Euro Lakers two wins from NBA Finals
The key to the Los Angeles Lakers' better-than-ever chemistry is their increased reliance on foreign players including Kobe Bryant.
Yes, you can count Bryant among the Lakers' collection of international players that also includes Sasha Vujacic from Slovenia, Pau Gasol from Spain, Vladimir Radmanovic from Serbia and Montenegro, DJ Mbenga from the Congo and Ronny Turiaf from France.
From age 6 to age 13, Bryant lived in Italy while his father played professional basketball in Europe.
Bill Russell once said of Bryant, "I came to the conclusion he's a foreign player. You can't talk to him like he's from L.A. Because if you do, you're going to have difficulty."
Maybe that explains why Bryant is more integrated with this team than with any other Lakers squad in his 12 seasons in L.A. Not only was he a teenager among grown men when he came into the league as an 18-year-old, he also was a cultural outsider on a roster made entirely of Americans. Bryant's curiosity and hunger for knowledge are just as insatiable as his desire to be the best basketball player ever to lace 'em up, and foreign players have something to offer Bryant: new words, new customs and new information. Bryant likes to speak to them in their native languages, showing an ever-increasing vocabulary. It's as if he's adding a new move to his repertoire.
"What we have is a collection of players that come from all over the place; everybody wants to learn about the culture, the language," Bryant said. "It makes things more fun in the locker room."
It's a little counterintuitive. More people from different backgrounds improving unity? Well, that's the way it's working.
"Every guy is bringing something different," Radmanovic said. "Once you put it all together, you get a nice atmosphere and guys just enjoying being around each other. Once you have that, that's one of the biggest and most important parts of playing well.
"You can have the 10 best players in the world on the floor, but if they don't get along with each other, I don't think it's going to work out. What we have right now, it's beautiful."
You can give the multicultural mix a little credit for Gasol's easy transition after the Lakers traded for him in February.
"[Playing with] a lot of guys that I know from playing internationally and a lot of guys with that mentality, I guess it helped," Gasol said. "We all have to get here, learn the language, struggle, adjust. That kind of brings you together a little bit."
On the court, NBA observers within and outside the Lakers believe Gasol's European background made him a perfect fit for the triangle offense.
"I don't want to stereotype European players versus American players, because there's always the exception," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "But European players have typically always been well coached and drilled and good shooters. They're in the gym. The guidelines that regulate what we can do at the NCAA level in terms of practice and hours on the court, they don't exist in Europe. They end up with players that have a lot more coaching, a lot more practice time. For some people, I think, the skill level is better. Is that more fitting for the triangle offense? Maybe."
Then there's the futbol influence. Most foreign players played the world's sport before or at the same time they started playing basketball, and Bryant says you still can find elements of that in his game.
"Playing soccer, you have to visualize sequences, sometimes three, four, five passes ahead," Bryant said. "I think that helped me in terms of seeing a basketball game in a different way. Just spacing, understanding movement, back cuts, quick touches, things of that nature."
Phil Jackson has said the Lakers have taken on another European basketball characteristic and aren't as physical as other teams. But this style is working for them. It sure has worked for the most successful team of the past decade, which happens to be L.A.'s opponent in the Western Conference final. The San Antonio Spurs were ahead of the game when it came to adding foreign-born players, nabbing Tony Parker of France and Manu Ginobili of Argentina with late draft picks and supplementing the roster over the years with the likes of Fabricio Oberto and Beno Udrih.
Back when coach Gregg Popovich was the full-time general manager, he enjoyed scouting games in Europe, picking up on the pride and nationalism on display every game.
"They're so emotional, so energetic, so passionate about what they do," Popovich said. "I thought that injection would be really good. And I think it really helps the guys here that grew up in America to realize that there's a big world out there. And when they get to know each other and travel, it's something you can just build on camaraderie-wise. It just makes everybody a bigger, happier, more cultured family."
Eight years ago, the Lakers were at the opposite extreme, without a single international player. (And after taking out Vlade Divac, Luc Longley, Arvydas Sabonis and Rik Smits en route to winning the 2000 championship, Shaquille O'Neal gleefully proclaimed himself "The Big Deportator -- I'm sending all the foreign centers home.")
Kupchak said it wasn't a conscious decision to add international flavor to the roster, and it's not as if he racked up the passport stamps putting this group together. Turiaf played college ball at Gonzaga when the Lakers drafted him, while Gasol, Radmanovic and Mbenga already had played in the NBA before they came to L.A.
If anything, the Lakers merely are riding a leaguewide wave in which foreign-born players have gone from 7 percent of NBA rosters in 1997-98 to 18 percent this season. The Lakers now have a full-time scout based in Europe and another based in China, and Kupchak and assistant GM Ronnie Lester make at least four overseas scouting trips per year. That's a long way from when the Lakers drafted Divac in 1989 based on videotape and recommendations.
In the second round of the 2007 draft, the Lakers selected 6-foot-9 Sun Yue from China and Gasol's brother Marc, who was traded to Memphis in the February deal that brought Pau.
The more international players around, the more they seem to flourish. When Russian Slava Medvedenko played for the Lakers, he was the only non-native on the team. He was isolated from the rest of the team, and they knew little about him. When Medvedenko seemed a little too comfortable crawling around with a gun during a unity-building paintball game during its 2003 training camp, the team wondered whether he had a background with the KGB.
Not only do these Lakers have a larger support group, most of them also are past the most difficult hurdle: learning English. Mbenga is the only Laker who struggles with English, but Turiaf is around to translate into French for him.
Radmanovic recalled his rookie season in Seattle, when he basically kept to himself and stayed quiet.
"You can speak some English, but once they start cutting off words and the slang and stuff, you're just sitting there watching and saying, 'What the hell is going on?'" Radmanovic said.
Radmanovic credits Brent Barry with teaching him all the locker-room jargon. Barry, now with the Spurs, likes to tell the story of a team function when all the players had to stand up and give brief introductions of themselves. Radmanovic followed Peja Drobnjak, and after Drobnjak made a game effort through his choppy English, Radmanovic simply followed with, "Yeah, what he said."
Now they all feel comfortable enough to tease one another. Sometimes, when more insults go around a locker room, a team's health improves. So Bryant used the Lakers' second-round trip to Utah to make fun of Radmanovic's Park City snowboard misadventure last season. Vujacic accused Gasol of cheating at cards. Turiaf said the European players are great passers -- except Vujacic.
The important thing is, they don't have any other agenda but winning basketball games. You don't hear griping about shots or minutes. No one is complaining about his contract. Instead, you hear jokes and postgame dinner plans.
"I think a little bit of Europe helped the team," Vujacic said. Gazing at the practice court, he said, "I might sound cheesy, but we speak that language over there really well together."
Behold, the Euro Lakers. Yes, even Bryant. Up to a point.
"I still don't flop," Bryant said. "I don't give a damn how many years I spent in Italy, I still won't do that [stuff]. I won't wear a headband with long hair. Other than that, it's cool."
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