The Globalization of Basketball: Latin America (Part 2)
Zapatista backboard, Chiapas, Mexico.
Belize is an underdeveloped dreamer of a basketball nation. They may need a miracle, or thirty years of focused hard work to make an impact on the NBA.
Basketball Popularity Ranking: Second to futból.
Current NBA Players: Milt Palacio, Utah Jazz.
Milt Palacio is a Belizean citizen, born in Los Angeles, CA to Belizean parents.
Names you could see picked in the NBA draft in the next 4-5 years: None.
Most North Americans don't even know that Belize is a country. Belize culture shares many similarities with Patrick Ewing's birthplace: Jamaica. A short ethnography would tell you that this tiny underdeveloped country on Central America's Caribbean coast is a laid-back African culture that is famous for its beaches, reggae music, and North American expatriates. But basketball is becoming a stable and important piece of their society, mainly because of exposure to the NBA. Belize may be the only country in the world that includes NBATV as part of the nation-wide basic cable television package. Not even in the States is it as widely distributed. Anyone with a television has access to the NBA year-round. The NBA's embrace of African American culture through hip-hop has made it even more popular among Belizean youths.
The NBA is so popular in fact, that when spending some time with the semi-professional team in Orange Walk, just north of Belize City, the players nicknamed me Scalabrini -after the Boston Celtics forward - because of my red hair and home city. Upon hearing this nickname, I was shocked - almost to the point of being disturbed - at how knowledgeable these players were of NBA personnel. The fact that these players even knew of such an unused role-player like Brian Scalabrini was impressive since he is far from a household name, even in the U.S. I could only imagine the kinds of other obscure basketball references the Belizeans would be able to pick up on. But this was just another reminder that the reach of the game extends far beyond the first world and will continue to show up in unexpected ways.
The best level of basketball in the country is the semi-professional league, the Belize Basketball Association (BBA). Players are athletic and play a fast paced open-court style. But because of lack of basic basketball education and limited infrastructure, Belizeans play with a YMCA-style misdirection that is frustrating to watch. The coaches run drills that seem to have been created the day before, and the players execute them with the conviction of a high school varsity squad in September. Players are not accustomed to the ideas of team defense at any age level, and many other basic basketball fundamentals are simply non-existent.
When I first arrived on the courts in Belize, it seemed that I was looking into the past, seeing the development of basketball from its beginnings. At first glance, wasn't this what a more established basketball country like Brazil might have looked like 30 years ago, at least in terms of talent development and league organization? I soon realized that because of its size and economic climate, such a comparison for Belize was somewhat romanticized. Yet the prospect of seeing a historical depiction of international basketball in modern times has remained within me, feeding my passion for exploration as if I were an archeologist. Belize is as good an example of this as any country in the world.
The BBA is a league that is struggling simply to stay active. The 2005 BBA season was cancelled due to economic reasons, and in the last year the league underwent a massive reconstruction involving several franchises changing hands. During this time, politicians oversaw the construction of new stadiums hoping for a leg-up in up-coming elections. Often times, success of the basketball infrastructure is dependent upon political agendas. But for the first time in history, the 6-team league was able to get fully organized by holding a player draft with a lottery system in 2006. Each franchise now has a USD$15,000 salary cap, with suggested pay rates of USD$ 25-125 per player per game, based on the draft position of the player. This is a great advance for Belizean basketball, but they are still light years away from producing players for the NBA.
Belize is a country that dreams of making a global impact on the basketball court. Players look up to NBA all-stars. Coaches and league administrators look up to the success of other Latin American countries. Yet at this point Belize can only dream of being a great basketball country. However, due to the countrywide infatuation with the sport and the athleticism of the Belizean players, don't be surprised to see Belize pop up on the basketball radar of NBA scouts over the next 10 - 15 years.
Despite a relative lack of interest in the sport, Colombia is a country of future promise on the court.
Basketball Popularity Ranking: Third to futból and Cycling
Current NBA Players: None.
Names you could see picked in the NBA draft in the next 4-5 years: Freddy Asprílla, 6'8" PF 1988; Juan Palacios, 6'8" SF/PF Louisville 1985.
Colombian Prospect Freddy Asprilla, of Calusa Prep. in Miami, Florida.
Colombia is an up-and-coming basketball country. Talent-wise, they are part of the lesser-known second tier of basketball countries in Latin America that includes Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and Chile, among others. They strive to be as developed as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Argentina, but they simply don't have a long history of established basketball programs. Like Belize, there are many athletic players in this country, and the style of play is fluid with an emphasis on up-tempo play.
Interestingly, gender issues influence Colombian basketball culture. Because of Colombia's socially progressive culture, women have many options for sports (even including rugby) and have predominantly chosen basketball. Colombia takes pride in their highly developed women's basketball leagues that are used to preparing players for top competition. Colombia has produced two WNBA draft picks, Lebys Torres, a 6'5" center who was picked with the 37th pick in the 2001 WNBA draft, and PG Erica Valek, the heart and soul of the Colombian National team who is currently playing professionally in Turkey Furthermore, 16 year old Tatiana Mosquera, another member of the adult National Team, is one of the most actively recruited basketball prospects on the continent.
Colombia is only recently coming onto the scene an producing high caliber players. Their prized prospect, Freddy Asprilla, is currently playing at Calusa Prep. High School in Miami, Florida. As a true power forward, Asprilla is thought of to have a much more polished game - with the athleticism to match - when compared to countryman and potential 2006 2nd round draftee Juan Palacios who has had a successful career thus far at the University of Louisville under Rick Pitino. Though the country's player representatives are eager to show the worth of their talent, beyond Asprilla there is not a whole lot to get excited about if you're looking for the next NBA superstar.
Uruguay is an experienced basketball country in a stagnant developmental stage, and does not seem to be growing nearly as rapidly as their Latin American neighbors.
Basketball Popularity Ranking: Second to futból, however there are not many other national sports.
Current NBA Players: Esteban Batista, Atlanta Hawks.
Names you could see picked in the NBA draft in the next 4-5 years: Jason Granger 6'2" PG 1989; Gustavo "Panchi" Barrera 6'3" PG 1985.
While in Montevideo, I attended several practices for the Uruguay under 18 National Team selections to see the future of Uruguayan basketball at its best. When I players arrived on the court mixing Yerba Mate tea to sip on the sidelines before warming up, I thought to myself how seamlessly basketball culture appears to be woven into the fabric of Uruguayan everyday life. Yet, ashamedly so, I couldn't help wonder if the seriousness of a players' approach to the game is possibly affected by cultural nuances like this one. All I knew for sure was that I found myself unimpressed with the product on the court.
One might think Uruguay would have a similar basketball culture to Brazil and Argentina due to its close proximity to those countries and because of a shared European lifestyle, but that is not the case. Uruguay is losing ground to basketball powerhouse neighbors Brazil and Argentina, yet it is far from a new sport. Uruguay's National Basketball Federation began back in 1915, and the country has been on the global basketball map since the 1930 Olympics when they won the bronze medal. But recently, Uruguay has been somewhat washed-up in terms of producing on the court. Young players can look to Esteban Batista, backup center for the Atlanta Hawks as a role model on the court. But the fact that Batista didn't even start playing basketball until he was 17 years old is just one sign that basketball is not a societal priority in Uruguay.
Watching the Under 18 National Team play, it was clear that lack of athleticism and natural basketball instincts among Uruguayan players is what separates them from those in the first tier of Latin American basketball cultures. Yet long time Italian coach and repeatedly published basketball author Mario DeSisti - who was hired recently to bring coaching expertise to Uruguay's National teams - expressed the need for better coaching. "The fundamentals of shooting mechanics, team defense, and movement without the ball are new ideas for these players," he told me in a tired voice during one practice session. "They're doing alright," he said with a facial expression that belied his desires to be teaching more advanced aspects of the game.
Mario has forty years of coaching experience around the world. His hands-on contributions to legitimize the basketball played on the international stage are noteworthy. Yet the moment I entered the basketball scene in Uruguay it became apparent to me what Mario De Sisti may have known for a long time: despite their long history playing the sport as well as Batista's presence in the NBA, Uruguay will not be making a global impact any time soon.
Argentina set the mold for Latino Basketball with supreme intelligence and mastery of the game using their own unique interpretation of how the game should be played.
Basketball Popularity Ranking: Second to futból.
Current NBA Players: Emanuel "Manu" Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs; Andres Nocioni, Chicago Bulls; Carlos Delfíno, Detroit Pistons; Fabricio Oberto, San Antonio Spurs.
Names you could see picked in the NBA draft in the next 4-5 years: Luis Scola, 6'9" PF 1980; Matias Sandes, 6-8 SF 1984; Matias Nocedal, 6´2" PG 1990; Leonardo Mainoldi, 6'9" PF 1985; Diego Brezzo, 6'9" PF 1984.
Andres Nocioni and Manu Ginobili
In a country with a competitive sports atmosphere comparable to the United States, it's a wonder that so many children choose to play basketball with all the other sports at their disposal. Most of this has to do with the success of Manu Ginobili, who many South Americans consider the Argentinean Michael Jordan, and have elevated him to rock-star status. While his ability is certainly not at the same level, the search is on for the next Manu. There is a lot of exceptional talent in this country, but Manu's athleticism is an outlier compared to the typical Argentinean basketball player.
If anyone embodies the stereotype of the Argentinean basketball player, it is former Temple University point guard (the first Argentinean in the NBA) Juan "Pepe" Sanchez. Composed and intelligent, Pepe knows he's not the most athletic player on the floor but he uses positioning to separate himself from the competition, literally and figuratively. Pepe is an idol to the average Argentinean because he used his mind to reach the NBA. This stereotype of the Argentinean athlete is replicated throughout Argentina's A-league, the top level of basketball competition in Buenos Aires. Interestingly, if you take a peak at an Argentinean futból match, you will notice that the same style of play that has made Pepe Sanchez successful on the basketball court is also what makes Argentineans successful on the futból field. When faced with the realities of one's athletic limitations, a good athlete will use anything to gain advantage in the throws of competition. Unfortunately, this has created an abnormally high frequency of body contact and a surprising and unique phenomenon on the court that is tarnishing the game in Argentina.
Argentineans play basketball like they play futból, literally. They have turned basketball into an art form, simultaneously playing the ball while fighting with the opposing player for position. It is astounding how they can keep their concentration on playing each sport (basketball or futból) with all the intentional grabbing, pushing, and general use of the other players balance and positioning to their advantage. Anytime there is contact, the offensive player and his defender are both using sly, underhanded techniques to get the referee to make the call in their favor. Essentially, both players are fouling each other in every situation, ensuring that if their initial authentic performance doesn't get the job done on the court they are at least baiting the referee. Thus each referee decision is an extremely difficult one to call, which wouldn't be such a problem if it didn't change the game so dramatically by turning it into a contact sport. The result can be excruciatingly frustrating to watch, due also to the fact that the A league referee union of the Liga Nacional de Basquet recently went on strike leaving inexperienced replacement referees to control style of play.
Not surprisingly, this is much more of a problem in Argentina than in other futból-oriented countries like Brazil, where players use their athleticism to gain the competitive edge in basketball. But can you fault Argentinean players for their effort and intelligence? The referees are often forced to make the call based on which player demonstrates the most aggressive strategy on a particular play. Thus yielding to this style of play with a toned-down approach would undoubtedly result in loss. With such intelligent scrappiness is exactly the way a good coach would want them to play.
Photo: Jose Montes/ www.elcorreodigital.com
Argentinean golden boy Manu Ginobili plays with this same approach, but as he is a multiple slam dunk contest winner growing up in Argentina, he has the athleticism to rise above a reliance on these physical shenanigans to separate himself from the competition. Ginobili is exceptional at making and taking contact, using crafty body control techniques while maintaining his balance to finish at the rim. There are others that defy this stereotype as well, for example Matias Nocedal, a guard who is looking like a sure NBA prospect at only 16 years old, uses tremendous quickness and athleticism to gain the competitive edge.
Yet there are many other Argentinean players who must be as aggressive and scrappy in as much of a futbol oriented way as possible to make up for lack of natural athleticism. Looking at how Argentina is revered by their neighbors because of the impact their players are making in the NBA, there doesn't seem to be a reason for Argentinean basketball to change its unique style of play. Argentina will continue to be a Latin American leader on the international basketball stage, proud of having set the mold for exceptional coaching and well-established system for talent development.
16 year old Argentinean prospect Matias Nocedal in Castelar, Buenos Aires.
Basketball Popularity Ranking: Third behind volleyball and futból.
Current NBA Players: Nené (formerly Maybyner Helario), Denver Nuggets; Leandro Barbosa, Phoenix Suns; Anderson Varejáo, Cleveland Cavaliers, Rafael Araujo, Utah Jazz, Marcus "Marquinhos" Viera Vinicius , New Orleans Hornets
Names you could see picked in the NBA draft in the next 4-5 years: Tiago Splitter, 6'11" PF/C 1985; ); Marcus Toledo 6'8" SF/PF 1986; Eric Soares, 6'9" SF 1986; ; Vitor Tatsch, 7'0" PF 1988; Paulao Prestes, 6'10" C '88; Tiago Negrizolli, 6'10" SF/PF 1988; Caio Torres, 6'11" C 1987; Jhonatan Luz Dos Santos, 6'5" SG 1987; Thyago Aleo 6'1" PG 1989.
All of Brazil was shocked when Rafael Araujo was picked 8th by the Toronto Raptors in the 2004 NBA draft. This might not seem strange at first, since the rest of the basketball world was also scratching their heads, but wouldn't you think he'd be more highly thought of in his home country? Brazilians thought he was a solid player, but not that good, especially since his big, hulking composite represents the antithesis of the prototypical Brazilian athlete.
Brazil seems to be a country of natural born athletes, a society that loves sports and plays them all with the utmost agility. This is the country that is perennially the best at the number one sport on the globe: futból. They are a people known for capoera, the martial art that focuses on core strength, balancing on your feet in awkward positions, and on your hands when necessary. Sports are as much a part of beach culture here as sunbathing is. You are sure to come upon locals playing volleyball in the sand, yet it wouldn't be rare if you saw them playing without their hands, amazingly using only their feet to kick the ball over the net to the opposing team.
In Rio de Janeiro you will find beach basketball courts laid on top of the sand, and mobile courts on wheels that are driven onto the beach. Brazil has adopted basketball as a rapidly growing subculture. Within Latin America, the professional street ball league And1 has expanded into Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, but is the best fit for Brazil's street culture. In a culture famous for its gaudy carnival parades, street basketball fits right in. There are several thriving amateur street ball leagues for both men and women with one-on-one, two-on-two, three-on-three and four-on-four tournaments played in Sao Paulo ever year. The loose style of play, where traveling is allowed, is organized similarly to the traditional And1 model, but the baskets are sometimes set lower than 10ft for more impressive trick dunks. (For more information on street basketball in Brazil, visit www.and1.com.br, www.sebar.com.br, www.streetballbrasil.com.br, or www.LIBBRA.com.br). These leagues are connected directly with hop-hop and underground art culture, where you can find the b-boy, Graffiti, DJ, and break dancing culture of the 1980s reproduced in its international contemporary form. While much of basketball culture in the United States has been adopted here in Brazil, it has taken on its own flavor influenced by national identity and street culture. One of Brazil's Indoor Streetball leagues, "SEBAR".
Brazilian basketball legend, known simply as "Oscar".
In a country with a first world infrastructure and attitude, especially in the expansive and modern urban centers, basketball culture is thriving. The youth basketball leagues use the same structural system today, as was in place when they started in the 1950s, although they were actually more popular back then than they are now. Yet basketball was first introduced to Brazil as a sport for women, since futból was supposedly a game for men. This caused many men to shy away from playing. Basketball was further stifled in the 1980s when the Brazilian volleyball team began winning Olympics medals consistently. Volleyball blew up to become immensely popular and solidified itself as the second most popular sport in the country behind futból. Despite the efforts of the courageous and enigmatic Oscar Schmidt, leader of Brazilian National teams in 5 Olympic games, the sport struggled for attention. Yet the popularity of And1 and the recent success of NBA players Nené and Leandro Barbosa are spawning a snowball-like resurgence of the sport in Brazil.
The competition in the Brazilian Basketball Confederation and the Federation of Basketball of Sao Paulo is somewhere around U.S. Division 1, NIAA, or NIT basketball. There are modern gymnasiums, solid coaching for youths and adults, and there are lots of potential NBA prospects around the country. Brazil's rivalry with Argentina is well documented, and while many in both countries agree that Argentina currently has better coaching, several Argentinean scouting contacts revealed to me that Brazil has more talent.
Brazil has the quintessential make-up of a great basketball country because
they possess modern infrastructure, and superior athletes. The fact that Brazil
is by far the biggest country in Latin America and takes up half the size of
the South American continent makes it fairly easy to understand why the country
is producing the most talent in Latin America. Yet Brazilian basketball has
not yet reached its potential and is developing coaching and player development
personnel. Brazil has loads of promising young players and needs to take its
talent more seriously if it wants the rest of the world to do the same. It is
not easy to make an impact in the NBA for any South American country, yet over
the next 5-10 years as the coaching in country improves, look for Brazil to
be a major player in the NBA draft.