NBA Season Restart 2019-20

International players offer global view on push for racial justice

NBA players from across the world have connected with the Black Lives Matter movement

ORLANDO, Fla. — The phone calls reach the U.S. from all across the globe. Spain and Slovenia, Australia and Serbia, Turkey and France. The people dialing the number use different country codes and speak different tongues yet all seem to ask the same question to their NBA player on the other end:

Do Black lives really not matter much in America?

Friends and family members of these players from the homeland are all curious. They get CNN. They watch the protests, see the anger, read about the incidents involving people of color and so they reach out to the only link they have on U.S. soil to get the 4-1-1.

And that link is someone who talks with Black teammates and coaches on a daily basis, goes to basketball battle with them on game nights and eats and socializes with them away from the court. Surely then, they know.

But: Those NBA players from other countries don’t have easy answers either, because they’re from other worlds.

“Its different,” said Bogdan Bogdanovich of the Kings, a rising talent from Serbia. “Where I come from, we dont have racial issues. It was a different way of growing up for me. In my country, we never feel this way.”

There is understandable angst simmering within a basketball league that’s more than 75 percent Black, the largest concentration of Black athletes of all the major professional sports. Many were born and raised in American communities that dealt with poverty partly caused by systemic racism and among residents who routinely come in contact with police. While these wealthy players rarely if ever feel any outright racism in their privileged and famous adult lives, they have friends or family members who don’t enjoy that advantage.

That’s why the players, with the cooperation of the NBA, felt it necessary to make social justice a major part of this NBA reboot. There’s a unified spirit among all to make statements nightly, even among white players and coaches.

But there’s also a unique segment of the NBA community that’s caught in a perplexing predicament. Players from faraway lands don’t share the same life experiences, at least not enough to make a strong connection with the movement of the moment. This is all new, or perhaps to use a more appropriate word, foreign to the foreigners.

“If it’s a foreign player who’s white, I guarantee you they see the difference more clearly because they don’t have the denial in them,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “They don’t come here with slavery. They come here from a country that was probably less racist, and once they’re here, they’re like, `Wow, I can’t believe this (bleep).’ I hear it all the time.”

They come here from a country that was probably less racist, and once they’re here, they’re like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this (bleep).’ I hear it all the time.”

LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers

Because of America’s diversity, there’s more chance of a clashing of cultures and religions and race than in places where most international players were born and raised. While those societies are homogeneous and therefore don’t reap as many cultural benefits, they also don’t suffer from as many social ills.

It makes for an interesting introduction to America for players who began migrating to the NBA for their pro careers in substantial numbers starting in the previous decade.

“I grew up in Belgium,” said Nikola Vucevic, starting center for the Magic, “and my best friends in school was one African kid and one from Asia. I played college (at USC) with people of all races around me and I never looked at them differently. Your race doesn’t matter who you are as a person; we’re all equal. But I did notice when I came here in America how people speak about it differently.”

Bogdanovic began his professional career with his hometown team in Belgrade. A smattering of Black players from the U.S. were on Serbian rosters and Bogdanovic never saw any issues.

“All the American players who come to my country and play, they are more than welcome,” he said. “They have a lot of nice memories. Our culture is different, more family oriented, and they like that and they always want to come back.”

There are exceptions among the foreign NBA flock. Giannis Antetokounmpo mentions how his parents, Nigerian immigrants, had issues once the family settled in Greece. Same for Patty Mills; his mother was the daughter of a white man and Aboriginal woman and therefore was part of the Stolen Generations, where mixed-race children were removed from their families by the Australian government.

Mostly, though, international NBA players outside Africa are white and largely oblivious to racial issues. Any strife in their countries mainly stemmed from religious or governmental reasons.

There were ethnic and religious tensions in Slovenia before Heat guard Goran Dragic was born in 1986; five years later the Ten Day War happened as a result of Slovenia’s independence from the former Yugoslavia. But Dragic was too young to remember the impact on the lives of him and his family.

“It was crazy even to this day,” he said, “with my dad saying I was going to school with friends who were Muslim and Christian Orthodox and they were best friends, and suddenly when war broke out, they couldn’t hang out together anymore. It’s not something you would ever imagine.”

The most visible international player who wears scars of conflict is Enes Kanter, whose estrangement from Turkey is more government related; he has lashed out against the current regime, which he believes is corrupt and guilty of human rights abuses, and as a result has been persona non grata.

“When I was growing up I remember people really didn’t respect each other, different cultures, religions and colors,” he said. “Even back then I knew something was wrong. I came to America at 17 and I didn’t know all the stuff going on here, too.”

Kanter said his treatment in America is better than what he now receives in Turkey. But he connects with the plight of the underserved here.

“Every team I’ve been on we always respected each other and obviously we came from different backgrounds, religions and cultures,” he said. “But we left our differences in the locker room and spoke one language in basketball. That made us better friends and teammates.”

Kanter is curious by nature and studious by heart and with each racial incident in America during his NBA career, which began in 2011, he took it upon himself to study.

“I started to pay attention more about social justice in America,” he said. “Some of the things I heard from my teammates was heartbreaking. We need to leave our differences on the table. We only have one world to live in. We need to make this world better together. When I was with the Jazz, I remember being in my hotel room and seeing these books in the desks, and so I started reading the Bible and Book of Mormon so I could have a better conversation with fans.”

When demonstrations began to multiply after the death of George Floyd, Kanter drove 20 hours from his temporary home in Chicago to Boston to join his Celtics teammates in protests.

“I had to be with my brothers,” he said. “I know what it is to fight for freedom and justice because of what happened to me. I told my teammates it’s not about white and Black. It’s about everybody vs. racism. We have only one enemy and we need to stay together and go out there and fight. At the protest I saw white, Black, hispanic and Asian. It’s not just one race’s fight, it’s our fight. That gave me so much hope. All together fighting. Kids are seeing people stepping up. It will inspire them.”

Vucevic said he’s educating himself on American history and lately has taken special interest in African-American history by watching documentaries on the Civil Rights movement and its leaders.

“As a white person I can educate myself to see how we can try to bring positive change,” he said. “I learned how John Lewis put his life on the line to fight for change, and he did that at a very difficult time. This is a great time to bring change, with everyone getting involved around the world, not only here.”

As a white person I can educate myself to see how we can try to bring positive change. I learned how John Lewis put his life on the line to fight for change, and he did that at a very difficult time. This is a great time to bring change, with everyone getting involved around the world, not only here.”

Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic

Dragic took his education from the Heat’s most vocal teammates, Jimmy Butler and Udonis Haslem, when the players held a meeting about social justice before the restart.

“I told them I’m here for you, I support everything you do, whatever you need from me I’m going to do it,” said Dragic. “I feel bad for them and feel bad for myself because I’m white privilege.

“But I also feel good about the fact we’ve had demonstrations back home, all over the world, London, New Zealand, Europe, and that’s the way it should be because at the end of the day everybody is a human being with rights.”

And Bogdanovic saw the effect it had on his teammates during a players meeting with the Kings.

“When you see your close friends react that way, its serious,” he said. “I saw the emotions. I think the NBA did a really good job to address the issue. The NBA is a global sport and thats good because it’s a global problem. Thanks for the NBA for giving an opportunity for international players to address social justice on a global platform.”

So there’s a story to be told to those back home in Europe and Asia and Australia about the sights and sounds and feelings in America and the NBA. The international players have joined the cause in spite of their lack of exposure to racism, and most are wearing jerseys emblazoned with social justice messages. Luka Doncic is wearing Enakopravnost which is Slovenian for equality; likewise, Mavericks teammate JJ Barea has Igualdad, the Spanish version, and Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic is bringing Ravnopravnost, the Bosnian version.

Dragic also chose “Equality” but with a twist.

“They asked me if I’m going to do it in my own language and I said no, because if I put it in Slovenian, only two million people would understand it,” he said. “We are such a small country. I said put it in English so a lot of people will understand.”

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.