NEXT HOT SPOTS
Where in the world will tomorrow's sports stars come from? The answers are mapped out inside.
BY MICHAEL J. AGOVINO
Time was when baseball was our international sport and the Dodgers its High Ambassador. (They signed Cuban P Adolfo Luque way back in '30.) Today, hoops rivals soccer in global popularity (see below), and the Mavericks are the ones cashing in. (Well, kind of.) Their most recent overseas project is this year's second-round pick, 7'1'' Wang Zhi-Zhi (see left). He'll be the NBA's first Chinese player-if he ever gets here. Their roster already includes a Croat (F Bruno Sundov), a German (F Dirk Nowitzki) and 31 scouts in Angola, Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Brazil, China, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, Nigeria, Poland, Puerto Rico, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates and Turkey (see above). Donn Nelson tops the pyramid. But it's not nepotism: Coach Don's son was an assistant coach for Lithuania's national team. Next summer's itinerary: Senegal, Nigeria and Qatar.
Australia: Let's be frank: Australia's a country of ex-cons (read your history). So it's no surprise they take X-sports seriously. Particularly inline. They have the facilities: Anyone who's anyone has skated at Melbourne's Prahran ramp or Sydney's Vert X Club. And now, they have the stars: Matt Salerno, Cesar Mora (both from Sydney) and '99's Aggressive Skaters Association vert Rookie of the Year, Shane Yost of Tasmania. Says ASA executive producer Mark Shays: "The list goes on and on." Near the top: Blake Dennis, Dion Antony and Sam Fogarty.
Brazil: It pays to start early. Seven of the current top 20 CART drivers in the world are from Brazil, which in '99 won its first Nations Cup (think Winston Cup for countries). And all seven raced (and won) in go-karts before they had licenses. If that's the key to open-wheel success, Brazilians will be opening doors for some time: Kart racing is muito grande in Brazil, surpassed only by futebol. Tarso Marques and Helio Castro-Neves are raw but ready for 2000. Emerson Fittipaldi must be proud-and not just of superstar nephew Christian.
Japan: The rage in Japanese comics in the '80s was Captain Tsubasa, a soccer-mad boy who dribbles a ball nonstop. We're not saying he influenced today's young stylish talent, but someone cranked the heat under the country's New Wave. Japan was runner-up in the last Under-20 World Cup, and individual stars are breaking out of the system: Heartthrob mid fielder Hidetoshi Nakata gets better by the week for Perugia in Italy's Serie A, and midfielder Hiroshi Nanami starts for Venezia. By the time Japan co-hosts the '02 World Cup, guys like forward Shoji Jo and midfielder Shinji Ono may have already joined them in the bigs
China: Two reasons China will be a player in hoops: 1) a billion-plus people, and 2) Nike. The latter is selling shoes to the for mer, and teaming with the Chinese Basketball Fed era tion to develop the game. If it means the odd baller winds up in the NBA, well, that's the price of free trade. First out: 7'1'', 21-year-old Wang Zhi-Zhi, drafted by the Mavs last summer (still honing his game in Beijing), and 7'5'', 19-year-old Yao Ming (as yet undrafted). He comes from the northern pro vince of Liaoning, which apparently grows them big. Says Kim Bohuny, senior director of basket ball development for the NBA: "China's emergence is just a matter of time."
Hawaii: Forget the Niners (if you haven't already). Foot ball's real dynasty is Honolulu's St. Louis School, state champs 14 years running. It's not just the islands these kids rule: On average over the past five years, SLS has sent eight alums into D-1. And in the '98 NFL draft, three SLS grads were picked: C Olin Kreutz (Bears), RB Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (Steelers) and DT Viliami Maumau (drafted by Panthers, now with Broncos). That's the first time a high school has been so blessed in 30 years. Oh, yes: Last year, following a win in Vegas, some players were put on probation when a party went awry- strippers, smashed beds, mayhem. What better sign that these kids are pro material?
Washington: In a showing usually reserved for the Sun Belt, four Washingtonians were first-rounders in this year's MLB draft (OF B.J. Garbe was picked fifth overall by the Twins). Credit the increase of "select" teams: more kids playing more ball. Credit a population influx from Cali. Credit the Mariners: The kids want to be like Junior. The beneficiaries are MLB and '97 and '98 Pac-10 champ Washington. In all, seven Huskies went in June's draft. Trees aren't all they grow in the Evergreen State.
Venezuela: The next Dominican Republic? Believe it. Half of all MLB teams have "academies" here; the Expos system, in particular, is ripe with Venezuelans. Meanwhile, tomorrow's stars are inspired by today's via DirecTV: Alfonzo, Cede└o, Vizquel, Galarraga. One Mets scout says Vene zuelans have better fundamentals than the Dominicans (see Alfonzo, Vizquel). And, in a country that stresses schooling, they pick up English and adapt to the U.S. quickly. Hotbeds: Car÷cas and Valencia (and when their teams play, it's Yankees-Red Sox, Latin-style). Up next: Melvin Mora, if the NLCS is an indicator. No wonder the Mets just added three Venezuelan scouts.
India: Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes are the Jordan and Pippen of India. The world's No. 1 doubles team (the first tandem to make all four grand slam finals, winning two) can't walk the streets of Madras or New Delhi without being mobbed. What they can do-and have done-is inspire a new generation of Indians to pick up rackets, even as their homeland hosts more Challenger events (think Triple-A baseball). Sixteen-year-old Sunil Kumar (from Punjab) and under-14 champ Chatwinder Singh (Madras) are just the first wave of hot prospects, as the second-most populous country on Earth learns to lob.
United Arab Emirates: It was 1978 when 18-year-old Abdulla Kareem El-Reyes hit the lanes for the first time, bowling a 158 at the Dubai Sheraton. The next day he rolled from 9 a.m. 'til midnight (high game: 194), and by year's end he'd founded the UAE Bowling Asso ciation. Yup, another bowling-in-the-desert success story: Today, only soccer is bigger in this seven-state federation. In November, the opening ceremony of the World Tenpin Bowl Championship was held before 35,000 fans; the tournament was covered live on TV. The PBA is watching: Insiders say Muhammed Khalifa Al Qubaisi, Hulaiman Al Hamly and Naif Oqab are Tour material. Alas, the Sheraton lanes are gone-replaced by a disco. But a 2,000-seat bowling center will open nearby in March.
Israel: You're thinking: one World Cup appearance (1970). We're saying: The Temple wasn't built (or rebuilt) in a day. Israel has been a UEFA member since '91, and playing against soccer's elite has raised its game. Israel looked good in the '98 Cup qualifiers, better in the Euro 2000 group. All of which means the big leagues can't be far behind. Already, midfielders Tal Banin (Brescia) and Eyal Berkovic (Celtic) and forward Haim Revivo (Celta Vigo) have made it to Europe. Next? Scouts say Maccabi Haifa forwards Yaniv Kattan and Rafi Cohen, and defender Arik Benado.
Senegal: Last year, Grizzly F Makhtar Ndiaye made history as the first Senegalese NBAer. More-and better-will come. Only Canada has more D-1 players this year than Senegal's dozen, which includes a trio of NBA prospects (Auburn C Mamadou Ndiaye, Kentucky F Jules Camara and UConn F/C Souleymane Wane). Senegal has only one in door court (in the capital, Dakar), but that hasn't kept the country's John Wooden-Mamadou Sow-from spreading the game throughout the country. The women also got game: They dominate African tourneys, and C Astou Ndiaye plays for the WNBA's Detroit Shock. Take heed: A second indoor court is coming.
Lithuania: Lithuanian hoops history starts way before those tie-dyed uniforms: They've been ballin' since the '30s, when Lithuanian-American Frank Lubin (a gold medalist with the U.S.) brought the game to the Baltic. And it's finally paying off: The Lithuanians bronzed in '92. More to the point (or to the paint), Kaunas, the country's second-largest city, has become a hoops factory: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Arvydas Sabonis are hometown boys, and three favorite sons are D-1 worthy: Clemson F Andrius Jurkunas, Delaware G Kestutis Marciulionis and G Ramunas Petraitis of Oregon State. It won't stop here-the "commissioner" of the Lithuanian Basketball League is a friend of U.S. hoops: Sarunas Marciulionis, who wore one of those goofy unis and had a nice run with the Warriors and Sonics.
Germany: "Boxing renaissance" is an oxymoron, but here's one spot where pugilism still cooks. The recipe: Mix two aggressive, sleaze-free promoters (Wilfried Sauerland and Klaus-Peter Kohl), add sponsorship green and spice with the legacy of an old champ (IBF light-heavy Henry Maske). The German fight scene is tasty enough to attract boxers from all over: Uzbekistani Artur Grigorian (WBO lightweight champ), Pole Dariusz Michalczewski (longtime WBO light-heavy champ), Russian Ahmed Kotiev (WBO welterweight champ) and Cuban Juan Carlos Gomez (WBC cruiserweight champ). But the home grown talent isn't shabby either. No, not Axel Schultz-Sven Ottke is IBF super-middleweight champ and Michel Trabant is a 23-0 welterweight.
Sweden: Sweden as hockey hot spot? Duh! But a one-reindeer town north of everywhere as hockey's epicenter? That's a little cool, right? Little ■rnskldsvik has already produced Peter Forsberg (Avs), Niklas Sundstrom (Sharks) and Canucks Markus Naslund and David Ytfeldt. Now come the Sedin twins-Daniel and Henrik-drafted 2 and 3 overall by Vancouver last June. They still play for the local (and legendary) club, MoDo Hockey, as do highly touted linemate Mattias Weinhandl and C Samuel Pahlsson, another local. Ex-MoDo Hockey coach Carlabel Berglund is the magic maker. Says former Ranger and O-vik native Anders Hedberg: "He put hockey in O-vik's soul."
Taiwan: Japan and Korea are so two years ago. Asia's new diamond power is Taiwan. The Dodgers (of course) were first in, snagging 18-year-old lefty Hong-Chih Kuo and 21-year-old OF Chin-Feng Chen, MVP of the California (A) League. And the Rockies paid their biggest amateur signing bonus ever ($2.2 mil) for 18-year-old righty Tsao Chin-Hui. Put simply, all those Little League All-Stars (Chin-Feng Chen batted leadoff for the '90 LLWS champs) are growing up: In August's IBA World Junior Championship, Taiwan was second only to the U.S. Scouts are currently sniffing around a trio of pitchers: Tsai Chung-Nan (Taipei Physical Education College), Tsao Chun-Yang (Painan Lions in Taiwan) and Hsu Ming-Chieh (Seibu Lions in Japan).