Made not in America
Is avoiding American players the secret to the Spurs' success?
29°25'36.39" N, 98°26'14.34"
AT&T Center, San Antonio, 2013
"Stone cold" is a distinctly American term. So you could forgive Tiago Splitter's question. The San Antonio Spurs are in a scouting meeting, moments before tip-off against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Assistant coach Brett Brown is explaining a defensive alignment -- a "red," where two Spurs defenders switch off a pick. To emphasize his point, Brown declares it a stone-cold certainty the Spurs will face that situation in tonight's game.
Nine of the Spurs' 15 players this year were raised and trained outside of the United States -- an NBA record. Cultural and linguistic confusion happens often on this team. Enter Splitter, a 6'11", 28-year-old center from Brazil by way of Spain, who this season was the latest to consummate the transition from overseas superstar to selfless Spur. Splitter raises his hand, narrows his brow sharp as a rooftop and says, "What is stone cold?"
The team laughs. Head coach Gregg Popovich laughs. Splitter laughs too -- but he still needs an answer. So Brown explains what he meant. Then Splitter turns to Patty Mills, a guard from Australia, and whispers, "Stone cold isn't in Rosetta Stone."
50°56'15.11" N, 6°57'37.00" E
Cologne, West Germany, 1988
As coaches go, Popovich is a pretty worldly guy. He majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy. He speaks Russian and Serbian. He played on military basketball teams during his stint in the armed forces, traveling Eastern Europe in the '70s. Even then, he knew that the foreign guys were a mostly untapped wealth of talent. So in the late '80s, as an assistant coach with the Spurs, Pop traveled to see the European championships in Cologne. The only other NBA coach there was Don Nelson. Pop knew the stigmas against foreign players: They wouldn't play defense, they wouldn't socialize, they wouldn't learn English, they weren't strong dribblers, they couldn't handle a reduced role, they were soft. "I thought that was really ignorant," Pop says now. "I couldn't believe that it was a pool that wasn't being used."
Decades later, with Pop's mentality and some luck, the core of the Spurs -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, international players all -- have helped produce the most consistent winner in the four major sports over the past 15 years, victorious 70.3 percent of the time during that stretch. They've reached the NBA Finals five times and, as of June 10, were three wins away from a fifth championship. And through it all, as Pop's international strategy has become the strategy in the NBA -- seven GMs and five head coaches this past season grew from the Spurs' tree -- it's always been framed in Moneyball terms: Go somewhere other teams aren't, find talent nobody else finds. But to spend time inside the Spurs organization today is to uncover another interpretation of the Spurs dynasty: that as America's youth basketball pipeline has produced a type of player that Pop has no interest in coaching, he has found an advantage not only in targeting international players but in avoiding domestic ones.
40°40'51.09" N, 73°47'30.88" W
South Jamaica, N.Y., 2013
The anti-Spurs are playing in a stuffy gym in Queens. New Jersey's Playaz Basketball Club and the New York City Jayhawks -- two AAU teams, the former among the nation's premiere squads and the latter a relative upstart -- are facing off in the IS8 Tournament. It's a small showcase, during the down months when college coaches aren't allowed to attend games, so missing is the usual swirling circus of middlemen and power brokers and recruiters and other fishy sycophants who are as ubiquitous at tournaments as the Swoosh. The larger summer events are, as one college coach says, "sick. You see coaches, street agents, pedophiles, guys who want to hang around the players because of money or ego."
Youth basketball's beauties and alarms, depending how you look at it, are evident from the opening tip. On an early possession, one of the Jayhawks spins, dribbles, loses and regains balance -- holding the ball for what seems like an eternity -- before drawing contact and hitting a layup. "And one!" he yells. A few possessions later, one of the Playaz dribbles up the floor, barreling through every Jayhawk like a fullback as his teammates stand alone, and throws up a wild layup, nowhere close.
29°31'35.87" N, 98°35'35.65" W
1 Spurs Lane, San Antonio, 2013
Near a mural in his office, Spurs general manager R.C. Buford has just finished reading an article. The mural is an action shot of a Spurs game, but it's really of an era and a mentality frozen in time. Parker's arms are extended, following through after a pass to Ginobili, who's shooting a layup. Duncan is under the glass, not leaping to dunk a potential Ginobili miss but boxing out. Three future Hall of Famers, including one whom many fans -- and not just in San Antonio -- consider the premier player of his era, all playing hero-agnostic basketball.
The article that Buford has finished, printed from ESPN.com, sits on his desk. Its headline: "The Entitlement Culture of Elite HS Hoops." In it, recruiting analyst Dave Telep writes about not only witnessing AAU players complain about the food at a Ritz in California during a tournament but also what he calls the slow and steady crumble of American grassroots basketball: loafing, lousy fundamentals, a pervasive disinterest from players in showcasing anything but themselves.
Buford had lived much of what he read. With two sons who recently played college basketball and rose through the AAU scene, Buford has had a floor seat to the yawning divide in how the game is taught in America and overseas. In AAU, anyone who pays a $16 fee and finishes a background check and an online clinic can coach. In the FIBA club system in Europe, although requirements vary from country to country, coaches must earn various licenses, which often require them to complete intensive training, covering everything from X's and O's to nutrition. The U.S. has the NCAA serving as a conflicted arbiter of both the players' time and money; there is no pretense of amateurism overseas, and for better or worse, practices often last hours longer than our regulated college ones. The Spurs, of course, are not in the business of worrying about the demands on a student-athlete's time and saw it as a plus that guys like Ginobili and Parker had been playing club basketball since they were teenagers, schooled by accredited coaches, the 10,000-hour rule brought to the hardwood. Consider Pop's brutal assessment that foreign players are "fundamentally harder working than most American kids," and it's no wonder the Spurs want to avoid the fate of so many NBA teams, which are, as Buford says, "the end of the road for the developmental habits that are built in the less-structured environment in the U.S."
The way the Spurs see it, though, the biggest divide isn't structural but cultural. Something has happened to basketball in the country that invented it, as well-documented as it as irrevocable, driven by money and fame and a generation of players who've learned from watching sharks succeed by imposing their will upon the game rather than by allowing it to come to them. It used to be that a team needed a transcendent talent to execute a star system; now, it needs a transcendent talent -- LeBron James or Duncan -- to show that it's permissible to be unselfish. Consider that the U.S. has won only two of the major world junior championships in the past 26 years -- not even in 2007, with Stephen Curry and Michael Beasley on the roster -- and the root rot of the U.S. system is all the more clear. "That's a statement about where we are," Buford says. "When we put our best players together, we aren't playing well."
Most of the foreign players not only have more experience playing basketball but more experience playing an unselfish style, with lots of passing and motion and screens, as messy as it is pure. As Spurs director of basketball operations Sean Marks, a New Zealander who played for San Antonio for two seasons, puts it, "The ball doesn't stick." For better or worse, the ball often sticks in America. A few months ago, Pop was scouting an opponent. He won't say which one. On video, Pop saw an international player wide open for a shot, with a confused look on his face. That's because his point guard, an American, was dribbling in circles. "It has to be a really different experience for him," Pop says, laughing. " 'Where am I? Is this is a different game? Is it a different sport?' "
Of course, Pop's coaching style, as prescient as it is curmudgeonly, isn't for everyone. He's demanding and ruthless; his playbook is pick-and-roll heavy, more structured and complicated than European ball but a blood relative. The traits he scouts for -- players with "character," who've "gotten over themselves, who understand team play, who can cheer for a teammate," who "don't make excuses" -- hold true regardless of nationality. The NBA draft, more than the draft in any other sport, is based on potential. With only two rounds, GMs can't miss, and when Pop looks at American talent he sees many players who "have been coddled since eighth, ninth, 10th grade by various factions or groups of people. But the foreign kids don't live with that. So they don't feel entitled," he says, noting how many clubs work on fundamentals in two-a-day practices, each lasting up to three hours. "Now, you can't paint it with too wide of a brush, but in general, that's a fact."
And so it's no surprise that Pop would rather teach unentitled foreign players to be selfless than try to teach entitled domestic players to suppress their egos. The international kids, he says, "have less. They appreciate things more. And they're very coachable." Of course, it's much easier when his best player, Duncan, who was raised in the Virgin Islands and learned the game by playing point guard in pickup games on a rugged outdoor court, is best known for putting team first; when Parker, raised in France, is okay trading stats for wins; when Ginobili, raised in Argentina, is fine coming off the bench. And the Spurs have whiffed on imports (Luis Scola) and scored with Americans (Kawhi Leonard). Still, there's a different vibe in the Spurs facility, as if deplaning in a foreign airport. Argentine reporters stand next to American ones. In practice, Ginobili calls for a screen by saying, "Tienes que poner el bloqueo aca!" The diversity -- San Antonio's roster has players from seven countries and territories -- is a binding force. When Pop talks about his players, a coach who's best known for frowning one-word answers turns not only expansive and animated, waving his arms and laughing, but proud. As he sits on a bench near the team's practice courts, watching Duncan shoot free throws on his day off, he smiles as he sees one of his foreign-born players and foreign-born front office guys hug in the hallway. "It's a family here," Pop says. "It's just geometric, and it creates a mixed culture that we've all enjoyed tremendously."
Of course, Pop enjoys it most because they win. None of the Spurs rank high in points per game, the quintessential American stat. But not only were three Spurs among the top 12 players in Win Shares per 48 minutes for the 2012-13 season, they also join with Marc Gasol, the Memphis Grizzlies center from Spain, as the only non-Americans on the list. Parker, at .206, ranked fifth. Duncan's .191 was 12th. Ginobili, with a lifetime average of .211, would have easily qualified if he had been healthy. And ranking eighth was Splitter, the former international superstar who has had to train both his game and mind to relish the thankless tasks Pop demands of him.
42°50'59.29" N, 2°40'22.81" W
Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain, 2000
How many NBA players have a LinkedIn profile? Splitter does. His profession: "Basketball Player at San Antonio Spurs (2010-present)". From 2000 to 2010, the Brazilian native's profile reads, he was a "jugador" at Baskonia, a Spanish club; he signed on at age 15, and there he won 24 awards, championships or gold medals in overseas tournaments, including Spanish League MVP and finals MVP. He was, as Ginobili says, "one of the best centers in the world." And should he ever need proof of that (or require emotional support after being posterized by LeBron James), four LinkedIn members have "endorsed" his "skills and expertise."
Splitter was practically born into basketball. His father, Cassio, played in college, and his sister, Michelle, was a dominating 6'6" player until she died of leukemia in 2009. Splitter first played when he was 7, and within a decade -- as a nimble center as fluent in pick-and-rolls as he is in Portuguese, Spanish, German and English -- American coaches recruited him to attend high school in the States. He was intrigued, until the coaches told him that his parents would have to pay for everything. So he stayed in Europe, and at 15 signed a 10-year contract to play with Baskonia. Buford first scouted him a year later, and two seasons after that, considered 18-year-old Splitter "the best player in the junior world tournament."
Splitter's experience in the club system was not different from most, but it was still more structured and demanding than the traditional American hoops upbringing. He would attend school all day, and in the evening rotated between practice -- sometimes three hours of nothing but fundamentals -- and video, studying Shaq, Kevin Garnett and, most of all, Duncan, his idol, the reason he wore No. 21. Splitter's coach, Dusko Ivanovic, was sort of a Spanish Popovich, minus the charm and the legacy. "He was tough," Splitter says. "Everything was about work and sacrifice and about the team. No excuses. So I grew up fast."
The Spurs drafted Splitter in 2007, but due to contractual buyout issues -- a peril of relying on international players -- Splitter didn't join the team. Three years later, though, Splitter opted out of his contract and arrived in San Antonio at age 25 with the most local hype of any big man since Duncan. Splitter was amazed at how much Americans could do in drive-thrus (go to the bank, get coffee, eat). It was far from the only thing he would have to learn. He soon discovered that for as much as the Spurs' scheme seems European, with its emphasis on pick-and-rolls rather than isolation plays, they're still the Spurs, and it's still the NBA. With a new playbook, new country, new court dimensions and a new role, Splitter "had to learn to play again, basically," Duncan says.
If a benefit of drafting foreign players is that they arrive with more experience than one-and-done kids, a risk is that they're also too set in their ways. Splitter's shot -- a jerky thing capped with an odd finger flick in his follow-through -- had to be retooled by Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland, renowned for his quiet magic. Limited by injuries and expectations and adjustments, Splitter started only eight games his first two years. Just as every AAU player isn't selfish, every foreign player isn't egoless, and Splitter now says that midway through his first year he was angry that he wasn't seeing more minutes. At one point, Pop told him: "Tiago, I know you're having a hard time. But your time will come. Just keep working. Keep coming to the gym willing to practice." Most of the Spurs' imports have heard a version of that conversation. Parker heard it. Ginobili heard it. The only one who hasn't is Duncan, the unspoken focal point. It's a conversation that Pop doesn't like to have twice, the moment when the characteristics that he scouts for either prove true or don't. And if they don't, the Spurs will ruthlessly cut their losses and move on, as they did with Hedo Turkoglu, George Hill and Stephen Jackson. Splitter, though, worked after practice on his shooting, worked during the lockout with Duncan, and his free throw percentage rose from 54.3 percent as a rookie to 73 percent this season, when he led the team in games played with 81. His job is to execute the invisible stuff: set screens, bang under the boards, find the open man, alter shots. And with seconds left in regulation of Game 3 in the Western Conference finals against the Grizzlies, score tied, Splitter forced guard Mike Conley to put up a shot so high and wild off the glass that it didn't touch the rim. That didn't show up on the stat sheet, but it helped the Spurs to win in overtime.
"He realizes that I might call his number zero times, and he's okay with that," Pop says. "He can do it because of the character he has, because of the way he grew up, because his method of operation is to be a coachable, hard-working individual who wants to help his team win. That's how he's built. That's why we love him."
And that's why the Spurs consider Splitter so flexible as to be invaluable. A restricted free agent this summer whom Buford expects to "go forward with for a long time," he averaged 10.3 points this season by exploiting scraps and leftovers, a "subterfuge type of offense," as Pop says. Break down Hoopdata's shot locations tracker by the two smartest types of looks -- close range and threes -- and you find that Splitter was the fifth-most-efficient regular center in the league, at 73.1 percent of his attempts, ahead of Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett. It's a very Spurs stat. "I'm not going to win games shooting outside," Splitter says.
Sometimes, though, he seems to pine to break out of his role. After practice, Splitter and the guards often compete to see who can drain more threes. In the first round against the Lakers, Pop subbed Matt Bonner for Splitter, who needed a breather after his smothering defense had erased Howard. Bonner is the rare big man capable of draining shots from beyond the arc. After Bonner hit one, Pop walked down the bench and hunched over Splitter. "Don't shoot threes," Pop said. Splitter looked confused. Then Pop smiled.
40°40'51.09" N, 73°47'30.88" W
South Jamaica, N.Y., 2013
Back in Queens, as the Jayhawks break out to a 23-10 lead, the basketball alternates between beautiful and sloppy. One college coach estimates that a handful of players on the court could end up playing for Division I schools. Not surprising, considering that few AAU circuits produce so many stars. Kobe was once a Playa, and Spurs forward Danny Green, who has proved to be both the norm and the exception to Pop's scouting rule, played for a rival New York AAU team.
As a free agent in 2010, Green was signed by the Spurs and released a week later after showing little desire to conform to their team-first style. But shortly after he was cut, Green left Popovich a voice mail begging for another chance, offering to execute any role, no matter how small. Pop re-signed Green in March of that season, and now he's not only "grown within the system," as Green recently told ESPN.com, but often featured: He hit six of nine shots in San Antonio's Game 1 victory over the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals.
Still, playing on the same courts as NBA legends can produce the burden of unrealistic expectations. One of the biggest headaches for college coaches is that many players have been told since a young age that they possess NBA talent. "Every player expects to be in the league," says one college coach. "And worse, every kid's parent expects them to be in the NBA." Only marquee names -- Coack K, Bill Self -- have the juice and the job stability to convince McDonald's All Americans of the glory in passing and defense. Most coaches are forced by their lack of security, and the one-and-done rule, to compromise their playbooks, if not their ethics, to land top talent. And some of those players aren't raised to handle criticism, which is as amplified on the biggest stage as it is unalterable. "My belief," Pop says, "is that people am who they am."
Ultimately, the Playaz rally. As New Jersey draws closer, the Jayhawks, with no shot clock, turn to a four-corners offense. (Hey, it's passing.) Each time a Playa is at the free throw line, the Jayhawks coach shouts "Touch the shooter!" the instant he releases -- adding classlessness onto slop. But the Playaz's comeback falls short, 72-66. After the game, the guys shake hands, then they're off to their next tournament. It's only one game, only two teams, with players that, who knows, might reach the NBA someday. Just not San Antonio.
37°45'0.58" N, 122°12'10.62" W
Oracle Arena, Oakland, Calif.
Game 6, Western Conference semifinals, Spurs vs. Warriors, 2013
Splitter looks tired. He jogs down the floor after playing defense and stops at the top of the free throw line. It's the fourth quarter. His hands are on his knees; he will play more minutes in this game than any other of the series. Spurs guard Cory Joseph, from the right side of the three-point line, passes to Ginobili. Splitter sets an off-ball screen for Joseph. Then Splitter rolls off that screen to set another, for Ginobili, who dribbles right, stops and cuts left. Splitter pivots and sets him another pick, his body absorbing blows at every turn, jerking back and forth as if standing on a turbulent plane. Ginobili then passes to Boris Diaw, a French big man. Splitter drifts toward the basket, ready to rebound. But Diaw, like a shortstop, catches and fires to Splitter in one fluid motion.
Splitter finishes with a righthanded layup, and on the way up the court, he raises his arm to Diaw, a toast from one foreigner to another, and returns to his thankless banging.
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