Foreign legion changing face of U.S. hoops

RIGA, Latvia – In Germany, it's schneller. In Latvia it's davaij and in Sebia the word is 6pxe. The French say plus rapide, while the Czechs say rychlejší. In the U.S., it's simply this: faster. The word sounds different throughout the world, but as several Washington State players know first hand, it speaks in tongues when it comes to international basketball.

Americans know it as a plea to quicken the pace. But on the international stage it means so much more.

It is an unspoken oath each player takes before putting on a uniform overseas: You will play fast from start to finish. Even in youth leagues, where I've had the opportunity to play the last two seasons in Latvia, speed is the word. Run-and-gun is the first immage that comes to mind, but it more aptly describes a tireless movement up, down and across the court.

Coach Kristops, my coach, constantly hollers "Davaji!!! Faster!!!" as we pound back and forth. Every time it seems the game has slowed enough to take a second to rest, you are sprinting up or down the floor again. It's a frenzied cycle.

Asked about the differences between international basketball and U.S. college basketball, German-born and raised WSU center/forward Fabian Boeke told it like it is: "… there is a difference in the speed of the game, in the way that you're not going up and down the court so fast …"

The pace of the game isn't the only difference between international and American basketball. In my experiences with European fans, everywhere from Spain to Lithuania and countries in between, they remind me of the crazed English soccer fans from the movie "Green Street Hooligans." In games I have attended, fans have lit off flares (during the game, inside the arena), threatened to fight players, and pounded on large drums from start to finish.

WSU guard Nikola Koprivica, the captain of his native Serbia's U-20 team this past summer, says European fans are more intense, but there are more fans generally and more of what he would call "crazy" fans – perhaps one notch below intense – in the U.S.

Koprivica and Boeke each talked about how appreciative they are of the red-garbed WSU students who comprise the boisterous "ZZU CRU" at Friel Court. "We have the ZZU CRU and they always dress up, paint their bodies, and scream really loud."

"I like it (the games) more here because we get a packed gym with like 12,000 people, and back home in Europe there are not as many people at the games," said Koprivica.


As for the game on the court itself, speed is one thing. But overall athleticism is quite another, say Koprivica and Boeke.

"I think the game is way more athletic over here, that's for sure," said Boeke. "For me it's a big challenge in practice to play against guys who are a lot stronger than me, but in Germany you definitely face some better shooting, I would say."

His comments are echoed by Koprivica: "There are more physical players over here (in the States), they are stronger and better athletes."

In the Latvian league I play in, it's evident that finesse rules. Most guys tend to shy away from contact. As such, you see more "sloppy basketball" turnovers as guards will throw the ball all over the court so they don't have to get into the paint and face contact.

Johnson, the Cougar assistant coach who played three years of pro ball in Australia, offers a different view -- at least as it relates to international post players. His experiences, as a player and as a college recruiter, are that the international big men don't shy away from banging around. He said Cougar senior center Aron Baynes of Australia was probably a little surprised when he first arrived in the Pac-10 that the post play wasn't as physical as it was Down Under.

As for defense, it's probably a little unfair to ask a Bennett-coached player to compare American and international approaches. "I think everything depends from coach to coach. Like if I want to compare Coach Bennett to my national team coach back home ... back in Europe we were really a good, talented team so we were … trying to really outscore teams and we weren't really focused on defense that much. Yes we did play defense, but not as much and we were more focused on offense."

In the experiences on my Latvian club team I can attest that we haven't done more than five defensive drills over the last three months. This lack of defensive focus -- coupled with the demand to always move faster -- tends to promote a rat-ball style.

While it's hard to place such a stereotype on the rest of the world, those impressions were reinforced for me last summer when I attended the European U-20 championships here in Latvia. Koprivica's Serbian team, which won the gold medal, had just one player who was clearly more focused and determined defensively than any other player in the competition. The player's name?

Nikola Koprivica.

Defense aside, the fact is that international basketball is thriving and the number of players coming to the U.S. to play college and pro ball continues to grow.

"I think that coaches are starting to travel a lot around the world, especially our coaches (at WSU), I know that," said Koprivica. "You know, they are looking at international players because they see that international players can really help their programs."

Indeed, in the recruiting classes unveiled last month, both June Daugherty and Tony Bennett secured commitments from foreigners. Daugherty landed 6-4 forward Razz Muir of Australia and 5-10 wing Ireti Amojo of Germany, while Bennett -- who played and coached professionally in New Zealand following his NBA days -- nabbed 6-9 forward Brock Motum of Australia.

As the world gets smaller and smaller via the Web and affordable air transportation, and as the Baynes' and Koprivicas of the world continue to find success in the U.S., it stands to reason that more and more college coaches will allocate serious recruiting time overseas.

For the basketball factories like UCLA and North Carolina, the ease of luring homegrown talent blunts the siren call of Europe, Australia and Africa. For the WSUs of the world, however, where working harder and doing things differently is part of the culture, the foreign courts offer a pool of potential talent that can help level the proverbial field.

Schneller. Davaij. 6pxe. Plus rapide. Rychlejší. No matter the language, the foreign presence on U.S. courts is coming faster and faster.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hayden Eller, 15, is a tenth-grader attending the International School of Latvia after moving there with his family from Chelan 18 months ago. His addiction to crimson and gray started six years ago when he attended his first game at Martin Stadium, a Cougar win over Idaho. His father, Jeff, is a 1985 WSU graduate. Hayden named his dog Butch.

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