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FROM THIS EPISODE

Foreign Touch of the NBA

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The flap over the new mandated dress code for NBA players has been huge and I couldn't figure out why until the obvious occurred to me. Management says they need to present a professional brand, and that means no more super baggy jeans on the team planes, no more sideways baseball hats on the bench. It's suits or kackis with a dress shirt or else fines will be slapped down. There's been a furor over this for a week now. Management accused of being racist and catering to white corporate America. Players claiming they not only need to be comfortable, but need to express themselves, and if some heavy bling bling around the neck is expressing themselves, nobody should constrict personal style. Tim Duncan says he doesn't own a suit and it's unfair, financially, to ask him to go out and purchase an entire new wardrobe. If you check Tim Duncan's yearly salary, that particular argument warrants a hearty laugh.

Many valid tangents of opinion have chimed in over the last week, but the new dress code isn't really about professional appearance or race or comfort or financial hardship or personal expression. The dress code is all about stirring up controversy and getting people excited about the start of the season this week. The first pitch of the spring baseball season is always a big deal. The kickoff of the NFL season is dramatic. But the NBA season? It's usually a non-event. We just finished the World Series, we're in the thick of fall football. Some of us feel this is way too early to start pro basketball, given that the season doesn't end until after Memorial Day. But this is the first year I'm ready for the tip-offs. And maybe it was the dress code buzz that got me primed.

The whole zen-master mystique of Phil Jackson, returned to the Lakers to corral the untamable Kobie Bryant is intriguing. Following Ron Artest, after his almost full-season expulsion of last year, should prove interesting. Some say Artest is the best all-round talent in the whole league. Let's see if he delivers. Shaquille O'Neal is almost skinny svelte down in Miami. Analysts say his mainly new posse down there will need a couple of seasons to gel but Shaq and Dwyane Wade are potent on their own and could put the Heat at the top in the East.

For me, one of the biggest draws of the NBA is the growing foreign contingency. A record 19 players from overseas were drafted into the league this year. That makes 82 international players currently suited up in the NBA. They come from all over the world, 36 countries. Just ten years ago, there were only 26 foreign players. Soccer is of course the sport of the people of the world, but basketball is raging in many European countries, across Latin America, and especially in China. The charismatic Rockets center Yao Ming has a lot to do with that. 20,000 retail stores in China are dedicated to NBA merchandise.

A couple of years ago I was working on a documentary in Belize. We were walking to a remote village in the jungle one night and we heard a distant, unmistakably familiar sound. A sports broadcast. As we approached, we could see the screen of an old-model television in one of the huts, jury-rigged to get at least fuzzy reception and we knew it was going to be a soccer game. But no. These guys, barefoot and still hunting their own food daily, were watching an NBA game and they knew just what was going on. They criticized refs' calls. They slapped each other with each cool, above-the-rim move. I've actually had that NBA experience in other remote areas of the world. By season's end games will have reached some one and a half billion people around the world. And that's not even counting Mayan huts.

Basketball may carry the lore of the American urban playground. But there's plenty of world-class foreign talent bringing their own brand of hoops to the NBA now and I personally find the French and Argentine and German accents a wonderfully textured part of today's professional league. And... who knew how great Tim Duncan could look in a suit?

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

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