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Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Updated: May 16, 12:24 PM ET
Spurs-Suns series highlights NBA's international scope

By Elizabeth Merrill

SAN ANTONIO -- He has a rap album under his belt and a Hollywood actress on his arm, and most people, at first glance, think Tony Parker is a full-blooded American pretty boy.

Then the buzzer sounds, and Parker takes off to the stands. He can't be like this when he's hanging around Eva Longoria; he speaks English then. But his family is seated in Section 24 on this particular night, when the Spurs get a temporary upper hand in the Western Conference semifinals, and his little brother Pierre is waiting.

"Je suis heureux que vous ayez gagné," Pierre says.

I'm happy you won.

Tony Parker
San Antonio guard Tony Parker, driving past Phoenix's Shawn Marion in Game 4, usually adjourns to the stands to greet his family, and speak to them in French.
"He needs that," says French journalist Olivier Pheulpin, a confidant of Parker's. "Sometimes, he needs to be able to express himself in French."

In the NBA these days, it's not too hard finding someone who can relate. Parker can turn to Boris Diaw, a childhood chum with whom he shared dreams about playing in the NBA. Diaw plays for the Phoenix Suns. Or, if Parker wants to talk European culture, he can sit down with teammate Francisco Elson, a 7-footer from the Netherlands who still can't figure out why Americans slather ketchup, instead of mayonnaise, on their fries.

They are just a fraction of the 12 international players in this NBA semifinal, a melting pot of cultural gaps and homesickness and friendships forged from not-so-similar experiences. And somehow, they find harmony.

Outside the Spurs' locker room, signs hang in Dutch, Spanish, Slovenian and French. They're the same quote, in different languages. It's about a stone cutter pounding a rock repeatedly until it finally cracks.

"I don't think anyone considers us front-runners [in the international movement]," says Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. "We just tried to find good players wherever they were."

He played two-on-two as a kid in France, and Tony Parker always had to be Michael Jordan.

His parents were the perfect mix, a pragmatic dad from Chicago and a free-spirited Dutch model mom. Tony was about 10 when his dad took him to the states and they saw the Bulls play Portland in the NBA Finals.

Parker was mesmerized by Jordan, and from that moment, he and his little brothers ditched their soccer balls for basketballs. It was going on throughout Europe in 1992, when the Dream Team dominated the Olympics.

"That forever will be the focal point of where the popularity in the sport just hit a springboard and really took off," says Terry Lyons, the NBA's vice president of international communications. "We ended up with just a lot of very, very good athletes picking up a basketball for the first time and then nature takes its course."

In 1991, the league had 21 international players. In 2007, there were 60 in the playoffs alone. The season started with 83 players from 37 different countries, and is winding down with some intriguing story lines involving international players. There's Steve Nash, the gritty guard from Canada who willed his team to a Game 4 victory. There's the suspension of Boris Diaw, who along with teammate Amare Stoudemire will sit for Game 5 after leaving the bench during an altercation late Monday night. San Antonio's Robert Horry will sit two games for a flagrant foul on Nash.

Parker and Diaw met late Saturday night, after San Antonio took a 2-1 lead, and ate a quiet dinner together while the town buzzed with Spurs fever. They didn't talk about the game, or the fact that Monday would be one of the most electric nights of their young careers.

"He's my friend," Parker says. "We have a lot of other topics to talk about."

They were teenage roommates at France's Institut National du Sport et de l'Education Physique, and put in intense, 15-plus hour days together. Parker was the organized one, the guy who kept his belongings in order. When he was drafted by the Spurs in 2001, his transition was almost seamless.

Because he'd visit family in the United States during vacations, he already was plugged in. At 19, he became the youngest player to ever appear in a game with the Spurs. By his early 20s, he was a full-blown celebrity here.

"He's getting more famous by the minute," Pheulpin says. "The last time I was with him in France, it was sheer madness. I would say it's about the same in San Antonio."

The carpet in the Suns' locker room is purple, comfortable and plush, and Leandro Barbosa knows it because he spent his first night in Phoenix sleeping on the floor near his locker.

Leandro Barbosa
The Suns' Leandro Barbosa, who's from Brazil, shoots against the Spurs' Fabricio Oberto, who's from Argentina.
He'd come from Brazil, where he had no bed, no money and no piles of shoes. So he asked if he could stay there, in part to pinch himself, but also because it was one of the most beautiful places he'd ever seen.

"He probably looked at it as a luxury hotel," Suns assistant Dan D'Antoni says. "He was so excited, he just didn't want to leave. This is what his dreams were. I guess probably in his mind, if he walked out of the room, it might not happen."

They were paired in 2005, D'Antoni a high school coach/teacher from Myrtle Beach, and Barbosa a kid from Sao Paulo as innocent as the day is hot in Arizona. D'Antoni wouldn't say it then, that Barbosa was on the verge of being shipped out.

The kid just wasn't catching on. The language barrier was too hard; his confidence was too low. So that was D'Antoni's first assignment when he arrived in Phoenix, to make Barbosa right.

"It came to kind of a head," says D'Antoni, whose younger brother Mike is the head coach. "Crisis or necessity creates adventure. I had to step forward a lot faster than I probably would've normally. I'm not pushy that way.

"I just felt like it would be a mistake [to let him go] because he was so talented."

Taking a page from his days as a teacher, D'Antoni decided to start writing Barbosa notes. He'd hand him sheets of paper with simple words such as "trap down" or "pick and roll." By reading them, they became more clear and real to Barbosa. They also helped him learn English faster.

Barbosa is described by the coaches as a gung-ho player, and when he'd get in a game, he tried to do too much. D'Antoni told him to "stay on the floor, don't do a whole lot, and don't mess up."

Leandro Barbosa
Phoenix assistant Dan D'Antoni worked with Barbosa to help the Brazilian learn English. Barbosa caught on, and this season won the NBA's Sixth Man award.
The tutoring worked. Barbosa averaged 18.1 points this season and earned the league's Sixth Man award. He calls D'Antoni "a father, a brother, everything."

Just before Monday night's game, D'Antoni handed Barbosa another note. It told him to get in Michael Finley's face when the Spurs guard shot 3-pointers. In the second half, with the series on the line, that's just what Barbosa did.

Barbosa is in the showers late Monday night -- he's still one of the last ones out of the locker room -- and D'Antoni lets out a few southern chortles when he thinks of how far they've come.

"Sometimes you're on the pendulum and it's going up," D'Antoni says, "and sometimes, you're going down. We were just swinging together."

The most cultured man in the Spurs locker room, in terms of where he's been and what he says, is Francisco Elson. His parents are from Suriname, he was born in Rotterdam, and basketball has taken him from Spain to Kilgore, Texas.

Francisco Elson
Spurs center Francisco Elson, whose parents are from Suriname, was born in Rotterdam. Basketball has taken him from Spain to Texas.
Elson speaks five languages, and often roamed the campus of Kilgore Junior College with a notebook in one hand and a translation book in the other. When Elson speaks with people, he studies their lips and their eyes. He wants to make sure he gets it right.

"There are certain words I can't pronounce," he says. "Still can't. Like 'enclave.' The letters, the alphabetical letters, for me are sometimes still hard. I'm thinking, 'Is it Spanish?'"

The easiest way to learn a language, Elson says, is to be around people who speak it. That's not a problem in the NBA, where men are thrown together for eight months. Elson relates to Argentine center Fabricio Oberto, who digs Pearl Jam and has Eddie Vedder locks. They played together in Spain.

And the Spurs front office does its homework and studies the players' cultures. They need to relate.

Buford, who's standing in the tunnel as the third quarter of Monday night's game begins, says there is no mystical theory as to why some teams mesh and some don't. He's taken the team to France and the Virgin Islands, home of Tim Duncan. The foreign players become more Americanized; the team becomes more international.

"It's a group that has learned about each other not because they want to be multicultural," Buford says, "but because they enjoy being together."

Elizabeth Merrill writes for She can be reached at