Reaching for the Ball: NBA Finds More Players and Fans Overseas

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. We turn our attention this week to the NBA, the National Basketball Association, and its growing international reach.


The regular season ended in April. Weeks of playoffs followed. The San Antonio Spurs won the western conference championship for the third time in five years. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the eastern conference championship for the first time.

Now, the Cavs and the Spurs are playing in the finals for the NBA championship. It could be decided as early as this Thursday in game four of their best-of-seven series.

Last year's NBA champions, the Miami Heat, lost early in the playoffs this year.

Americans are not the only ones watching, or playing. Today about one NBA player in five was born outside the United States. The season opened with eighty-three international players, a record.

They include stars like Yao Ming from China on the Houston Rockets and German-born Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. He just became the first European-born player to win the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award.

And Argentine-born Manu Ginobili helped the Spurs to this year's finals with their victory in the West over the Utah Jazz.

NBA players from Africa include Sudanese-born Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls and Dikembe Mutombo. Mutombo, most recently with the Houston Rockets, was born in Kinshasa and is known for his charity work in Africa. He was considering retirement but has said he will play again next year. He will be forty-one years old on June twenty-fifth.


In nineteen forty-nine, two leagues came together to form the NBA: the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League. In nineteen ninety-six the NBA created the WNBA, the Women's National Basketball Association. And in two thousand one the NBA created a development league to help train future players.

The NBA currently has thirty teams. It is one of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States. The others are the National Football League, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball.

Nineteen fifty is remembered as the year that the NBA became integrated with black players. Today the large majority of players are African-American. But a Japanese-American broke the barrier in major professional basketball three years earlier.

Wataru Misaka was born in the state of Utah. He was a guard standing one meter seventy centimeters. He helped lead his college team to two national championship competitions. The New York Knicks, or Knickerbockers, chose him in the nineteen forty-seven Basketball Association of America draft. He played in three games and scored seven points before he was cut from the team.


In nineteen ninety-two, the United States Olympic men's basketball team was called the "Dream Team." For the first time there were players from the NBA. Among them were Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The Americans brought home the gold medal that year from Barcelona.

It was during the nineteen nineties that a growing number of top NBA players began to come from outside the United States. In two thousand two, Yao Ming was the first choice in the NBA draft. He was picked by the Houston Rockets.

Yao became the first international player without college experience in the United States to be chosen first overall. He also became the third Chinese national ever to play in the NBA.

The first was Wang Zhi-zhi. He joined the Dallas Mavericks in two thousand one. The second was Mengke Bateer. He made his first NBA appearance with the Denver Nuggets early in two thousand two.

Yao Ming is currently the NBA's tallest player, at two meters twenty-six centimeters. He was already a famous player in China before he arrived in the United States. He no longer speaks through an English interpreter. During his first season with the NBA, he spoke with the help of his friend Colin Pine.

In two thousand three, during the NBA off-season, Yao helped raise money and educate people in China about SARS. That was when the lung disease known as SARS broke out in southern China and spread around the world.

And Yao said last year that he would stop eating shark fin soup, a popular Chinese meal, because of concern for shark populations.


Another popular international player in the NBA is Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls. He is two meters three centimeters tall. He was born in southern Sudan as a member of the Dinka tribe. It produces some of the world's tallest people.

In nineteen eighty-eight, when he was a young boy, his family fled to Egypt because of the civil war in southern Sudan. His father had been a Sudanese government minister. In Egypt, they met former NBA player Manute Bol. Bol, also a Dinka, became an important influence in his life.

In nineteen ninety-three Deng's family received political asylum in Britain. But he went to high school in the United States, in New Jersey. By his senior year he was one of the best high school basketball players in America. He attended Duke University for one year before he entered the NBA in the two thousand four draft.

Luol Deng is known as a hard worker. And this May he won the NBA Sportsmanship Award for the season, as voted by other players. This award honors ethical behavior, fair play and other ideals of sportsmanship on the court.

He is also active in charities including Nothing But Nets, a campaign to fight malaria in Africa with insecticide-treated bed nets.

Luol Deng received British citizenship last year. He wants to play for the British national team in the two thousand twelve London Olympics. He grew up in London and his family lives there. He was recently named British captain for the qualifying series for the European championship.

Dirk Nowitzki is the first Dallas Maverick to win the NBA Most Valuable Player Award. He is also the first winner who did not attend high school or college in the United States. He was born in Wurzburg, in the former West Germany.

He, too, learned the game with the help of an older mentor. Former German national team player Holger Geschwindner first saw him play when Nowitzki was sixteen. He thought the teenager had the talent to be a professional. For one thing, Nowitzki is ambidextrous. He has equal ability with either hand.


NBA games are broadcast around the world in more than forty languages. In China, games are being shown on more than fifty television stations, up from thirty-two last year. 

One way to show support for a favorite player is, of course, to wear the team jersey with that player's number. The NBA reported in March that Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers had the top-selling NBA jersey in China this season. Last year his jersey was the fourth most popular. He also has the top selling jersey in the United States.

Allen Iverson of Denver and Tracy McGrady of Houston were second and third this season in China. Next came Dwyane Wade of Miami and Cleveland's LeBron James.

Yao Ming was third in jersey sales at stores in China last season. This year he was sixth.

The NBA may be the world's most famous basketball league. But the two thousand four Summer Olympics in Athens provided an example of how the game is improving internationally.

Argentina defeated the United States men's basketball team in the semifinals, then claimed the gold medal over Italy. It was the first medal ever for Argentina in Olympic basketball. It was also the first loss for the American team since nineteen eighty-eight in Seoul.

In fact, between nineteen thirty-six and two thousand, there was only one other time when the United States did not win. That was at the nineteen seventy-two Munich Games. Both times the Soviet Union took home the gold.


Our program was written by Brianna Blake and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. You can learn more about American life at And join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.