orlando Magic as the Web Content Director for the Florida News Network.