During a recent city-to-city tour of the United States, Niels Annen, youth chairman of Germany's currently reigning Social Democratic Party, mainly concerned himself with "fact-facting" or laying down Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder's party line to this or that American group. But he took time off, as conditions permitted, to catch an NBA game if one was going in the city he happened to be visiting. He discoursed on his interest - and European interest generally -- the morning after watching the Memphis Grizzles dust off the Denver Nuggets 96-93, a mid-December game in which forward Pau Gasol, a Spanish transplant and last year's NBA rookie-of-the-year, dominated play with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
"There's a lot of interest in the NBA in Germany. We get summaries of all the game on television, and some of them are carried live and get watched by a lot of German fans if the time element is right. There's a huge fuss over [Dirk] Nowitzki, so people make sure they keep up with him. We're proud of him."
Nowitzski, of course, is the star forward of the Dallas Mavericks and a genuine All-Star by anybody's standards, foreign or domestic. But he is not unique; the number of professional European players in basketball, a bona fide made-in-America sport, is a-bounding these days, both on the Grizzlies and Mavericks and on virtually every other team in the National Basketball Association, a moniker that increasingly seems anachronicstic - especially when at a given moment either team in an NBA game could be fielding two or three players from the other side of the Atlantic, both from Europe and from African. Not to mention the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming, the universally coveted treetop-tall phenom from China, across the other water.
"There are many German players in the NBA now - there is Detlef Schrempf [of the Portland TrailBlazers], for example, and many, many more are coming," says Annen.
Annen dates his own enthusiasm for NBA-style basketball from 1992, when Olympic rules were relaxed to the point of permitting the USA to field a Michael Jordan-led "dream team" of star players from the NBA. "We followed all the games," Annen said. "For the first time basketball was getting the same kind of attention in Germany that football [soccer] always got." Indeed, said Annen of his native land, where soccer is, as elsewhere in the non-American world, virtually a religion, "those cities that don't have a distinguished team or a soccer tradition are now trying to sponsor basketball teams to have a professional team of quality." There is a national professional league in Germany, whose ever-increasing quality is indicated by the Nowitzskis and Schremps and their lesser-known brethren.
Part of the charm of basketball for a European seems to be in the ease with which indoor facilities can be found or created for it, said Annen. It is a fact that third on his list of popoular national sports -- as on those, it turned out, of Gasol's and Croatian teammate Gordon Giricek -- is handball, another spectacle of close confines and quick movement.
"One thing about basketball: It is never boring," Annen points out.
NOR, FROM THE POINT OF VIEW of the players themselves, is it exactly a rose garden. A few days after the game Annen saw, Gasol relaxed in the Grizzlies' locker room at Memphis' 10-year-old Pyramid facility (soon to be replaced by a newer, gussier arena a few blocks further south) and talked about a game in which, once again, he had dominated as the Grizzles beat the Orlando Magic 99-86. "The whole first half I wasn't in my rhythm," recalled the soft-spoken Gasol. "But in the second half I played much better, with intensity, and I started getting rebounds." He would end with 10 rebounds and, though the 7-foot-plus Gasol was double- or triple-teamed for much of the game, with 12 points. And his play-making passes to teammates were exceptional.
The progression of that one day's play was something of a synecdoche for the way in which the diffident 22-year-old Spaniard developed as a player in the NBA. Though he was raised on NBA telecasts in Spain and can't remember a time when they weren't freely available, the first NBA game he ever saw was the first one he played in, the exhibition-season opener of 2001 in Memphis against the Portland TrailBlazers. To many, the gangly, frail-looking Gasol looked tentative. "I was," confesses Gasol, who has gone on to toughen up (and to put on some appreciable muscle).
Gasol notes an irony: In Europe, where games are played straight through (a contrast to the NBA tradition of hoopla, which sees frequent interruptions for cheerleaders, acrobats, costumed mascots chunking souvenirs at fans, and even on-court hypnotists), the crowds are, as with soccer, intense from the first minute of play and inclined to be rowdy, even violent. "American crowds are sometimes very passive until the game gets very close and exciting," concludes the Spaniard. But the contrast is otherwise on court, where European play is considerably less rugged, says Gasol, who took many an untoward elbow during his first month of play.
"I noticed how rough it was in the first regular-season game, against the [Detroit] Pistons,," remembers Gasol. "I reaized I had to play harder and get stronger. So I did." He reckons that his coming of age took place in the fourth game of the 2001-02 season, against Phoenix, when he scored 27 points and gave as good as he got. "Now I can 'mix it up'with the best of them," he says, with unmistakeable pride.
Now that his idiom includes (both verbally and physically) the concept of "mixing it up," Gasol is an illustration perhaps of why it is that European players are doing so well against American-born players in the NBA. "In Europe, the big guys are maybe more versatile, playing outside and inside, doing the jumpers."
The interest in basketball and level of play in Spain have "always been good," he says. His own parents were both amateur players of note, and, though soccer is the dominant sport in Spain, "I never was interested in playing that. I always wanted basketball." With only a seven-hour time differential between the U.S. East Coast and his native Barcelona, and with a trusty VCR to record games that happened in the middle of the night by his time, Gasol was able to study the American game closely. Like other Europeans, his interest was intensified by the "dream team" of 1992, and MJ, Magic, and Larry Bird became as familiar to him as to any American fan.
It didn't hurt Gasol's prospects, of course, that he sprouted so tall. He developed a national reputation as a schoolboy player of 17 and turned pro at 19, doing so well in Spanish and European competition that he attracted a covey of NBA scouts to watch him during his final year of European play. He intends to return home eventually but hopes to play at least 10 years in America. A huge favorite in Memphis, he owns up that, on visits back to Spain, he is treated like a national idol. "Even in the [public] bathroom, when I go to pee," he says, grinning and ducking his head bashfully and thereby shedding an inch or two of his commanding height.
Gasol is anything but bashful about the future, as he sees it, of Europeans playing basketball in the United States. "There are going to be a lot of us," he prophesies. "We're proving to people that we can play here, and we're getting more confident."