Monday, December 21, 2009

Foreign Affair

There were seismic changes going on across the pond in 1989. Sure, the fall of communism grabbed all the headlines. But lost in all the geopolitics is that foreign basketball players were starting to get taken seriously as professionals.

A possible apotheosis of this global shift in basketball thinking came on March 14, 1989, in Athens, Greece, when Real Madrid met Snaidero Caserta for the European Cup. It was a matchup between two of the top non-American players at that time, Real’s Drazen Petrovic and Snaidero’s Oscar Schmidt.

Both players had been drafted by NBA teams. Schmidt was chosen by the New Jersey Nets in the sixth round (131st overall) in 1984; Petrovic was picked by the Portland Trail Blazers in the third round (60th overall) in ’86.

When worldly hoopheads bloviate on the best foreign players never to play in the NBA, Schmidt is always in the conversation with a young and injury-free Arvydas Sabonis. Schmidt, known in his homeland of Brazil as ‘Mao Santa’ (Holy Hand), helped put one of the first chinks in the armor of American hoops imperialism. He dropped 46 points in a 120-115 upset of David Robinson and the U.S. in the championship match of the 1987 Pan-Am Games. Schmidt played in five Olympics but, during his prime, chose to remain professionally in the Italian League.

Petrovic was a Croatian prodigy that took his textbook jumper and petulant demeanor to several clubs across Europe. He started playing professionally as a teenager in the former Yugoslavia and was having so much success against men that he declined a scholarship offer to play for Digger Phelps at Notre Dame. He was voted the best player in Europe at 22.

Petrovic came out like a house afire against Snaidero. He hit 3 three-pointers to go with an array mid-range moves, piling up 27 points by halftime. Against the laissez-faire defense of Snaidero’s guards, Petrovic could get any shot he wanted. Schmidt wasn’t that far behind Petrovic in heating up and, by the end of regulation, both stars were going shot for shot.

Schmidt’s three-pointer with 17 seconds remaining forced overtime. Petrovic finished regulation with 52 points and Schmidt had 41. Petrovic was able to grab the momentum in overtime, finishing with 62 points to Schmidt’s 44 as Real Madrid earned a 117-113 victory.

Clearly, Petrovic had skills that could translate to success in the NBA. This was his only season with Real Madrid; he would jump ship to the Trail Blazers the next year. After struggling to get some burn in Portland, Petrovic was shipped to New Jersey during the 1990-’91 season. He finally found his niche in America with the Nets, averaging 22.3 points per game in 1992-’93, his final season before dying in a car accident.

It is tough to say how Schmidt would have fared if he had tried to join Petrovic in the NBA. He had inside-outside skills but his game – and physical appearance – bore a striking resemblance to Danny Ferry. Then again, he averaged 28.8 points per game in Olympic play.

The matchup between Real Madrid and Snaidero Caserta also provided some evidence to dismiss foreign basketball (stringent motion offenses, non-commitment to defense) as well as perpetuate some stereotypes (a stadium befouled by cigarette smoke, a massive police presence to limit skirmishes in the stands).

But Petrovic and Schmidt foreshadowed the global game that basketball would become in the 1990s and 2000s. They prefigured Nowitzki and Ginobili and helped to tear down the wall between the U.S. and the rest of the basketball world.

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