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"I don't like to be in the spotlight too much," says the shaggy-haired, goatee-sporting Nowitzki. As a teenager, he would stay up most of the night with his buddies to watch NBA play-off games on TV and then stagger into school bleary-eyed. The late-night airing of games continues to pose an obstacle to the league's growth, causing many overseas companies to shy away from sponsorship deals.
As the world's game, basketball remains a distant second to soccer, which has fans in almost every country, totaling more than 1.25 billion. But there's no denying that basketball's appeal is on the rise, especially among younger, urban and middle-class fans. Like soccer, basketball is a relatively cheap game and easy to start playing. It requires only a ball and a makeshift hoop hung on a tree or the side of a house. In Mexico, there is scarcely a town that doesn't have at least one court, and even in impoverished Nigeria, many homes have a rim at the back, sometimes fashioned out of a bent tire iron. Basketball is the most popular school sport in China, where an estimated 250 million players shoot the ball with an NBA-influenced aggressiveness and flash that were seldom seen just a few years ago.
The league's new diversity is also building enthusiasm at home. With four of their combined 10 starters hailing from Canada or Europe, Sacramento and Dallas are the league's two most exciting teams, playing an up-tempo, international style with lots of movement and passing. It's a welcome departure from the NBA's one-on-one isolation game, in which eight men are mere spectators on many plays. Thanks to their firm grasp of the fundamentals, "foreign players have added the skill factor back into the game," says Kings head coach Rick Adelman.
Just as important, most of the foreign imports "are complete players, not specialists," notes Hall of Fame center Bill Walton, now an analyst for ESPN. The Europeans, in particular, are typically taught the basics by iron-willed coaches who have zero tolerance for showboating or big egos. The players learn to handle zone defenses, which, unlike man-to-man, require every player to hit the outside shot. And pressure doesn't faze them.
"Playing for their national team, it's not unusual to have an entire nation watching their every move, shot and pass," observes Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who has used foreign players like the Mavs' Mexican forward Eduardo Najera to market the team to Hispanic fans in Texas.
But sheer skill or poise may not be the only reason these new arrivals are generating so much excitement. It's no secret that over the past few decades the NBA has been dominated by African Americans. Some observers argue that the addition of high-profile white and Asian stars is bringing new fans to the sport, both in the U.S. and abroad. Stern insists that "race is not a factor anymore" for those fans. But a 2001 study in the journal Economic Inquiry examined Nielsen TV ratings for local NBA broadcasts during the 1996-97 season and concluded that "all else equal, more fans tune in when there are more white players to watch."