SPRINGFIELD — This city literally rolls out the red carpet for the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame class every year, and western Massachusetts has been particularly looking forward to this year’s class, which is filled with impactful players and coaches with an international flavor.
This year’s class reflects a change in the NBA in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the league fully opened its door to players who were not American and did not attend college. Three of the four first-ballot inductees never played a single game in the NCAA. They were scouted playing for their home country, or in the case of Dirk Nowitzki, a Hoop Summit filled with teenage international talent.
The NBA in the mid-1990s was a much different league than it is now. Kevin Garnett, who later became a pretty good player, broke the 20-year barrier for high schoolers entering the draft in 1995. The NBA was beginning to open its mind to younger players or those from different backgrounds than the four-year college standouts such as Grant Hill or Christian Laettner.
The trio of Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and Pau Gasol is an indication that the NBA’s decision to embrace overseas players was the right decision. While there were a fair share of international busts, the league’s branch to Europe, Asia, and Africa has been wildly successful.
Parker, the youngest of the group at 41, called Nowitzki the godfather of international basketball. Nowitzki, at age 19 and having played for a second-tier German club, scored 33 points in the Nike Hoop Summit and immediately became an NBA prospect, turning down schools such as Cal, which believed it had an inside track.
“I always give credit to everybody else,” Nowitzki said. “I think there were guys that paved the way for me, [Drazen] Petrovic and probably [Arvydas] Sabonis, who we didn’t see the best Sabonis. He was a beast before he got hurt and came over here.
“If I came in and helped and inspire some guys along the way, that make me incredibly proud. It’s always hard to pick a [greatest of all time]. I think that’s part of the debate. Everybody is wanting to compare eras. It’s just impossible. But if that’s [Parker’s] opinion, then I’m very glad to hear that.”
Gasol was 21 when he was picked third by the Grizzlies in 2001 and became the first foreign-born player to win Rookie of the Year in 2002. The center played 6½ years in Memphis before being the centerpiece of what is considered one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history, when he was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers for a group of complimentary players that included his younger brother, Marc.
“When I came to the US there was high expectations after being drafted so high,” Gasol said. “I just wanted to make my country proud and get kids more excited about the game and do something special.”
That deal catapulted the Lakers to championship status and after losing to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals, they responded to win consecutive titles, avenging the Celtics loss in 2010. In a Game 7 that still engenders regret for that Boston team, Gasol pulled down 18 rebounds as the Lakers rallied for an 83-79 win. The Lakers won that game despite shooting 32.5 percent; Los Angeles outshot the Celtics 37-17 from the free throw line.
That victory helped turn the Gasol-Kobe Bryant duo into one of the generation’s best guard-center pairs. Gasol said he relished that bond.
“From the moment I arrived there was no time to waste,” Gasol said. “[Bryant] made sure I knew that from the get go. It was great because it was seamless; it was like you guys have been here forever. It was meant to be. Everybody was so welcoming. It was just the right time, right place. Beautiful things happened. The relationship with Kobe was very, very special in my life. A lot of great memories on and off the court. It takes a special edge to chase a championship.”
Parker was drafted 28th overall in 2001, which should be a painful reminder for the Celtics, who had three first-rounders in that draft. They started by selecting Arkansas swingman Joe Johnson 10th and then took junior college product Kedrick Brown with the 11th pick. Brown averaged 3.1 points in 101 total games for Boston.
To add further dismay, the Celtics passed on Parker at 21 and took North Carolina guard Joseph Forte, who played just eight games in Boston and 25 in his NBA career. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich freely admitted Friday that he wanted no part of taking Parker with the Spurs’ first-round pick. His agent convinced Popovich to work Parker out for a second time, and Popovich said he found four “‘thugs,’ they couldn’t play but they were meaner than hell,” he said, to play against Parker in the second pre-draft workout.
“I put this point guard guy in the post and we played round-robin defense in the post and he had to guard them all,” Popovich said. “And he kicked their ass and he just showed me that I was totally wrong. And after five [regular season] games I gave him the ball and said, ‘you’re in charge.’ And I decided because of what he’d done in that workout and what I saw in training camp that he either would come out of [the frying pan] or croak, but I had a pretty good notion that he would come out of it because he really wanted to stick it to me that second workout. And he did.
“The rest is history. He’s in the Hall of Fame.”