NBA dreams deferred, Seattle players look overseas for court time

Deric Gruen poses with a fan during a stint with Lebanon’s pro-am basketball league. (Photo courtesy of Deric Gruen)

As the Seattle city council ponders a vote approving bonds for a new arena that could bring back men’s professional basketball, the summer Olympics proved the game’s popularity is still growing quickly overseas.

The U.S. men’s basketball team sped past Spain for a gold medal in the summer Olympics, but other countries showed burgeoning strength. Between the Olympic games and overseas leagues and tournaments, international basketball serves as both a professional and cultural landing pad for Seattle-area players and a recruiting pool for U.S. teams.

This year, 42 out of the 144 Men’s Olympic basketball players are in the NBA , while Tunisia was the only qualified team that lacked an NBA player. In the last full season, the NBA counted 84 international players from 40 countries, a rapid expansion from the 21 foreign-born players on the roster for the first Olympic “Dream Team” in 1992.

Far from the gold medal platform, my own experience with overseas professional basketball came in a matchup against Fadi, captain of the Lebanese national basketball team. He soared from behind to smack my fast break dunk attempt to the sidelines. I never saw him coming.

In this year’s summer olympics, 42 of 144 basketball players are in the NBA. This inforgraphic shows the globalization of men’s basketball, defined by international players. (Graphic via pronto.com)

I flirted with Pro-Am basketball and various ventures like the 3BA, a full court, 3-on-3 style league which started in Seattle. After realizing the league was doomed from success, I asked a friend to connect me to his agent in Beirut on a trip in 2009.

Before I knew it I was working out with Champville, the top team, and played in a match in the interior city of Zahlé. I was impressed by the passionate community turnout, including what looked like the chamber of commerce lining the front row.  Basketball overseas is often sport of means, played in private clubs.

In a place like Lebanon, these clubs can mix class, politics and even religion into the game, complicating the experience. I’ve heard stories of overseas American players spending all their free time playing video games, avoiding their new surroundings .

Still it’s an attractive alternative to the NBA for many Seattle high-school and college stars seeking to make a career in basketball. Guys like Tre Simmons who, after his stint at UW, went on to play in Greece, Spain, Russia, and Israel, where he won a league championship.

A lesser known Garfield grad, Marcelous Kemp has made waves in Italy. Former UW point guards, Will Conroy and Justin Dentmon, have excelled both overseas and in the NBA development league. And they have been called up for short contracts in the NBA after playing time abroad.  There are countless lesser known locals filling the two or so foreign-players-per-team limit in all divisions of basketball in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

Seattle is also home to overseas talent looking to break into U.S. leagues. Detlef Schrempf, is most certainly Seattle’s most renowned men’s pro basketball import.  He played for both UW and the Sonics and reportedly still calls Seattle home.  The Storm have three international players, with star forward Lauren Jackson from Australia leading the way.

Spain’s Gasol drives past Love of the U.S. during the men’s gold medal basketball game at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Gasol is one of the growing numbers of international NBA players, a trend hinting toward an explosion of the sport in other countries. (Reuters/Eric Gay)

Seattle University’s men’s roster is geographically diverse with representatives from Brazil, Australia, the UK and BC in our own backyard.  The UW men’s team includes players from Germany for the fifth time, as well as Belgium and Senegal.

Seattle trainers get gigs training pros from Korea while Seattle players head overseas for different perspectives on the game.  Next week the Husky Men’s Basketball travels to Spain, France, Monaco, and Senegal on a 15-day trip.

While I was in Senegal in 2010, I stumbled upon my second experience with international basketball. This time it was a second division pro-team in the isolated town of Ziguinchor.  They played late nights and outdoors on concrete, under dim lights with a coach that held little hope for their success. Although he did say great things about the division 1 women’s team.

While Senegal remains a soccer focused nation, Brazil, where the “beautiful game” is king, has also been producing NBA talent, including four current players, such as the talented Nenê.

U.S. stars wet the world’s appetite during the lockout last year, when NBA talents, including Kobe Bryant, expressed an interest in playing overseas. The NBA certainly sees the world as a ripe market. Although plans to develop China‘s national league haven’t lived up to expectations, the emergence of Jeremy Lin in the footsteps of Yao Ming, may have created a spark the league needed.

Lebanese youth play in a Gam3 tournament, a program designed to empower youth and encourage conflict management. (Photo by Deric Gruen)

At the grassroots level, overseas fans that prefer the American’s version of the game are seeking to bring basketball out of the club and onto the streets.  I spent a day with Gam3 Lebanon, which sees “street-ball” as a venue to empower youth and prevent conflict and marginalization.  In Mozambique, I watched a dunk contest that hinted at the American And1 Mixtape tour.

For now we have to wait and see what happens for men’s pro basketball in Seattle. But if you are anxious for a show, the Storm has home games all this week. Local NBA stars like Nate Robinson, Tony Wroten Jr.and Jamal Crawford also put on a show every weekend through August at the Jamal Crawford Summer League. Check them out at the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club.

Deric Gruen is a Seattle native who has traveled the globe on two legs, two wheels and uncounted barrels of oil. Deric works to offset his travel emissions leading the sustainability intiatives at Bellevue College. Deric founded Critical Mass Beirut, interned in Caribbean Affairs in the other Washington, volunteered in community development in Rio de Janeiro and assisted international delegations as a specialist for the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle.

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