In 2001, I wrote a story for the Washington Times about Wang Zhizhi, star of the Chinese Red Army's Bayi Rockets basketball team. He was on his way to play for the Dallas Mavericks, becoming the first Chinese player in the National Basketball Association. The story was significant for two reasons: it was my first big scoop in a US newspaper and it signalled the opening of the floodgates of international players coming into the United States.
Yao Ming and several others followed. NBA scouts and player agents were hot on the trail of players in China, spurred on by stories of how there were hundreds of 7ft tall Chinese basketballers scattered around the world's most populous country. Scouting for basketball players became a wild west of sorts. There were very few barriers to entry. If you knew something about basketball, could put players through basketball drills, and owned a video camera, the scouting world was yours. The video camera part is especially prescient. The real currency in scouting is getting video of a player playing basketball. No video, no interest.
As the rest of the scouting world obsessed about lofty Chinese, ever the contrarian, I headed to South America. While geographically closer to the NBA than China, South America was way off the NBA's radar screen. Brazil, with its large population and diverse ethnicity, struck me as a good place to start. The first place I went to was Sao Paulo. With some 20 million residents, I figured the city had to have some players worth giving a look. Travelling on a really tight budget, I was fortunate to arrive when the Brazilian currency was trading at four Reais to one American dollar.
For only US$5 a night (Dh18), I stayed in a clean Japanese hotel in the Japanese Liberdade neighbourhood. While the sushi was cheap, the presence of the Japanese Yakuza crime syndicate made the area very dangerous. Ensconced in Sao Paulo, I heard about the Pinheiros social club's basketball team. Pinheiros caters to the city's fancy set, and they love basketball. I walked into the club's gym and was amazed. There were several decent players, including a 7ft teenager named Eder Araujo. He had all the skills to be something special.
In the United States, this sort of player would have already been signed up to play for some top collegiate team and on the fast-track to the NBA. In Brazil, his talent meant nothing because no value had been assigned to the sport. It didn't take much to convince Araujo to try his luck outside the country. I arranged a time to meet and film him playing basketball. The next day, in the Sao Paulo suburb of Mogi das Cruzes, I met a construction worker named Cleiton Sebastiao. He was sitting in the stands watching the local university team. He was looking for a place to play basketball. I invited him to play with Araujo.
These stories would repeat themselves as I went around the city. There were tall basketball players everywhere I went and they were desperate for an opportunity. Eventually, we all met up at Pinheiros and I filmed them scrimmaging. With Sao Paulo out of the way, I began to travel to different parts of the country. From Salvador, Bahia in the north to Porto Alegre, Rio Grande De Sul in the South, I filmed basketball players.
It was like I was bringing water into the desert. In Porto Alegre, at the Sogipe social club, surrounded by Brazilians who spoke German, I watched an incredibly talented player named Johnny go through a basketball practice. He was incredible. I thought about putting him on the next flight to the USA because he was a legitimate NBA talent. Unfortunately I did not have the chance to film him playing. We agreed keep in touch and that he would send me video tapes of his games as soon as he could get some from his coach.
I left southern Brazil a happy man. What I would later find out was that Johnny's coach had no intention of providing video tapes nor letting his player leave while under contract. Back in Sao Paulo, I made the short trip to the port city Santos, the dank and humid industrial city where Pele rose to prominence. That evening, as a fog enveloped the city, I made my way to Unisanta, one of the local universities. Inside a tiny gym, with a small crowd watching on, Unisanta's basketball team squared off against Vasco Da Gama's squad.
I had heard word of Vasco's 18-year-old forward, Maybyner Rodney Hilario, or Nene for short. I had to see if he was any good. To be honest, the kid did not show any basketball ability. He could not shoot, nor could he dribble nor could he pass the ball. All that was worth noting was his 6ft 10in frame and his muscle-bound physique. Once I arrived back to Canada, I sent the video out to various college coaches. I remember receiving a phone call from Rollie Massimino at Cleveland State University.
They loved the Brazilian seven-footers and wanted to bring some over. Soon after, Araujo and Sebastiao were at junior colleges in the United States. Funnily enough, I found no takers for Nene. Of course, I filmed him on a day when he did nothing impressive. Once I returned I pleaded with Johnny to send me a video of him in action. He could not complete this seemly simple request. I would have to get the video tape on my own. At my wit's end, I phoned up the offices of the American sports channel ESPN and they kindly sent me a tape of Johnny's Flamengo team playing against Nene's Vasco squad.
Suffice to say, while Johnny looked good, Nene looked awesome. At one point, with his back to both Johnny and the basket, Nene spun around himself and the basket and dunked on the other side of the rim. My jaw-dropped and I went about getting in touch with Nene. Initially, I thought he would be one of the best university players in the United States. When he showed up in the States some months later, it was obvious he was more than good enough to enter the NBA right then and there. College was not in the game plan.
He entered the draft and the rest, as they say, is history. Shocking most of the basketball world, the New York Knicks drafted him with their seventh pick overall. Spike Lee, sitting in the front row at the draft, was furious that his hometown Knicks would have picked a guy he erroneously called "Niny". Lee was appeased when minutes later, Nene was traded to the Denver Nuggets for Antonio McDyess, a player with a serious knee injury.
Nene was really just the tip of the iceberg in Brazil. There were many great athletes that came before him and many will follow. Following Nene's success, NBA teams flocked to Brazil. I would go on to help several Brazilians enter the NBA, including first-round pick Leandro Barbosa and second-round pick Marcus Vinicius. I have to laugh when I think about those initial guys that I brought up to the US.
Araujo stars on the Syrian national team. Sebastiao battled through cancer and is now back on the court with the professional basketball team in Santos, Brazil. Nene and Barbosa went on to greatness in the NBA. Vinicius showed flashes of brilliance in the NBA but ended up back in Brazil, enjoying life and dominating the country's national league. The boysI helped many more players who went on to varying degrees of success and are now scattered around the world. Some made millions, some made nothing. Some graduated from university, some flunked out and went home. There was never a dull moment with the Brazilian basketball contingent.
Amazingly enough, even with all the advances in databases and global scouting, many talented basketball players still toil away in obscurity. I recently spoke with Pete Philo, international scout of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves and director of the annual Reebok Eurocamp for the top young talent in Europe. Philo is regarded as one of the leading authorities on international basketball. He believes that there are plenty of hidden gems around the world.
"I spend up to 200 days a year on the road because there are still hidden gems to be found," he said. "A few years ago, I was at a tournament in Doha to watch the Chinese player Yi Jianlian. Also playing that day was an intriguing talent from Kazakhstan named Anton Ponomarev. He was about 6ft 10in, very skinny but with a nice outside shot. He had a great motor - meaning he was really active on the court. Ponomarev has great potential, even if his development has been hindered by staying in Kazakhstan. He might even get drafted."
The international basketball gold rush continues. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org