Russian basketball star says American coach should quit

Should American David Blatt make room for a Russian coach?

By Nicholas Nehamas

Russia’s David Blatt is one of Europe’s most successful coaches. (Reuters)

Russia “medaled” for the first time ever in basketball at the London 2012 Olympics, winning bronze, but a top Russian player thinks its time to jettison the team’s American coach, David Blatt.

“I think now might be a good time to switch over,” CSKA Moscow forward Viktor Khryapa said in comments carried by the state news agency RIA Novosti. “We’ve got good young [Russian] coaches . . . If we don’t start [employing them] then we could forget about Russian coaches.”

Blatt, a Princeton graduate who also coaches Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, has been in charge of Russia for seven years, and Khryapa credits him with helping the team achieve “top results” in that time.

So for all you Cold Warriors out there, no need to worry: Khyrapa’s statement doesn’t appear to be the result of anti-American or jingoist sentiment. Rather, it’s an illustration of how global basketball has become.

Over the last few decades, American players and coaches have fanned out across the world, spreading the gospel of hoop.

In some countries like Spain, Greece and China, basketball is now arguably the second most popular team sport after soccer.

That means more and more foreign players are good enough to play in the NBA. Last year, there were 74 foreign players in the league from 35 different countries, around sixteen percent of the total. At the 2012 NCAA college basketball tournament, around 11 percent of the players were not from the U.S., as Latitude News reported.

The best foreign teams have also made a habit of signing American players to beef up their rosters. These U.S. stars, like former Knicks guard Stephon Marbury in China, have helped bring basketball into the mainstream.

But their presence can also cause resentment when local players get squeezed out.

Thrilla in Manila

The Philippines might not seem like a natural place for basketball to flourish, writes the Philippine Star columnist William Esposito. Perhaps in part because of the U.S.’s long occupation of the Asian nation, Esposito writes that basketball is his country’s most popular sport.

But without the requisite “height and heft,” the Filippino national team has struggled for succes. That is until the team started recruiting Americans and giving them citizenship.

Writes Esposito:

To overcome [our] genetic handicap, we’ve resorted to cheating — enlisting foreign players to play for the national team. A sport is one opportunity for promoting fair play, magnanimity in victory and equanimity in defeat — but over here it has deteriorated into another avenue for cheating. How can we really take pride in winning the 2012 William Jones Cup when it was clear that we had enlisted a 6-11 African-American, Marcus Douthit, without whom the victory couldn’t have been possible? That’s our damaged culture at work again. For a hollow victory, we’re willing to be branded as cheaters.

Meanwhile, in Japan, one of the country’s most successful basketball teams, Panasonic Trians, is shutting down after more than 60 years because its parent company, Panasonic, can’t afford to pay the bills anymore.

In the Japan Times, Ed Odeven describes how Panasonic helped make the Japan Basketball League a hit in the 1980’s by recruiting American players like the University of Kentucky star Larry Johnson, who became a five-time league MVP in Japan after one season in the NBA.

The Panasonic Trians have also been managed by big name coaches like Paul Westhead, who led a young Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title in 1980, and Scott Brooks, whose Oklahoma City Thunder lost in the finals last year.

“All the American and other import players who are playing basketball in Japan owe a debt to Panasonic,” a source tells Odeven. “[Johnson’s] success with Panasonic forced other teams to hire import players, which is why all the current players now have jobs playing basketball in Japan.”

But Japan could become a less attractive destination for American basketballers in the future. Salaries might drop without high-spending Panasonic in the league, and it surely put a scare into many U.S. athletes when Lyn Washington, one of Japan’s biggest stars, told the Japan Times he had been “wrongfully blackballed” from the league after being arrested for smuggling marijuana.