Stars of Spanish courts making mark in NBA, too
By Dave McMenamin
Posted Oct 20 2008 1:30PM
In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle famously annunciates, "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." Saturday at STAPLES Center some 6,000 miles from Spain, Raptors All-Star Chris Bosh doesn't mince words when he tells you that basketball players from Spain have made their impact swiftly on the NBA.
"Nobody ever says anything about Spain and the talent they have, but they have a lot of [it]," Bosh said. "[Their Olympic team] was of course the best players in Spain, but if you look at them, all their guys are in the league and still nobody really talks about them."
Bosh should know.
Not only did the 6-10 forward do his part for the U.S. with eight points and seven rebounds in the tight-as-Under Armour gold medal game against Spain in Beijing this summer, but he's spent the last three seasons playing alongside Jose Calderon and witnessed the Spaniard establish himself as one of the elite point guards in the league.
Bosh is in Los Angeles because the Lakers are hosting the L.A. Shootout this weekend and the mini four-team tournament has a definite Spanish feel to it.
You can't buy paella in the concourse or anything, but two out of the three NBA entries in the L.A. Shootout feature a starter from Spain (Toronto's Calderon and the Lakers' Pau Gasol) and the other participant, Regal FC Barcelona, can be looked at sort of like the exchange student that came to America in return for the NBA sending the Wizards and Hornets to Barcelona as a part of Europe Live last week.
With five Spanish players currently playing in the NBA at the same time that the Spanish National Team is tearing up the international stage -- winning the gold in the 2006 FIBA World Championship and the silver in the 2008 Olympics -- one might think that the Spanish influx is a recent phenomenon. However there have been Spanish players playing in the NBA for more than two decades, starting with the Nets drafting of Fernando Martin in 1985.
If Martin was Christopher Columbus as the first jugador de baloncesto (basketball player) to set foot in the NBA, then Gasol and Calderon are Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro, conquistadors who followed Columbus across the Atlantic years later and made their mark on the new land.
Gasol is a two-time All-Star and was named Rookie of the Year in 2002 and Calderon led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, with his 5.38-1 mark almost a full assist better than that of the Hornets' Chris Paul. That's no small feat considering Paul finished second in MVP voting and is considered by many to be the NBA's best point guard.
"In the last four or five years we've been doing a really good job with Spain," Calderon said. "We've known each other for a really long time. Right now everybody is starting to come out and is playing in the NBA, but Pau and me; we were here for years already."
Calderon's Raptors and Gasol's Lakers will face off Sunday (the Raptors dispatched the Clippers and the Lakers deported "Barca" on Saturday night) in the L.A. Shootout finale at 10:30 p.m. ET and the two have helped usher in a new wave of players from their homeland by proving the level of NBA success a Spanish player is capable of achieving.
The "Span-tastic Five" are rounded out by two players who played in Beijing with Gasol and Calderon this summer, and a third who was a part of the 2006 World Championship team.
The Portland Trail Blazers will trot out third-year point guard Sergio Rodriguez and rookie swingman Rudy Fernandez this season, while Pau's younger brother, the rookie Marc, is trying to claim the Grizzlies' starting center job.
There's more buzz surrounding Fernandez than a barbershop on an army base after his spectacular run in the Olympics culminated in a 22-point showing in the final, including a vicious dunk on Dwight Howard that was a good illustration of just how quick international ball has caught up to the United States.
In 2000, Vince Carter was leaping over Frederick Weis and in 2008, Rudy Fernandez was flying over Superman.
"Projecting minutes in the NBA always is difficult, but if [Nate McMillan] has confidence in him, he's going to be really good," Calderon said about Fernandez. "I think he's a great player, he can score and he can do a lot of things. He's not just a scorer; he can do a little bit of everything. He's a great player, let's see what happens in the beginning of the season, but I vote for him to win Rookie of the Year."
There were two more Spanish players in the league just last season but Juan Carlos Navarro and Jorge Garbajosa decided to go back overseas this summer after one and two-year stints in the league, respectively.
Garbajosa signed with BC Khimki in Russia while Navarro returned to FC Barcelona [the club Gasol also played for in Spain] and made it back to the league sooner than he expected in Saturday's exhibition against the Lakers. The 6-foot-3 gunner picked up right where he left off, dropping in seven 3-pointers en route to 34 points after leading all rookies with 156 three-pointers last season.
Barcelona also featured Spanish forward Fran Vasquez, who was drafted by Orlando in 2005 with the No. 11 pick, as well as former NBA guard Andre Barrett and D-League forward Ersan Ilyasova, who played 66 games with the Bucks in 2006-07.
The NBA is unlikely to stop adding a little Spanish spice to its overall flavor anytime soon. Respected prognosticator Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress projects Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio will go No. 1 in the 2009 NBA Draft next June.
"He's just 17 years old, he played in the Olympics, he played a lot and he played really good," Calderon said. "This is somebody who it's going to be a really important year for him. Without Rudy Fernandez, he's got all the pressure on him. So if he can do well, he's going to be here [in the NBA] next year, for sure, because he can play."
Before the game Gasol was handed the public address microphone and ended his brief remarks to the crowd by saying, "it's a very special game, I hope you all enjoy it."
It was almost as if he wasn't just talking to the fans in the stands, but to the whole world.
When Pau said "it" he was referring to "tonight," but he might as well have been referring to "basketball."
Spain knows basketball is a special game and its fans are certainly enjoying the sight of their countrymen playing the game at the highest level.
"Everybody is proud in Spain," Calderon said. "Everybody is following the NBA more now, for sure. It's great, I think it's good for our country."
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