By Dan Ehrlich, Contributor to Project Spurs
Before you contact the Project Spurs editors to wonder about this new contributor’s credentials or allegiance to the wrong NBA team given the dubious heading of this article, hold your horses and read on. Rest assured there is no error here. This is indeed an article on the Spurs written by a huge life-long fan from across the pond -- London, England. It concentrates on an area in which many of our younger fans may not know the Spurs have been one of the pioneers in.
The role of foreign players in the NBA has been immense in the past couple of decades, and if anything, only continues to grow. The draft has now become an event which involves teams selecting and attaining rights to talent from overseas just as much as it is about plucking the best American players from colleges around the country. Yao Ming (China), Andrew Bogut (Australia) and Andrea Bargnani (Italy) have been the No. 1 draft picks in this very decade. Ming and Bargnani never even officially played ball in the U.S. before being selected (Bogut played college at Utah). This all just proves how much impact the international game now has on the best league in basketball. There is also no doubt that Team USA’s struggles in the past few years in international competitions (2002 World Championships, 2004 Olympics and again at the 2006 Worlds), despite fielding great players from around the league, only served to drive the point home.
The Spurs have embraced the international game more than most teams in the league. After all, two of the team’s "Big Three" are from overseas. Tony Parker was an unknown 19-year old, even back in Europe, when selected at No. 28 in 2001. Manu Ginobili was selected at No. 57 back in 1999. We all know how great these players have become - three of the four championship banners would most probably not be hanging in the rafters of the AT&T Center without their contributions. There were of course others who have made contributions (to various extents) over the last decade – Francisco Elson, Fabricio Oberto, Rasho Nestrovic, Beno Udrih, Shane Heal, Hedo Turkoglu, to name but a few.
But what is less known and mentioned these days, is the fact the Spurs have been one of the trail blazers of the international game in the NBA. Back in the late 80’s, foreigners were a real rarity in the league. In fact, in 1989, the year David Robinson arrived on the scene and changed the franchise forever, there were only a total of five foreign-born players who hadn’t attended college in the U.S., and all five arrived from Eastern Europe. Very few teams put an effort to scout players overseas those days. One of those very few teams, though, was indeed the Spurs. And perhaps even more interesting is that two key personalities that helped kick-start the wave of import of international players were Gregg Popovich and RC Buford.
Popovich and Buford were both assistant coaches on Larry Brown’s Spurs team back then, and one of select few that paid serious attention to basketball talent offshore. It all started when Pop was given permission by Bob Bass (then Spurs GM) to scout the Euro Championships in the summer of 1989. A few weeks later, Pop came back from the tournament together with one of the best talents of European basketball, Zarko Paspalj.
From that point, other players came from overseas and played for the Spurs, and although none of them had as big an impact as Parker or Ginobili later on, they provided the grassroots for the development of international players not only for the Spurs organization, but for the NBA as a whole. Below I’ve provided a quick run-down as to who these players were and what they have done for the Spurs.
However, one should remember these guys less for their stat lines, and more for their influence years later. Gregg Popovich and RC Buford always maintained that some of those players were ahead of their time – the NBA was simply not ready yet, and coaches were also reluctant to give these players a real chance. Pop and RC’s ability to see what foreign talent can potentially bring to the table, and to wait for the right time to deliver their well-planned strategy - this time as much more influential people in the Spurs management ladder – paved the way for repeated use of the Riverwalk as a popular venue for NBA championship parades.
Height: 6' 9"
Origin: Serbia / Montenegro (Former Yugoslavia)
Spurs Stats (1989-1990): 23 Games Played, 2.6 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.3 BPG
Paspalj is probably considered the real pioneer of the Spurs’ true “foreign legion”. As mentioned above, Pop plucked him out of the 1989 Euro Champs after scouting there for the Spurs. Paspalj was already well known in Europe at the time, being a member of the strong, up-and-coming Yugoslavian national team.
Larry Brown played Paspalj very little in his only season with the Spurs (1989-1990), hence his not very impressive numbers. He also apparently played very little defense, not really helping himself playing for a defensive-oriented coach like Brown. Interestingly, when converting his numbers to 36 Minutes-Per-Game averages, perhaps one can see the potential he had – 14.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.4 BPG. Granted, it’s not necessarily a sound conversion, given that his actual minutes were probably played in garbage time, but there is still something to consider.
Paspalj was cut by the Spurs right before the 1990 playoffs to make room for Mike Mitchell who, ironically, played in Europe during that very season. He went back to play in Europe and became a full-fledged star in league competitions (both Yugoslav and Greek leagues) and nationally, winning multiple Gold medals with Yugoslavia. Popovich and Buford both claim that had Paspalj come to the NBA later on (he was only 23 when he arrived in the US), he would have been able to contribute significantly.
Although his on-court contributions were not significant, Paspalj was still popular in the locker room. In fact, he had a song written about him by Terry Cummings, “Mark of Zarko”. Another interesting fact is that when he arrived in Texas in the summer 1989, he stayed at Popovich’s house for a period. Somehow I can’t see something like this happening now in the NBA.
Height: 7' 0"
Spurs Stats (1989-1990): 13 Games Played, 1.2 PPG, 0.9 RPG
Welp’s stint with the Spurs was a very short one in the first part of the 1989-1990 season. His NBA career actually started a little earlier though. After enjoying great success in college basketball, becoming the all-time leading scorer for the Washington Huskies, he was selected by the 76ers in the 1987 draft. He played two seasons in Philly before being traded to the Spurs during the 1989 off-season.
However, as was the case with many of the other international players at the time, he got very little chance to prove himself in a Spurs uniform and barely played. He eventually got traded in the midst of the 1989-1990 season to the Warriors. His NBA career finished not long afterwards.
Height: 7' 1"
Spurs Stats (1989-1990): 7 Games Played, 2.1 PPG, 1.3 RPG
Blab joined the team in February 1990, as part of a trade deadline deal with the Warriors for… Chris Welp! It seems that when the Welp project failed, the Spurs simply tried it all again with another talented German center.
Blab actually played in the NBA since the mid 80’s after being drafted by the Mavericks back in 1985. He also played college basketball for Indiana prior to that.
All said, he appeared in only 7 games for the Spurs, and was waived after the 1989-1990 season.
Height: 6' 10"
Spurs Stats (1994-1995): 23 Games Played, 1.3 PPG, 1.0 RPG
Nwosu only played with the Spurs for one season (1994-1995) and averaged a mere 3.7 minutes per game. He actually went to Liberty University in Virginia, but was never drafted.
Nwosu is actually more known for what he has done outside the NBA. Amazingly, he played in 14 different countries in his career! He won the Russian league with CSKA Moscow, the French league crown with Orthez, and even a couple of cup competitions in the Philippines, before trying his luck in Romania, Syria and Iran. I suspect he would give anyone a run for their money as far as passport stamps are concerned.
Height: 6' 7"
Spurs Stats (1998-1999): 19 Games Played, 1.1 PPG, 0.3 APG, 31% 3-pointers
Gaze is still considered Australia’s most successful basketball player. He was well known to be an extremely prolific 3-point shooter with good passing skills to boot. He was one of the leading figures of his Australian team, Melbourne Tigers, and also played for his home country in a staggering five Olympic games.
His experience in the U.S. game started already back in 1989, when he played for a Seton Hall team that reached the NCAA final. However, he did not get his chance in the NBA until later on. He had a very brief stint with Washington (then Bullets) in the 1993-1994, before going back to play down under.
In the 1999 lockout-shortened season, he came back to the U.S. and joined the Spurs. Unfortunately, he was injured for part of that already-shortened season, so never had the real chance to display his famous shooting stroke. He did not make the Spurs playoff roster that year and as a result did not fully participate in the ensuing thrilling title run. However, the Spurs, being the classy organization it is, still gave Gaze a championship ring!
What are your thoughts on the Spurs being pioneers in scouting foreign talent? Leave us your comments.