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Friday, June 25, 2010
Talent drought for NBA? Time for Maradona

Friday, 12:17 a.m., a West Village couch.

As producer of Off the Ball, I've spent the past several weeks fully immersed in all things World Cup and have gone from casual fan to addict seemingly overnight. I'm a traditional American sports fan who understood the basics of the game and now, working with Michael Davies, Roger Bennett and our guests, I'm basking in the nuances that make footy so beloved. I am now certain that some of my favorite sports have something to learn from the beautiful game. First up, basketball.

While the World Cup has transfixed most of the world in the same sort of Bretton Woodsy internationalism that provokes Glenn Beck tantrums, the NBA, long a cornerstone of sport-as-barometer-for-globalism arguments, served up its weakest international draft class since early in Bill Clinton's first term. The only name that gave commissioner David Stern even a moment of pause was the 17th pick, a French Guyanan developmental forward named Kevin Seraphin. C'mon, not a single African big man, eastern European sharpshooter or South American slasher until deputy commissioner Adam Silver started announcing picks?

As a lifelong basketball lover, I'm worried that this international basketball talent drought is indicative of dark days ahead for basketball. Three weeks ago, NBA global dominance seemed like a foregone conclusion. Now the NBA's slow and steady trip toward making basketball the 21st century's global game suddenly seems more like a quixotic quest.

I've spent the past two weeks almost exclusively watching, reading about and discussing the World Cup and have been blown away by the athleticism on display. As an American, I'm predisposed to agree with the Bill Simmons' hypothesis that if we put a soccer ball instead of a basketball in the cribs of every American, we would dominate the sport. But, as Michael Davies often counters, "What if you put a basketball in all the cribs throughout Europe, South America and Africa?" Well, having seen this World Cup, I can clearly state that a generation into the "Basketballs Across the World" campaign, the NBA would be a truly global league and the most talent-rich, competitive league in human history.

But, how do we get the basketballs in the cribs? How do we ensure that Roger Bennett's newborn son never has to sit through a NBA draft so devoid of foreign flavor?

Well, hoops fans, I believe that this World Cup carries within it a secret; one which when revealed will catapult basketball to previously unfathomable heights. And this secret has nothing to do with shoddy ball technology, a la the much-maligned Jabulani, Balki Bartokomous to its American cousin Larry, the NBA synthetic ball (RIP, 2006-2006).

The secret is simply this: Diego Maradona.

Yes, Diego Maradona is the future of basketball.

NBA fans who have had the pleasure of taking in any of Argentina's three World Cup group matches may have a hunch of what I'm getting at here. The Argentinean side, shrouded in controversy in the months leading up to the World Cup, has displayed a confident and artistic brand of football reminiscent of the Showtime-era Lakers. Theirs is a delightful incarnation of the beautiful game, one that any true sports fan can appreciate. It is a style shaped in the mold of their coach, Maradona. And I believe he can replicate this style and panache on the NBA hardcourt.

No matter how well the Argentines play, nothing shines more brilliantly than Maradona himself. This bearded mad man prowls the sidelines like a manic Zach Galifianakis, all 5-foot-5, 200 pounds of past-his-prime glory packed tightly into what ESPN broadcasters insist upon calling a "$4,000 suit," his ears glittering with diamonds that would look right at home in a NBA postgame news conference, hands tirelessly working his rosary like a disgraced nun in a Pedro Almodovar film. As Maradona exhorts his team ever-forward, I see a future in which this diminutive soccer legend leads NBAers twice his size to multiple Larry O'Brien trophies. The ripple effect will make the NBA a lot more fun and inspire the world's youth to pick up their footballs and shoot them into makeshift hoops.

Imagine an NBA with Diego Maradona calling the shots from the pine, dressing down incompetent officials and inciting epic multiyear feuds with other coaches, bear-hugging his players after meaningless 20-point wins in December and Jeff Van Gundying surly opponents in tense March battles. As it stands, Mike D'Antoni is the NBA coach with the most globalized identity but, his run at Olimpia Milano and old-world surname notwithstanding, he is still just a dude from West Virginia at heart. Diego, not D'Antoni, is the man who will inspire a new generation of foreign talent and help the NBA and the game of basketball compete with soccer as the dominant global sport.

There is no denying that a dose of Maradona on NBA sidelines would be entertainment of the highest order. Maradona will handily shatter Rasheed Wallace's DiMaggio-like season record for technical fouls (41) and he might even occasionally turn over some jewelry to foreign authorities to pay down back taxes. I recognize this idea is not without its flaws (we know he loves basketball but does he know the game?), but I'm working on a plan to make this dream a reality, but I need your help to do it.

Tweet me @doconnorDOC or post your suggestions in the comments below. Together, we can bring Diego Maradona to an NBA arena near you.