Whenever someone raises the topic of foreign-born players in the NBA I always think of Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja, and Toni Kukoc. I also tend to say Koni Tukoc and laugh to myself. But that is a different story altogether. Yes Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing both played in an NBA and made a big impact before the Croatian trio. However, that was following successful careers at the University of Houston and Georgetown respectively. For all intents and purposes the current influx of international players traces its roots back to Petrovic, Radja, and Kukoc. The fact that the Boston Celtics drafted Radja in 1989, held on to his rights, and finally put him in uniform for the 1994 season was not surprising considering Red Auerbachâ€™s role in delivering basketball to the international community through his work on behalf of the State Department.
Clearly the Celtics were on the forefront of the international movement. And yet it eventually left the franchise in its dust. But why? Did the Dino Radja era go that poorly? Maybe the fact that he left the Celtics and the NBA for good in the midst of the 1997 season, returning home to Croatia because of a knee injury, soured the Celtics on international players. Rick Pitinoâ€™s club med taunts the following off season probably did not help. Or maybe the lack of contributions from Andrei Fetisov (Russia â€" 1994), Ben Pepper (1997 â€" Australia), Josip Sesar (Croatia â€" 2000), Jerome Moiso (France â€" 2000), or Darius Songaila (Lithuania â€" 2002) hurt international playersâ€™ chances in Boston. At gunpoint Iâ€™d blame it on Moiso. Whatever the reason team management had no success with the new influx of talent. In fact Songaila was the last foreign player they drafted. And even before that they tried to convert Joe Forte into a point guard instead of rolling the dice with Tony Parker.*
The fact is the Celtics were one Michael Olowokandi away from joining the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks as the only teams without any international players last season. Granted international players do not equal success. See the Memphis Grizzlies. And everyone is terrified of getting the next Nikoloz Tskitishvili. But as John Hollinger recently pointed out (Insider required) the good teams have built winners by drafting international players, holding onto their rights, and bringing them over in a few seasons. Sound familiar? So while it is easy to point to Tim Duncan landing in San Antonio as the pivotal event behind the rise of the Spurs and the collapse of the Celtics, it is deeper than that. All you have to do is watch a little of the Suns/Spurs series and wonder what it would be like without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Leandro Barbosa, and Boris Diaw.
*To be fair Auerbach was taking advice from Forteâ€™s high school coach Morgan Wooten.
Auerbach had used this tactic before, initially learning about Bill Russell, Sam Jones, and John Havlicek from his basketball contacts. The C's also passed on Jamaal Tinsley who makes Sebastian Telfair look like Shane Battier. I thought that would make me feel better. It did not.Â
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