From Glouchkov and Fernando Martín to Giannis and Doncic: the great European conquest

The pioneers, Petrovic, the Spanish explosion and, of course, the greatest of all: Dirk Nowitzki. Thus, a long journey, Europe made its way into the NBA.


Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in the first debates about the NBA MVP 2021. The latter has won the award in the last two seasons, the last one with a double: he was also Defender of the Year, an award that in the previous seven years was also won by Rudy Gobert (twice), Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol. All three - Doncic, Jokic, Giannis - were all stars last season, in Chicago. Like Domantas Sabonis and Rudy Gobert. All those mentioned are European players, stars whose place in the elite is naturalized. It is not surprising that five are all stars in the same edition, that they compete for individual awards, that up to three aspire to win the Best Quintet of the Season ...

This is a global NBA. A kingdom in which the sun does not set, by extension of its dominions and by origin of its great protagonists. In the aforementioned All Star 2020, without going any further, two Cameroonians (Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam) were starters in the East. They have now been seven years in a row with more than 100 non-US players in a League in which about 450 play, with records for total number in the 2016-17 season (113) and of origin (42 different countries) one later, in 2017 -18. All thirty franchises have at least one international player. There are 17 Canadians, 14 Africans… and there were 46 Europeans on the day the season started. It seems normal to us, but at the beginning of the 1999-2000 season there were… 19 Europeans in the NBA.

Basketball has grown wide; it is more global, a deeply international sport. The roots of its expansion, which did not always seem the logical-natural process that it ended up being, are in Barcelona. In the effort of Boris Stankovic and David Stern, of FIBA and NBA. A joint vision that caused a thaw and an end to the blocks that brought the unforgettable Dream Team to the 1992 Games. The effect of that (of Magic, of Bird, of Jordan, of Barkley, of Malone, of Pippen ...) is impossible to calculate in all its dimension. Seismic He shot basketball among all the fans, also among the smallest, who went to the court from television. Let's play: the children of the Dream Team filled an NBA to which their children are beginning to arrive. Only in the last draft were there two Europeans in the top 10, Killian Hayes and Deni Avdija.

The youngest fans naturally assume that the place of great talent is the NBA, without an asterisk for their origin. Not so long ago, the first Europeans to arrive were seen from this side of the Atlantic as settlers in a distant land, strangers in a strange place. The process is always like this: first set foot, then settle down, break the residual barrier: play. And finally shine. Now franchises weave talent networks around the world, risk very high picks, and practice draft and stash: picking raw international quality from the draft and letting it mature, sometimes for years, before claiming it. The conquest advanced along the path opened by Detlef Schrempf, Rik Smits or Uwe Blab from the universities and Georgi Glouchkov and Fernando Martín from old Europe, towards the understanding from the United States of the very special talent that the Balkans had: Franjo Aarapovic, Vlade Divac , Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Milos Babic, Dino Radja, Zan Tabak and Predrag Danilovic were drafted between 1987 and 1992, while the Iron Curtain fell (Marciulionis, Sabonis, Volkov, Tikhonenko ...) and basketball was preparing for the gigantic turning point that were the unforgettable Barcelona Games.

There were many left along the way, in fact some of the greatest of their generation (and of all) in Europe (Spanoulis, Jasikevicius, Djordjevic, Navarro ...) neither did they walk in the United States nor, in many cases, did they feel comfortable trying. Patterns also persist: the NBA continues to prefer the tall and technically cultivated European, that type of inner player with a good wrist and knowledge of the game, multipurpose, who ended up looking like mana in the Old Continent, even under the stones and sometimes even risking it everything: for every Porzingis (number 4 in the draft in 2015) there is at least one Dragan Bender (4 in 2016). Among the European all-stars, the tall player continues to predominate (Vucevic, Gobert, Jokic, Porzingis himself, Antetokounmpo, Sabonis, formerly the Gasol and Nowitzki brothers ...) and the guards continue to be the exception, Tony Parker and Goran Dragic to the multicolored explosion by Luka Doncic. The United States, meanwhile, continues to churn out stars at a perfectly healthy rate. But the borders have been blurred. Great players simply make their way no matter where they come from.

It wasn't always like this, partly because basketball and the world weren't like that either. The story is a tapestry that runs through the first and heroic minutes of Glouchkov and Fernando Martín, the firm presence of Schrempf and Smits, the arrival in 1989 of the green card quintet (Petrovic, Divac, Marciuolionis, Volkov, Paspalj ...) and the subsequent explosion culminated by the three best European races in the NBA: Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and the greatest all, Dirk Nowitzki. The golden bridge to this time when Europeans sign megastar contracts, meet at the All Stars and compete for individual grand prizes. A golden age that, best of all, has come to stay.

"With this agreement we have entered the 21st century," said Borislav Stankovic, FIBA general secretary, euphoric on April 7, 1989. The International Federation had just approved the presence in all its competitions of NBA professionals, who until then could not participate with their national teams. That was the case of Fernando Martín, the second European to disembark in the US from the Old Continent. FM said goodbye to the National Team at the World Cup in Spain in July 1986, three months before debuting with the Portland Trail Blazers, and would no longer play because he died in December 1989. The FIBA resolution would have allowed him to go to the Eurobasket 89, but a host of circumstances, including physical problems, prevented it. Professionals had a free pass "immediately" to play European, World Cup and Olympic Games, although the great premiere would come three years later with the Dream Team of Barcelona 92. The voting of the federations approved the NBA contest by 56 votes to favor, 13 against (including those of the United States, whose federation did not want to lose power to the NBA, and the Soviet Union) and one abstention, that of Greece.

The decision, which on the other hand had already been sensed for months, radically changed the international scene, the NBA was preparing for a gradual arrival of European players, although it would still be necessary to overcome certain local reluctance, among them, those of the American press itself. sometimes more prejudiced by what could come from outside than some managers and coaches. In that now distant 1989 the two giants of continental basketball and great talent factories, the USSR and Yugoslavia, were approaching their end like the countries we had known. On November 9 the Berlin Wall would fall, the wars in Yugoslavia would begin in 1991 and the USSR would be dissolved at the end of that same year. So in 1989 there were already glimpses of measures to relax the control of the two communist governments over their athletes, who could not leave the country without the authorization of the state (the Yugoslavs, at least until they were 28 years old, although there were exceptions, such as the by Drazen Petrovic, who landed in Madrid a few days after his 24th birthday; the Soviets, never, unless expressly authorized, such as that of the player Uliana Semenova, 2.13 m, who landed at Tintoretto Getafe in 1987. The Goskomsport ( the USSR state sports committee) came to see the departure of its athletes as a means of financing at a time of great economic difficulties and created an agency called Sovintersport to manage player contracts. Much of the proceeds went to the state and the club of origin while the athletes received a small allowance, which, in some cases, as initially happened to Semenova, barely gave them to live in a foreign country.

The political foundations were laid for a landing in the NBA, now the players had the necessary quality for the challenge after the frustrated passage of the Bulgarian Georgi Glouchkov, the pioneer in 1985 (from Varna to Phoenix), and that of Fernando Martín ( Portland, 1986-87). In the strictly talent field, the right conditions were also in place. Yugoslavia enjoyed the birth of a dream generation, true geniuses of this sport who began the assault to the top as a team in the Eurobasket 89 and in the World Cup 90 with gold medals before everything was blown up. A team capable of transmitting sensations to the European viewer similar to Stendhal syndrome in the face of the excessive accumulation of artistic beauty. At the time, the new generation of Soviet players born after 1960 were banishing that mechanical basketball that crushed the rival, but lacked the creativity that the Yugoslavs had already shown in the previous decade, that of the 70s, with Slavnic, Kicanovic , Delibasic, Cosic…

So in 1989 there was the great landing, five European players crossed the pond to play the NBA season, three Yugoslavs (the Croatian Drazen Petrovic, the Serbian Vlade Divac and the Montenegrin Zarko Paspalj) and two Soviets (the Lithuanian Sarunas Marciulionis and the Ukrainian Alexander Volkov). And there were negotiations between Jugoplastika and the Celtics for Dino Radja to be the sixth, although finally his arrival would be delayed four years, until 1993. Stojan Vrankovic, a close friend of Petrovic and who had a contract signed with Real, was ahead of him in 1990. Madrid, just like Volkov himself months later, although both broke down before they could wear white.

Petrovic escapes from Madrid to suffer and ... triumph

Five players at once, five European stars in the NBA, although the one who shone the most at that time was Drazen Petrovic, who in March 89 had scored 62 points to Oscar Schmidt's Snaidero Caserta and of the returnee Glouchkov and that in June he had been the MVP of the Eurobasket. That summer, Petrovic (Sibenik, 1964) still had three seasons remaining with Madrid, but Portland pushed hard and after weeks of dispute in the offices, which left a succession of improved offers to the player and a million dollars of compensation to the white club, the genius of Sibenik had the OK to sign for the Blazers. The total disbursement for three campaigns and an optional fourth exceeded one million per year. Above what Clyde Drexler was charging at the time. Drazen traveled, as a guarantor of his chances of success, with a talent rarely seen in Europe, a work ethic and a personal ambition to succeed almost insurmountable. And yet his first season and a half in the US was tough, even though Portland played the 1990 final against the Detroit Pistons.

The cast of minutes did not convince him and it was the outer fourth of the rotation, while a thousand miles to the south, in Los Angeles, his friend Vlade Divac (they were close until the incident of the flag in the 1990 World Cup and the subsequent war) he did live the American dream in the Lakers with Magic Johnson. The pivot was four years younger, he was only 21, and both spent hours on the phone in which Petrovic told him his troubles. Not that they didn't trust him, but the Blazers had a good roster with a high-carat quintet (Terry Porter, Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams and Kevin Duckworth) and Rick Adelman used Drazen as his offensive specialist. In 1990 Danny Ainge arrived and Petrovic forced the transfer with statements for which he was fined, to which he responded by saying that he did not know that in the United States there was a lack of freedom to express himself. In January 1991 he was transferred to the New Jersey Nets, at the opposite pole, a franchise with few aspirations, which had not reached the playoffs since 1986, but in which it could stand out more easily. And in what way did he do it?

In the 43 games that remained of that year, he played more than 20 minutes for 12.6 points, in 91-92 he rose to 20.6 points and was second in the vote for the most improved player in the League (he also improved his physical, more shooter and less dribbler) and in 92-93 he shot up to 22.3 in 38 minutes on the track with 52% in field goals and 45% in triples. He could be chosen for the All Star, but he stayed out, he believed that being a foreigner hurt him then, perhaps also his gestures, much more softened than when he was in Europe, but even so excessive for some of his rivals. The League chose him in their third best quintet and the Nets waited too long to negotiate his renewal with details that the player did not like. Everything was encrusted. Petrovic told his agent that he wanted to return to Madrid, where Sabonis shone in his first year, but his manager replied that the white club had no money to pay him. There was talk that his claims exceeded three million dollars a year and an agreement with Panathinaikos with an option to leave until July in the event of an NBA offer. His future was still open, Lolo Sainz was convinced that one day he would return to Madrid, but everything was cut short on June 7, 1993 when he died in a traffic accident on a German motorway.

Divac takes over from Kareem, vibrates with Magic and leaves his mark on the Kings

By then, Vlade Divac (Prijepolje, 1968) had long since lost any contact with his old friend. A flag separated them and the war in the former Yugoslavia ended the last ties. The Serbian pivot, star of the 1991 final against the Jordan Bulls months before Magic Johnson was HIV positive, spent his first seven seasons, of the 16 he spent in the NBA, in the Lakers, where in the 93-94 , the first after Petrovic's death, he was going to average 14.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. And 16 and 10.4 in the next. He came to LA in 1989, the first year without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and left for Charlotte Hornets in 1996 with much reluctance as part of the Kobe Bryant trade and to leave a salary gap for the signing of Shaquille O'Neal. Then he would return testimonially to retire in 2004-05. In between, two courses in Charlotte and six in the Sacramento Kings, where together with Jason Williams, Pedja Stojakovic and Chris Webber, he would expand his footprint in the League to lead the regular phase of the NBA in 2001-02 with 61 victories. He retired after 1,255 games and with more than 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,500 assists and 1,500 blocks.

Paspalj, from hypnosis to quit smoking to Popovich

Of the three Yugoslavs who disembarked in 1989, Zarko Paspalj (Pljevlja, 1966) was the one who failed to gain a foothold after triumphing in the Partizan of Belgrade with Djordjevic, Divac and the player Zeljko Obradovic . The 2.07m left-handed forward was then a starter in Yugoslavia ahead of Tony Kukoc, tall and quick in his early years and a good shooter, albeit unorthodox, very talented, perhaps somewhat irregular and, yes, with problems later in his career from the personal. For the NBA, he lacked strength and defense, better physical condition. Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown's assistant, was the one who recommended his signing for the Spurs after traveling to Europe. That summer he entered the Eurobasket ideal five with Galis, Petrovic, Ostrowski and Radja.

Popovich, of a Serbian father and a Croatian mother, initially welcomed Zarko into his own home in San Antonio, where he was able to confirm that he was a chain smoker, an addiction that he even tried to quit by resorting to hypnosis, although without much conviction. The friendship between the two, yes, was maintained over time. The media saw his signing as something eccentric and the player, who arrived without knowing English and missed his own, did not help to change that image. "I had no problems fitting in despite not speaking English, my only problem is that the coach did not put me on," he would say later. He returned to Partizan and then to Greece until his 16 points in the first half of the Olympic final against the USA in Atlanta 96 allowed him to sign a contract with the Hawks in his 30s. A marital problem made him, however, resign in the middle of the preseason. He would return to Europe and in 1998 he was retiring from the ranks of Kinder Bologna, among other reasons, on medical recommendation. Later, after the NATO bombing of his country and the death of his parents, he suffered a heart attack at the conclusion of a futsal game that took him away from any sporting practice.

Gomelski's promise

On the Soviet side, a Lithuanian and a Ukrainian were going to debut in the NBA in that year 89 of the last century. Both chosen in the sixth round of the draft, Marciulionis in 1987 (although the election was annulled due to his age, since he was turning 23 years old nine days before the appointment) and Volkov in 1986; and both in the ideal quintet of Eurobasket 87, when their landing in the NBA began to be forged on the way to the Seoul Games in 88. In the run-up to the Olympic event, the Pope of Soviet basketball, Alexander Gomelski, conveyed the certainty to his players that, if they won gold, the great desire of the coach (in Munich 72 the coach was Vladimir Kondrasin), would pull the strings so that they could go out to foreign clubs. His boys trusted him almost as much as he did to get the gold, even in bad times and without the assurance that a convalescing Sabonis could help them. And the gold was his after knocking down the USA in a memorable match and Yugoslavia in the final. Gomelski kept his word, events helped make this happen, and Kurtinaitis even participated in the NBA All Star 3s contest in February 1989. The exit was not immediate and it was necessary to wait until the summer of 1989. Sabonis also came out But he needed to recover as fully as possible from the double Achilles tendon tear and feel like a player again. He did all of this during three seasons in Valladolid before signing for Madrid and moving to Portland in 1995.

Marciulionis' loyalty to Donnie Nelson

Sarunas Marciulionis (Kaunas, 1964) was not the prototype of a Lithuanian player, a left-handed guard (in fact he was almost ambidextrous) very physical and with a devastating first step, at least until the injuries weighed down on him. Internal negligence led him away from Zalgiris, from his native Kaunas, and he signed at the age of 17 for the Vilna Statyba, who only left occasionally to participate in the Club World Cup with Zalgiris in 1987. Perhaps that is why, at the beginning, their relationship with the Lithuanian core of the USSR team it was not so fluid. Gomelski soon saw his potential, but despite his insistence, then-coach Vladimir Obujov decided that it would be the last discard for the 86 World Cup when he was already one of the best players in the country (and a stranger outside). Marciulionis started out playing tennis at a good level as a child and switched to basketball after being hospitalized for a home accident involving an explosive. He came to the NBA after only three absolute championships with the USSR and without the background in European competitions that he would have had with Zalgiris or CSKA, and yet he did not want to change clubs.In his decision to go to the Golden State Warriors of Don Nelson, the father of his friend Donnie Nelson, whom he met on an American tour of Soviet territory as a member of a Catholic team to promote religion in universities, also weighed the fidelity, in this case the friendship between the two. Sarunas managed to shake off the pressure of Ted Turner, the founder of TBS and CNN, who as the owner of Atlanta Hawks and due to his commercial ties with the communist government, negotiated directly with Moscow. The Hawks had toured the USSR in 1988 and, a year earlier, a group of Soviet players, including Marciulionis, had formed a mixed team in the summer with members of the Atlanta squad.

The guard, however, ended up at Golden State after paying the Statyba about $ 300,000 and other compensation. He landed in a Warriors with Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin and in his second season he entered the playoffs. The Lithuanian excelled after overcoming a left knee injury. In the following campaign, the best of his career, he averaged 18.9 points in the regular phase and 21.3 and 5 assists in the 1992 playoffs. That summer he would fracture his fibula running in Vilna, even so on his return he maintained his input. The worst came in September 1993, when the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee was torn. Blank campaign and then transferred to Seattle, from there to Sacramento and later to Denver. One franchise per course in the last three in the NBA until his retirement in 1997 and after mentoring an Arturas Karnisovas then at Barça on his way to Olympiacos.

Marciulionis said goodbye months after a new injury, now in the meniscus, and having left the Lithuanian team, which he helped finance in the beginning, with the bronze around his neck at the 1996 Games. In the hard years, still His talent emerged to be elected MVP of the Eurobasket 95 with an average of 22.5 points ahead of his compatriot Sabonis. Since his retirement he has always been very active: his own hotel, basketball academy, promoter of the Lithuanian and Northern League (NEBL), politics…

Volkov, the Soviet signing of tycoon Ted Turner

Marciulionis did not end in Atlanta Hawks, but Alexander Volkov (Omsk, in what is now Siberia Federal District, 1964) did, who landed in North America after giving the Soviet league to Stroitel in Kiev. That had its crumb and he did it with a triple in extremis in the final against Zalgiris that was annulled for supposedly being out of time and, later, granted after having played an extension, which would be without effect. Volkov is the fifth of Sabonis and Tijonenko, with whom he already coincided in the 83rd Junior World Cup and with the forward, also a year in CSKA due to the obligation of military service. Like them, he was a modern player, a fast power forward, with dribbling, shooting and vision of the game who in the NBA even acted as an escort for the needs of the script.

Had he not made the jump to the NBA, Volkov would have played for Madrid perhaps with Gomelski on the bench after Lolo Sainz left. In fact, to sign with Atlanta he exercised a clause to free himself that included the contract with the whites. He thought he was "now or never" with 25 years and after hanging the Olympic gold and embraced the American experience. Like Marciulionis, he knew the franchise from having been part of a mixed team with Hawks players in the summer of 1987. And how he tried to sign for another franchise after canceling the draft rights; failed to do so and signed a three-year contract with Atlanta.

The Hawks roster was in theory competitive and it would be difficult for them to have much space. The injuries of some teammates opened a gap for him, up to 13 minutes on average in 72 games and 5 points per game. The team did not make the playoffs and Mike Fratello was no longer the coach. In the preseason of the 90-91 course he fractured both wrists in a fall. Blank year. In his third and final year he started strong, although then it was diluted a bit until Dominique Wilkins broke his Achilles tendon in January 1992, which ended up opening the doors of the title. He finished with 8.6 points in almost 20 minutes in a total of 77 games. There was talk of a new contract; However, he ended up back in Europe, first at Italian Reggio Calabria and then at Panathinaikos and Olympiacos, with the latter retiring in 1995 after losing the Euroleague final to his former teammate Sabonis. He dressed again in short, almost in a promotional way with BC Kiev, since he was one of its founders in 1999. Then he followed that path, that of offices, at the head of the Federation of Ukraine, and also in politics. In 2011 he convinced his former coach Mike Fratello to coach the Ukrainian team.

Time flies and almost 32 years have passed since five young Europeans with talent and ambition, from Eastern Europe, jumped a wall that seemed insurmountable, and it was not that of Berlin, but that of the NBA: come to stay and succeed. They called them the Green Card quintet, for the green card that gives foreigners permission to live and work in the United States. Not all of them reached the goal, but their efforts brought the two basketballs closer together and paved the way for later generations on the Old Continent. Five players who would have formed a dream quintet together: Petrovic, Marciulionis, Paspalj, Volkov and Divac. Imagination flies.

Rudy Fernández picks up the ball and, while taking his first steps, looks up at the sky. You have something in mind. Selected by popular vote, he is preparing to make his first mate of the night. A Phoenix full of stars will host the first attempt (All Star 2009) of a European in the mythical contest. In his head, and in that of the more than half a million people who observe him from Spain, ojiplático, 10,000 kilometers away, a name resounds with force. He takes off his shirt and there is Fernando Martín: his ten, his Blazers shirt, the first Spanish skin in the NBA. From pioneer to pioneer.

"I don't know exactly what is going to happen. The topic is starting and you have to give time, because it is not easy to adapt quickly. I think that in the following months everything will be easier. I had little time to feel what it is to play in the NBA, but now the NBA begins for me ", declared Fernando Martín on October 31, 1986, after playing just over two minutes in the loss of the Blazers against the Seattle Supersonics of Dalle Ellis and Tom Chambers; next to him, Kiki Vandeweghe and Clyde Drexler. Years later, Rudy himself, Sergio Rodríguez, whose alley-oops have their one in this story, and Víctor Claver would arrive in Oregon. The franchise with the most Spaniards, whimsically.

The NBA began for him, but also for an entire country. The competition came from the hardships of the 1970s and, under the blow of Magic and Bird, took flight with a supersonic flap. Michael Jordan, as comfortable as he felt in the air, doubled the bet. Without going any further, that season would be the highest scoring season for His Airness, who went from averaging 22.7 points to 37.1 after leaving behind a career-changing injury. Similarly, Magic would also reach its highest scoring point (23.9 + 12.2 assists) and Bird, in his line (28.1 + 9.2 + 7.6), signed his season with the highest average minutes. Aliens Beings that seemed to be from another galaxy but that Martin showed that they had their earthly part: they were made of flesh and blood, they could be touched, they shared a track with them.

All that came back to mind in 2009, with each step Rudy took toward the basket. "Martín? Who is Martín?" Repeated the American commentators, with that accent that makes everything plain. Fernández had to honor his memory, and he did. One, two, three, four steps, ball behind the back, violently against the board and, after its rebound, kill one hand. When he returned to the ground, a slight backward tilt, the result of inertia, which, in no case, was going to end in a fall: it was the aura of a contrasted crusher, the tangible of a culture in which he, non-American and youthfully tall , was still not entirely well received. That was not his role. Even less that of Fernando 23 years earlier, when Rudy was a baby of one; but there was the Mallorcan, and there was the Madrilenian.

Nine, nine, eight, eight and eight. 42 points after the first jump. In the second, up to nine attempts were necessary to complete the action. Along the way, laughter and murmurs that, after the last jump, would end up turning into grimaces of assent and respect. Bill Russell and Shaquille O'Neal included. A metaphor for the national, and even European, journey for the best League in the world.

It was not an easy bet. Pau Gasol, a few months after achieving his first ring with the Lakers, had to bounce the ball off the back of the board; from there, Rudy had to wrap it up and, with the last hoop, sink it. It was achieved, but out of time. Fact that, surely, it subtracted in a score (42, again) that the public, amazed by what they had just seen, received with boos. Nate Robinson, deservedly, would take the award. Your second. The following year he would repeat, thus making his 175 cm the only ones who have won the contest three times.

His last mate, like so many others he left, is an indelible memory. One of those performances that brings it all together: narrative, staging and physical display. In completely green, ball included, he jumped over Dwight Howard and his Superman cape, the same one that, a year earlier, had led the pivot to victory. He wanted to be his kryptonite and he was. In the same way that Rudy had been a few months before in Beijing, in the final of the Olympic Games, when Rudy, Gasol, Calderón, Navarro, Garbajosa or Reyes pushed the Kobe, Carmelo, Wade, Paul or LeBron to the limit. "The game was never closed, I cannot forget it or get it out of my head, because I am convinced that I have just played a match that will go down in history as one of the best," the latter said. "They were screwed up, and if they don't admit it, they lie. We have had them", Marc Gasol. So it was. The final 107-118 was not the best reflection of a game in which, at many times, the US was in serious trouble. "The United States survived the enormous challenge posed by Spain and took the gold," ESPN published. Like Howard against Rudy.

After 24 years, the feat was repeated. Spain added its second Olympic silver after 1984, in Los Angeles. "They are better than us," the first praised the men of Aíto García Reneses. All of them, companions of a Fernando who, after being drafted by the New Jersey Nets (today, in Brooklyn) in 1985, would delay his arrival in the NBA, one more year, to be able to play the World Cup and try the most difficult yet : repeat, or improve, an impossible that was denied. A Fernando Martín who will be remembered and honored every third of December, but also in each of the broken barriers beyond the pool. Like in Rudy's mate. The first of a European in a contest, the first of a Spaniard.

The cameras followed them until they sat down, side by side: Rudy and Pau. The first, with the passage of the objective ahead, pointed to the second, blaming him between jokes. They felt comfortable, they were no longer treading unfamiliar territory. The day before, Rudy had been on the court in the rookie vs. sophomores game; also sharing the game with Marc Gasol, who, like him, was part of the first team. A year earlier, Navarro had also occupied that site. A day later, Pau was going to train with the elders, in the all-star game, repeating the presence of 2006 and adding one more until six that he would end up achieving.

The Spanish conjugation began to be common in the NBA. No matter how much the natives choked: subordinate phrases were losing their prefix and irregular verbs danced as they pleased. Two years before, their roots had already shown how they clung to a land that, not so long ago, was unknown. For the first time, four Spaniards shared a floor in the NBA. It was the early morning of November 21-22, 2007, and at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, the Grizzlies were hosting the Raptors. On the local side, Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro; in the visitor, José Manuel Calderón and Jorge Garbajosa. All of them, world champions a year earlier. The Spanish night, they baptized it, although it could not be entirely perfect. Garbajosa, with ankle problems, did not participate in the match. Despite this, the iconic image would not escape. The four smiling and crossing the eyes: those of Toronto to the right, those of Memphis to the left and a whole country towards the future and, again, towards the past. Pioneers again

Calderón won both games. With great numbers, in addition: his 23 points and 18 assists, between both games, reduced Navarro's 17 and 1 and Gasol's 29 points and 17 rebounds. Considerable statistics, but they are still anecdotal behind the iconic photograph. One that already connects with so many others. With that of Pau, together with his beloved Kobe, holding the champions trophy or with that of Marc and Ibaka embracing in the middle of the Oracle Arena in Oakland, under the gaze of Scariolo on the bench: kings in 2019 with the Raptors. Or with that of 2015, at the All Star in New York, when the Gasol brothers made the United States contemplate an initial Spanish jump. A jump with 29 years of momentum and in the middle of a night when the stars shone like never before.

Half mad scientist half man of the renaissance, the boy Holger Geschwindner (born in 1945) who grew up in the ruined post-war Germany liked sports but his head was going too fast to fill it with football, almost the only language common in Europe at that time. Everything that, from what he understood as simple and fortuitous, the beautiful sport did not give him, he did find it in a basketball that, like jazz, he discovered thanks to the African-American soldiers stationed in West Germany and that became the recipient of all his concerns and the setting in which he performed the masterpiece of a lifetime: Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki is much more than the best player in the history of European basketball. It was the harbinger of a few revolutions: When he came to the NBA, there were only 38 non-American players in the league, the vast majority from college. Back then, it was crazy for a franchise to give a draft 9 (until he was, in 1998) to a player who landed directly from Europe. When he came to the NBA, the 2.13 power forwards were neither dribbling like forwards nor lethal from the 3-point line. Nowitzki's importance in the League's evolution to what it is today deserves as much significance as a resume on which, when he retired in 2019 after 21 years at Dallas Mavericks, a champion ring, the Regular Season MVPs ( 2007) and Finals (2011), fourteen All Star disputed, twelve All NBA nominations (four in the Best Quintet) and 31,560 points, more than Wilt Chamberlain and only behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.

Nowitzki is also the only player who has worn the same NBA jersey for 21 seasons (Kobe stayed at 20 with the Lakers) and signed a season with the mythical and elusive 50-40-90: in 2006-07, in which he was MVP, he made 50% of his field goals, almost 42% of his triples and 90% of his free throws. He averaged 24.6 points, almost 9 rebounds and 3.4 assists. And, I would say, only Tim Duncan is hands down ahead (of him and everyone else) on the list of the best power forward in history.

Nowitzki is one of the best ever, a star with that special charisma that anti-stars have by vocation and a Mona Lisa out of a test tube, that of Geschwindner and his "Institute of Applied Nonsense", the place where he polished Dirk Nowitzki who put away tennis and handball, the sport his father practiced, who thought that basketball was more like girls because his wife, Helga, was a German international. Things: Geschwindner was a counterrevolution in the times of the explosion of the amateur circuits (AAU) and the marketing with young American talents, of immersion in basketball as the sole purpose and of hyper muscle building: his pupils learned to learn, they studied science and philosophy and hardly did weights. In return, they paddled for hours on a lake in the morning and slept on the basketball court at night. In the summer of 2010, anti-star Nowitzki agreed to a new $ 80 million, four-year contract at Mark Cuban's home, with a simple handshake and no big announcements or fuss. It was, of course, the summer of The Decision, the LeBron James television special that turned America upside down. Less than a year later, Nowitzki himself left the first incarnation of LeBron's super Heat unringing and was definitely crowned the very appropriate hero of a public opinion that was still a long way from forgiving and embracing the LeBron who ended up returning to Cleveland.

That Nowitzki who played at a prodigious level in the 2011 playoffs was no longer actually the same player who nearly returned to Germany several times during his rookie year, when he seemed unable to adjust to the United States. He slept on a sofa, he was slow to buy a bed and when he did he chose one that was too small; uncashed checks from the Mavs were piling up alongside television, and the Texas franchise had to put staff at their service practically 24 hours. And not even then the assistant coaches avoided scares like running out onto the road to help him change the wheel of his car within hours of a game. The first Nowitzki, who did not want to be there, was spared his friendship with Steve Nash, in his own way another outsider and a neighbor with whom he drank beer and talked about football, and the stubbornness of Geschwindner, who met Dirk when he was 15 years and drew up a five-year plan to put him in the NBA: he had to advance it, the opportunity was irrefutable, when he found the way to show his product to America through the NBA Hoop Summit in 1998, at that time the only showcase for a European that he was not going to play the university tournament. There Nowitzki added 33 points and 14 rebounds and knocked out a batch of promising players that included Quentin Richardson, Rashard Lewis and Al Harrington. Donnie Nelson, in Dallas, was already taking notes.

Geschwindner, captain of the German team at the 1972 Munich Games, was for those who knew him ahead of his time: had he been born later, they say he would have been without a doubt another European in the NBA. In 1995 he had already calculated that the perfect shot had to be 60 degrees. His notes and sketches went from paper and pen to a computer program that was perfected to polish Nowitzki's jump shot layer by layer: the resistance of the wind, the pressure of the fingers on the ball, the length of the arms ... perfect calculations later applied to the imperfection of matches, in situations of exhaustion and between rivals' shoves. In his libretto there were techniques stolen from violinists and pianists and he liked that, at the foot of his Bavarian castle, his players performed movements with the ball while his friend Ernie Butler played jazz pieces on his saxophone.

As un-American as his method was, his goal was the very heart of Americans, basketball and jazz. And his figure connects Nowitzki with the game's inventor himself, James Naismith. His mentor Theo Clausen had met him years earlier on a scholarship to the YMCA of Massachusetts. Thus, very first-hand, came to Geschwindner the game with whose synthesis he later became obsessed: "giving scientific sense to unleash its natural beauty" .

He never charged Nowitzki anything other than the expenses involved, for example, the permanent trips to the United States during the rookie year of a player who is now hard to remember was a fragile rookie and a star noted for his lack of leadership when his team lost in the 2006 Finals. Or in the 2007 first round against the Warriors, after winning 67 games in a Regular Season whose MVP trophy did not want to show up to collect after that playoff loss, surely the worst of his life (8 points and 2/13 in shots in the final game) .

A player who begged that the 1998 lockout not be resolved and thus not even have to play his first season in an NBA that Geschwindner had promised he would not step on until two years later. The desperate Mavericks took another number 9 in the draft (this one in 1996), Samami Walker, to play games with him so that he would understand that he had nothing to fear from a championship that he revered since the Dream Team of Barcelona 92 set foot in Europe months after he started shooting, at the age of 13. Through one of its members, Charles Barkley, he began to play with the number 14 that turned Dallas into that 41 that is now his forever because Robert Pack had it occupied. Holger Geschwindner thought when he met him that with a seven-footer he could shoot, he would change basketball history forever. And he did. From Würzburg, with a father who did not want him to play basketball and with a mentor who took him climbing the Grand Canyon before his NBA debut to show him that no matter how much he climbed, the top would always remain a little higher. Until Nowitzki achieved the impossible: to stop being.

Europe has long ceased to be a footnote in the best league in the world. It has long gone from curiosity to a nursery for important players for many NBA teams. But in recent years the landing has reached such great heights (in quantity and quality) that the strange thing now is not seeing Europeans in each of the franchises. And not to see them, also, among the best in the NBA. The first decade of the 2000s was a turning point, with the European big three formed by Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol making it clear that times had changed. They were followed by Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic, Joakim Noah and company. But it is from the summer of 2013, the year in which the Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo, when the explosion and start of the golden age of European players in the NBA can be set.

Since then a series of players have arrived who have had a great, very great or enormous influence on the development of the last seasons. There is Rudy Gobert, one of the best defenders for years, or Domantas Sabonis, one of the last to arrive from this new European aristocracy but who is already at all-star levels. Also the two Bogdanovic (Bogdan and Bojan) who have put their genetics of that Balkan talent that is inexhaustible at the service of their teams. Or Nikola Vucevic, who quietly built a career in Orlando to become an outstanding center (and also all star). Never have so many Europeans of such a level come together in the NBA. And the best is still missing, because this group is crowned by the three crown jewels. A Greek, a Serb and a Slovenian who are, today and without discussion, three of the best players in the world.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is, for now, the perfect example of this European golden age. The Greek has been a two-time NBA MVP, something that only 13 other players can say in history since the first award in 1956 was given to then-power forward Bob Pettit for the St. Louis Hawks. Anteto seems to have come out of the 21st century basketball laboratory. That mix of height, size, power and agility that increasingly allows players to break the limits of the five positions on the court. Giannis is a power forward, that's clear. But nobody is surprised to see him raise the ball as if it were a point guard, or to measure himself in the zone with rival centers. What in football would be called an 'all-field player' and that is increasingly seen in the sport of the basket and, especially, in the NBA, where they are called unicorns.

The thing of raising the ball bouncing like a point guard with more than 2 meters high (2.11 officials now) already saw it in Zaragoza in 2012, when they signed a four-year contract days before turning 18. Giannis played in the Greek second division and then he was already able to travel the court from basket to basket (he was 2.04 then, but next to rivals and teammates it seemed even longer than now). Unfortunately for the then CAI Zaragoza and the entire ACB, this promising young man never set foot in the city of the Ebro. In June 2013 the Bucks chose him in the 15th position in the draft. It is already, without a doubt, one of the biggest thefts that have come out of the lottery positions (from 1 to 14) .

Although not only genetics has helped him reach the highest. Also the continuous work to polish aspects of his game. Some are still pending, others have greatly improved, but what has not changed is a work ethic that all those who have coincided with him highlight and that Giannis attributes to his times as a child and adolescent in Athens, when he went out with his brother Thanasis to sell watches, wallets and sunglasses on the street to bring money home. "I will always carry that with me, it is how I learned to work like that," this player, the son of Nigerian immigrants, illegal in Greece, has said at some time, who due to this irregular situation took months to fly to the United States to be with his son. In fact, Giannis did not obtain Greek nationality until 2013. Now he is an idol. A metaphor for the world we live in.

And from an undocumented person with African origins, we go to a Balkan with more class than 95% of the NBA, something if you want to be very European. Nikola Jokic has something in common with Antekounmpo, although in the case of the Serbian he rises to maximum power. The Denver Nuggets picked him 41st in the 2014 draft. If catching Giannis at 15 was a steal, the Jokic thing has been the heist of the decade. In seldom seen numbers for his position, he begins to recall stats not seen since Wilt Chamberlain, possibly the most dominant center in history. But if the good old Wilt took advantage of his physical superiority to crush rivals and records, Jokic's is all head.

Surely one of the things that attracts the most about him is precisely that he doesn't look like a gamer. Or at least not a modern elite player. Although in recent months he has achieved a figure that was never there, not now or before, when he even seemed overweight, he has given the feeling of being an ultra-professional athlete by 21st century standards. He works at his own pace and it better be that way, because otherwise we would be missing a one-of-a-kind player.

Does literally everything. He scores non-stop points (8th highest scorer of the season), takes rebounds as a center is supposed to catch them (8th) and distributes assists like nobody could imagine a 2.11 guy doing it (5th, 8, 7 per game). His rhythm of basket passes already makes him, without question, one of the best centers in history in the creation of the game. An absolutely privileged mind for this sport that does not need to feel physically superior to truly be. His is the mythical phrase "The thing I liked least is running" when asked about his experience in the 2017 All Star skills contest. A statement of intent from a player who is fighting for what would be the first MVP of his career.

Y to close the podium of the European aristocracy in the NBA, another that is more than likely to end his career with the odd award for best player of the season. Luka Doncic has been the last to join this new elite that wants to definitively change the nuclei of power in the North American league. It has cost the Slovenian less than anyone to question the supposed inferiority of the player from the Old Continent with the American. In his first season in the league he was Rookie of the Year (second European after Pau Gasol), he signed numbers only comparable to the greatest in his debut years (Jordan, LeBron, Robertson ...) and his franchise, Dallas Mavericks, changed over the the plan is working. In February there was only one holder left of those who had started the course four months earlier. Of course, it was Doncic. The rest had to pack their bags because in Dallas they realized the first time that it was around him that the whole project had to be built. And they got to it.

The Mavs, that franchise that gave the opportunity to the best European who has stepped on the NBA courts, a Dirk Nowitzki who restored their trust by far, now want to build a new winning project with Doncic as a fundamental piece. In this case, unlike the previous two, they chose it very high. It was the number 3 of 2018 and the Texans changed their number 5 for the third place of the Atlanta Hawks to take over the services of the until then Real Madrid player. Ahead, Phoenix Suns (Deandre Ayton) and, above all, Sacramento Kings (Marvin Bagley) did not dare to draft a European player who, according to a few in the United States, had little room for improvement after his spectacular stint in basketball. European. The non-choice of Doncic by those two franchises is likely to be one of those incomprehensible decisions that will be remembered forever.

Doncic has been the last to arrive from a litter that is transforming the best League in the world. At a time of change in the way of playing, with the players being more and more owners of their careers and a consolidated international expansion that does not stop filling the coffers of the NBA, the Europeans are already a fundamental part of this competition for all. levels.

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