Baseball is America’s pastime and football is its obsession, but basketball positioned itself long ago as the national sporting export.
Now all that global growth is pouring back into the league.
More than 100 international players are on opening-night rosters for the first time in league history. The 101 players represent 37 counties and territories, and the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs lead the league for the third consecutive season with nine internationals. Meanwhile, the Heat features one player not born in the United States.
Luol Deng is from England, but he played high school basketball in the States and then starred at Duke. In other words, he was a proven domestic talent before he ever played a game in the NBA.
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With some notable exceptions, the Heat has been slow to develop an international flair. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the franchise isn’t opposed to investing in more international players, but the situation has to be right.
“We’re open-minded to it,” Spoelstra said. “It has to be the right player, it has to be the right fit, but we’ve had players from different areas on our team, so it’s not like we have a closed door to it.”
Dwyane Wade said there was a perception in the past that international players were “soft,” but that has changed.
“I think the world’s perspective. … I think international players used to be — used to be — looked at as soft,” Wade said. “They used to think international players were soft, but now I don’t even think you look at guys as ‘international’ players. You look at them as … he’s a hooper. He’s just like the rest of us.”
The Heat plays seven divisional opponents during the first 5 1/2 weeks of the season. Spoelstra said the team is aware of the schedule, “but we haven’t talked a whole lot about that right now.” Still, it’s no secret that the best time to beat the Heat will probably be early on before Josh McRoberts joins the starting lineup and before the rotations and roles have jelled.
The Heat has been billed an underdog, but Spoelstra isn’t buying the label, and he doesn’t think other teams are either.
“I think probably teams want to play us right now and try to take it to us. Hopefully, we give enough reasons for teams to not underestimate us.”
As for the Heat’s players, Wade said there are more pressing concerns to begin the season than an early cluster of games against divisional opponents.
“We’ve got a very tough division this year, but we have to worry about that later,” Wade said. “Right now, let’s worry about the immediate picture. We can worry about the overall picture later.”
▪ Wade already seems to be preparing mentally for a possible slow start to the season.
“Our job is not worry about what people are saying we can’t do because you get into that mind-set and you start panicking at times and frustration sets in because you want to do it so bad,” Wade said. “That’s not the kind of year that we need to have. We need to understand that it’s going to be a growing process for our team.”
▪ Spoelstra revealed a few extra details of the Heat’s offseason recruiting process that helped salvage free agency after LeBron James left for Cleveland. The team established a relationship with Deng before James’ decision, and that set the tone for more advanced negotiations after James bolted.
The Heat was worried McRoberts would back out of an informal agreement to join the team after James announced his decision.
“All we had was a handshake and an agreement,” Spoelstra said. “He could have left, but he honored it.”
▪ This season marks Spoelstra’s 20th with the Heat. He says the stability of the franchise’s front office will be a strength this season, the team’s first without James.
“We’re more oriented in how do you build a championship team,” Spoelstra said. “We’re going on our 20th year right here, and every single year that I’ve been working for Micky [Arison] and Pat [Riley], it has been about how do you build a championship team.
“Comparing to other teams — not that we have the only blueprint because it has been a different blueprint three times that we’ve done it — but we’re more focused on what we think will give us the best opportunity to win right now.”