It's a running gag in the Liberty Ballers email thread that I'm crazygonuts for foreign players. I've agitated for two drafts in a row for the Sixers to draft Dario Saric, thrown shit when they took Michael Carter-Williams instead of Sergey Karasev in 2013 and threw a nutty when Alexey Shved was one of the pieces that came back for Thaddeus Young last week.
My throbbing, turgid hard-on for players born outside North America is mostly about players from Eastern Europe, though not entirely: In addition to gushing over every Ivan, Jakub and Sergei who comes over the Atlantic, I continue to carry an inexplicable torch for Matthew Dellevadova and am the last living defender of both Bismack Biyombo and Hasheem Thabeet.
Like most irrational positions, this one's not really easy to defend--you can't say "I like" something and be objectively right unless you're talking about Turkish food, which is the only thing I like more than Turkish basketball players. But like most irrational positions, it's got to have some empirical, historical root.
After he caught me chanting "SHVED! SHVED! SHVED! SHVED!" after the Thad trade, Jake Pavorsky challenged me to find and explain those roots. Because Alexey Shved, by any rational measure, blows at basketball. Last year, among 71 point guards listed by ESPN.com, Shved finished 62nd in PER and tied for 65th in true shooting percentage. And because Jake's a good editor, he wanted, I'm sure, to know why one of his writers is building a monument to a player who can best be described as "marginally better than 40-year-old Derek Fisher."
Here are my reasons.
There's no thrill I have as a sports fan that's like watching the United States compete internationally in a sport that I enjoy and follow. As of this moment, there are only two routine best-on-best, high-stakes competitions that feature Americans competing against equals with national pride on the line: the Olympic ice hockey tournament and the FIFA World Cup. One day, Olympic basketball, or whatever NBA-sanctioned tournament replaces it when Mark Cuban's insistence on acting like he literally owns his players, might get there, but at the moment, there's not a nation in the world that can challenge the United States, routinely, when the Americans bring their best players.
They've been playing men's basketball at the Olympics since 1936. When 1) the head of FIBA isn't brazenly match-fixing from the sidelines of the gold medal game and 2) the USA isn't carrying the millstone of Oliver Purnell on its coaching staff, the United States has never lost. Not only has the United States won every gold medal, it's won every game.
And I'm sorry, that's boring. I'm all about American supremacy and exceptionalism, but I not only want my team to win, I want it to scare me a little along the way, to hide the fact that America is picking on an inferior class of nation-state through sport.
Only getting to feel the thrill of patriotic athleticism twice every four years has led me to get way too worked up about the Ryder Cup and America's Cup in recent years. I'm not proud of this, because golf and sailing are class warfare, and I don't countenance their existence because my name doesn't appear in the Social Register and my ancestors didn't own slaves. But until and unless international basketball gets competitive or the best players start going to the World Baseball Classic, that'll have to do.
We'll get to the point where basketball is as competitive as soccer when other nations start valuing it the way Americans do. And we've made tremendous progress in the past 30 years, thanks in large part to cultural exchange: European players holding their own against Americans in international competition and in the NBA. As that continues, the playing field will be come more level and international basketball will grow both in entertainment value and prestige.
My two favorite NBA teams of all time are the 2001-02 Kings and 2008-09 Magic. That Magic team in particular played an offensive style that I, to this day, consider to be the most beautiful I've ever seen, certainly in basketball, perhaps in all of sports. They ran the offense through Hedo Turkoglu, a 6-foot-10 point forward with lead feet and a good outsider jumper, and instead of a real power forward, they started Rashard Lewis at the 4, spacing the floor even further. Dwight Howard stood on the post and in the backcourt, they played Rafer Alston and a 3-and-D 2-guard (either Courtney Lee or Mikael Pietrus) who could stand in the corner and exert no energy whatsoever on offense, therefore saving himself to guard either Paul Pierce or LeBron James when the Magic lost the ball.
It was mesmerizing. Turkoglu would just stand there with the ball or work screens while three shooters tried to get open, and because their offensive roles were so abnormal, the Magic caused the other Eastern Conference teams fits. Turkoglu ran that offense like a very good playmaking midfielder, like a Zinedine Zidane, Andrea Pirlo or Mesut Ozil, never really breaking more than a brisk stroll, but somehow seeing the incisive last pass or making the crucial shot that unlocked the defense.
That Kings team also had a young Turkoglu, as well as probably the best pair of passing bigs in NBA history (Chris Webber and Vlade Divac) and Peja Stojakovic, another taller wing who could score enough to keep the pressure off Webber and Mike Bibby offensively. They too were a team that, despite having a good point guard, used the skill of their forwards to create mismatches and find the open man.
I like the idea of a multilingual, multicultural locker room--if basketball is a global game, let's have it represent a variety of cultures. Let Toni Kukoc teach Steve Kerr about a Croatian-style pregame meal.
And I don't care if this sounds provincial, but Anglo-American names are boring. Here's a partial list of names that are more fun to say than, like, Kevin Durant or Jason Smith or whatever:
- Giannis Antetokoumnpo
- Drazen Petrovic
- Bostjan Nachbar
- Mickael Gelabale
- Sarunas Jasikevicius
- Detlef Schrempf
- Dino Radja
- Thabo Sefolosha
- Andrea Bargnani
- Peja Stojakovic
- Viktor Khyrapa
- Ersan Ilyasova
- Ricky Rubio
- Jorge Garbajosa
- Arvydas Sabonis
- Bogdan Bogdanovic
- Mirza Teletovic
- Zoran Dragic
- Goran Dragic
- Hedo Turkoglu
I think I'm in love with Hedo Turkoglu.
As much as I, as an awkward, hairy white guy, like seeing other awkward hairy white guys run house, and as fun as it is to say all those names, the truth is that I'm probably not as in love with European basketball players as I am in love with the stereotype of the European basketball player.
There are archetypes of basketball players that I love. The chucker, the leap-out-the-gym wing, the beanpole shot blocker, and you can find most of the players I identify as my favorites in one of those archetypes. But there are two I hold in the highest esteem: the point forward and the passing big.
And not all of those are Europeans. We think of point forwards as being guys like Turkoglu, Kukoc and, one day, Dario Saric, but Americans do this. The same with the passing big--there might not have been a better passing big man than Webber, who's as American as Ulysses S. Grant riding a bald eagle and singning "Born to Run." After Nowitzki came Durant, after Divac came Bosh, and so on.
What I love is less than the European player than the stereotype of the European player--the long, skilled stretch 4 with eyes in the back of his head and range out the building. In fact, my idealized basketball team would be, to revisit the soccer metaphor, a "Total Basketball" style, in which five men of relatively similar size, all of whom are capable of running, passing, shooting and defending, share the floor and the ball and run a fluid finesse offense. It is, I'm relieved to say, the kind of basketball to which the game seems to be evolving, particularly after the physical, iso-heavy American style was so entirely dismantled in international competition in the early-2000s.
What does that have to do with Shved? Shved, who's shot 35.8 percent from the floor in his career? Well, part of it is that I'm the kind of basketball fan who never gets over prospect crushes, and Shved averaged 11.4 points and 5.9 assists per game at the 2012 Olympics, including 25 and 7 in the bronze medal game, and I still have that box score taped to the inside of my locker, and whenever I look at it I hear "Stolen" by Dashboard Confessional and cry a little. It's weird, I know, but it's nowhere near as weird as Levin still not being over Joe Alexander.
The other thing is that apart from 80 games of Toni Kukoc and Marko Milic's car dunk video, the Sixers haven't had a big-time international star since I've been a fan, and I need something, anything to latch on to until Joel Embiid and Dario Saric become those stars four years from now.
It's something to hold on to, until the next Hedo Turkoglu comes along.