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(Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Global takeover: Why the NBA's best players now come from all over the world

The story begins with a former meat inspector from Belgrade.

Luka Dončić was barely old enough to shave when he first attracted the attention of a Dallas Mavericks international scout.

Roberto Carmenati kept hearing from trusted friends that there was a boy wonder from Slovenia who he needed to go see.

It was April 2012, and Dončić had just taken full advantage of a rare chance to play against his own age group. He dropped 54 points and 11 assists in the title game of a prestigious under-13 tournament in Rome.

A grainy highlight video shows a baby-faced teen with the skill and savvy of a seasoned pro. Many now-familiar Dončić trademarks are already visible: The dazzling no-look and behind-the-back passes, the smooth step-back and crafty change-of-pace dribbles. Once, he even bounces the ball through the legs of an overmatched defender.

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“I marked his name down as someone to keep an eye on,” Carmenati told Yahoo Sports. “I wanted to see how he developed.”

Over the next five years, the Mavericks watched with growing intrigue as Dončić joined Real Madrid and blossomed into maybe the most accomplished 18-year-old European basketball prospect of all time. Carmenati scouted Dončić in person 15 times leading up to the 2018 NBA Draft, dissected video of his other games and verified with his network of European contacts that there were no weaknesses he might have missed.

Former general manager Donnie Nelson and at least four other Mavericks executives also flew from Dallas to Europe to evaluate Dončić for themselves. Sometimes they’d hide out in distant hotels or in nose-bleed seats to disguise their interest.

The evaluation process left the Mavericks confident that Dončić was the best player in that year’s draft, that he could play point guard at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, that his modest quickness and athleticism would not hinder him from becoming a franchise player. On draft night, Nelson brokered a trade with Atlanta to move up two spots, enabling the Mavericks to get their man.

It was approaching dawn in Italy when Carmenati learned about the trade. Right away, he congratulated Nelson and Mark Cuban via email and predicted Dončić would repay them with “at least seven or eight triple-doubles in year one.”

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“Being part of that process as a scout,” Carmenati said, “was a great satisfaction.”

For a surprisingly long time, the NBA treated international prospects like afterthoughts. As recently as the early 1980s, the league’s only foreign-born players were those who relocated to America as kids and rose through the high school and college system. In those days, most NBA teams didn’t even bother to scout overseas talent. Those who did were just as likely to take a chance on a future politician or professional wrestler (literally) as they were to unearth an NBA starter.

“International scouting was very unsophisticated back then,” ex-NBA assistant coach Brendan Suhr told Yahoo Sports. “Like, ridiculously unsophisticated.”

Only a few decades later, the NBA has become a global empire on which the sun never sets. There were a record 125 players from 40 countries on opening-day NBA rosters last October. That’s almost six times as many international players as the league had in 1992, the year that the Dream Team helped basketball take off internationally.

It isn’t just the quantity of international players that has increased. The quality has improved, too. Foreign imports have won the past six NBA MVP awards. Of the five players named first-team All-NBA this past season, only Jayson Tatum was born in America.

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The trend shows no sign of slowing on the eve of Wednesday’s first round of the NBA Draft. A flood of Frenchmen are following Victor Wembanyama, including potential top-two picks Alex Sarr and Zaccharie Risacher and fellow projected lottery pick Tidjane Salaun. Some mock drafts project as many as nine international players to be first-round picks.

With international players contributing more than ever to the NBA and another wave of foreign talent set to enter the league this week, it raises two obvious questions: How did a league once composed almost entirely of Americans evolve so rapidly? And how much more global could the NBA someday become?

(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports illustration)

The most overlooked figure in the growth of international basketball is a former meat and dairy inspector from Belgrade.

Boris Stanković paved the way for the birth of the “Dream Team” with his one-man crusade to open the Olympics to NBA players.

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In those days, FIBA's amateurism rule that governed who was eligible for the Olympics was the epitome of hypocrisy. Players paid by professional teams in Italy, Spain or elsewhere in Europe were classified as amateurs. By contrast, NBA players were considered to be professionals and had to forfeit their eligibility.

Before Stanković, no one had bothered to challenge that rule. America hadn’t needed its legion of NBA stars to maintain global supremacy. Aside from the infamous disputed 1972 gold medal game against the Soviet Union, the U.S.’s top college players had demolished other countries’ best pros.

To Stanković, it was nonsensical to crown an Olympic or world champion without the sport’s 350 best players. The FIBA secretary general was shrewd enough to recognize that the U.S. would stomp every opponent in its path for awhile, but he believed the rest of the world would rise to the challenge faster if they first felt the American dragon’s full fury.

In late 1985, after years of FIBA going out of its way to avoid any association with the NBA, Stanković reopened communication. He surprised NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Russ Granik by requesting a meeting in New York.

“He basically said that it didn’t make sense to have international competition if it didn’t include the best players in the world,” Granik told Yahoo Sports. “He wanted to unite the world of basketball, but he said he couldn’t do it alone.”

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The idea of NBA players at the Olympics wasn’t something that Stern or Granik had previously considered. They had been too preoccupied with guiding the NBA out of a turbulent era marred by dwindling crowds, tape-delayed playoff games, and players using drugs and committing acts of on-court violence.

Stern wasn’t yet ready to commit to asking top-tier NBA players to add the Olympics to their already full plates, but he was more amenable to an intermediate step that Stanković proposed. The commissioner agreed to demonstrate that FIBA and the NBA could work together by jointly organizing an annual round-robin tournament pitting an NBA team against top teams from abroad.

The inaugural McDonald’s Open aired on ABC in October 1987 and featured the reigning European club champions, Tracer Milano, and one of the most dominant teams in international basketball, the Soviet national team. The reliably above-average Milwaukee Bucks represented the NBA, Granik said, because “Stanković was savvy enough to know that his teams were not going to be competitive with our absolute best.”

It must be tempting for Granik to claim that he and Stern instantly grasped the possibilities, that they foresaw a future where the greatest basketball team ever assembled became the toast of the 1992 Olympics and inspired a generation of younger players across the globe. In reality, that wasn’t the case. Stern and Granik merely hoped exposing the rest of the world to the NBA’s top stars might boost TV viewership abroad and maybe sell some hats and T-shirts.

“We never talked about how this was going to attract new players,” Granik said. “There were already some decent international players, but the idea that this was a step in the way of producing great talent for the league, that wasn’t there yet.”

NBA stars Vlade Divac (Charlotte Hornets) and Arvydas Sabonis (Portland Trail Blazers) chat during news conference in Belgrade January 6. Divac and Sabonis have joined players fleeing the NBA lockout. Divac signed up with Yugoslav champions Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) Belgrade, and Sabonis with Zhalgiris Kaunas, who play in the Euroleague in Belgrade on January 7.

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Vlade Divac (Serbia) and Arvydas Sabonis (Lithuania) were among the first Eastern European players to make their way to the NBA.

It’s no surprise that Stern and Granik couldn’t yet envision a Tony Parker coming from France, a Pau Gasol emerging from Spain or a Dirk Nowitzki popping up in Germany. There weren’t many examples of players raised and trained abroad making that kind of impact.

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The NBA’s earliest international-born players almost all came through the U.S. developmental system. Swen Nater immigrated from the Netherlands to the Los Angeles area at age 9. Mychal Thompson moved from the Bahamas to Miami during high school. Hakeem Olajuwon and Detlef Schrempf were two of the first outliers, but even they played four years apiece at American colleges and became straightforward evaluations for NBA scouts.

Extracting top talent directly from Europe proved more difficult for NBA teams. Under FIBA rules, a player who signed with an NBA team forfeited his amateur status and the ability to play for his country. Many top European-bred players of the 1970s and '80s were hesitant to do that. The stars of the Soviet national team didn’t even have that option since the Soviet government tightly controlled their futures.

When Alexander Volkov was growing up in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, he said, “If somebody talked about playing in the NBA, people would laugh at him.” Nothing changed for Volkov even after the nimble-footed 6-foot-10 forward blossomed into one of the Soviet national team’s top players by the early 1980s.

“The only way for us to get to the NBA was to go to the United States or some Western country and defect,” Volkov told Yahoo Sports. “But obviously none of us were willing to take that risk because we had too many friends and relatives back in the Soviet Union.”

For years, NBA front offices slowly dipped their toes into the international talent pool like the water was uncomfortably cold. In the 1970s, NBA teams took late-round fliers in the draft on Italy’s Dino Meneghin and Russia’s Alexander Belov but failed to persuade them to come over. Yugoslavia’s Drazen Dalipagic and Kresemir Cosic tried out for the Boston Celtics in 1976. Russia’s Sergei Belov went entirely overlooked.

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“Those were dominating players that would have been very successful in the NBA if they were given the opportunity back then,” Carmenati said.

It wasn’t until 1985 that a player trained and developed in Europe finally appeared in an NBA game. Georgi Glouchkov, a burly 6-foot-8 Bulgarian center, reinforced old misperceptions more than he challenged them when he shot barely 40% from the field and struggled to duplicate his former rebounding prowess while coming off the bench for the Phoenix Suns.

Atlanta Hawks general manager Stan Kasten was among the first NBA executives to make a major investment in identifying top European prospects. Kasten, now the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers, created a consulting position for a New York-based agent who specialized in placing American players on top European teams.

Richard Kaner would visit Europe three or four times a year, watch games and speak with his vast network of contacts. Then he’d come back with a stack of VHS tapes and a list of players for the Hawks to consider.

Said Kaner humbly, “I was probably one of the first international scouts employed by an NBA team.”

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With a seven-round NBA Draft, the Hawks could afford to take low-risk, sight-unseen gambles on international players Kaner recommended. From 1985 to 1988, they selected 10 overseas prospects, some of whom went on to have decorated basketball careers and some of whom were memorable for other reasons.

In 1988, the Hawks used the No. 54 overall pick on Jorge Gonzalez, a plodding 7-foot-6, 380-pound Argentinian who turned out to have more of an appetite for American food than he did running sprints or lifting weights. Lacking the requisite speed or stamina, Gonzalez lasted less than a year with the Hawks before he began training to become “El Gigante” in World Championship Wrestling.

“He had nice touch from behind the 3-point line,” then-Hawks coach Mike Fratello told Yahoo Sports with a wry chuckle. “He had a problem running up and down the court, but he had touch.”

At the height of the Cold War, Hawks owner Ted Turner became passionate about using sports to promote peace and friendship between the U.S. and Soviet Union. The television mogul created the Goodwill Games and forged relationships with Mikhail Gorbachev and other key government officials in Moscow.

As Gorbachev implemented reforms loosening government control on the economy and permitting more individual freedom, the outlook brightened regarding the possibility of Soviet players receiving permission to go abroad. The Hawks sought to leverage the trust that Turner had already built in Moscow to help them identify and sign the most promising Soviet players.

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In 1985, the Hawks were the first to draft Arvydas Sabonis, the 7-foot-3 Lithuanian who big-man guru Pete Newell once claimed he’d have drafted over Patrick Ewing. The NBA later voided the Hawks’ pick because Sabonis wasn’t yet 21. Despite the objections of the Hawks, Sabonis returned to the draft pool.

Only a year later, after Portland shocked the basketball world by using a first-round pick to nab Sabonis, the Hawks selected Volkov and fellow Soviet Valeri Tikhonenko. Volkov was skeptical that an NBA team was seriously interested in him until Fratello and Kasten showed up at the FIBA World Championships in Madrid later that summer with a contract and a Hawks jersey bearing his last name.

“That’s when I realized it was the real deal,” Volkov said. “I started to think, ‘This could actually happen one day.’”

The once-impossible dream of playing in the NBA became even more realistic for Volkov as the Hawks continued to go out of their way to build trust with Soviet officials.

It started with Turner arranging for Sabonis to come to Portland for treatment after he ruptured his right Achilles tendon for the second time. Turner also arranged for Volkov and five other Soviet players to fly to the U.S. and team with a half dozen Hawks for a four-city exhibition tour in August 1987. The Soviets hung on every word from the Hawks coaches and challenged themselves against strong competition ahead of the 1988 Olympics.

The success of that trip gave way to another, one that would irrevocably alter the NBA for the better.

In July 1988, the Hawks traveled to the Soviet Union, accompanied by Stern and a handful of other high-ranking NBA officials. Publicly, the mission was to play three games against the Soviet national team to help soothe Cold War tensions. In actuality, they were also there to finally bring down the Eastern European wall and help the NBA gain access to the many great players behind it.

Basketball: 1988 Summer Olympics: View of Team USA players with bronze medals (R), Team Soviet Union players with gold medals during ceremony at Jamsil Gymnasium.
Seoul, South Korea 9/30/1988
CREDIT: John W. McDonough (Photo by John W. McDonough /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: X37087 TK33 R4 F17 )
By 1988, the world was catching up with the United States on the basketball court, evident by the Soviet Union — led by the likes of Arvydas Sabonis — taking gold.

Mike Fratello won’t ever forget his ‘Welcome to the Soviet Union’ moment.

The Hawks had just landed at a remote Georgian airstrip near the Soviet Olympic Training Center in Sukhumi. They trekked across the airfield to the terminal building, only to discover that their luggage had been dumped unceremoniously alongside the plane a couple football fields away.

Fratello borrowed a nearby truck, took a handful of players and went to retrieve their bags. It was an eye opener for a group of guys whose concept of roughing it when traveling during the NBA season consisted of not finding a terry-cloth robe and slippers in their hotel room or a chocolate placed on their pillows.

Sukhumi, the Hawks were told, was a scenic resort town on the coast of the Black Sea. Players brought bathing suits and snorkels and anticipated trying water sports or relaxing on the beach. The reality turned out to be nothing like the brochure. Members of the Hawks travel party recall icy showers and bathrooms with no toilet paper, faulty electricity and scant food options, no air conditioning and windows with no screens to keep out the mosquitos.

“You could still see all the mosquitos that were squashed up against the wall by whoever had your room before you,” Fratello said.

When the power went out one night, the American contingent and the Soviets convened on the hotel’s top floor with flashlights and all the beer and wine they could find. Recalled Kim Bohuny, then a Turner Broadcasting researcher and now the NBA’s International Basketball Operations Advisor, “Spud Webb told me I usually don’t even drink, but I’m going to drink tonight.”

Hawks players might not have fully understood why they traveled more than 11,000 miles round trip to play three exhibition games, but the NBA had a clear vision. Stern met with high-ranking Soviet officials throughout the trip, pushing for more NBA games and highlights to air on Soviet TV stations and for Soviet players to be granted the freedom to come to the league.

The latter topic explained the presence of Kasten and Portland Trail Blazers president Harry Glickman at some of those meetings. The Trail Blazers owned the draft rights to Sabonis and were eager for him to join them. The Hawks had their eye on Volkov and Soviet teammate Šarūnas Marčiulionis, a strong, athletic guard who caught Kasten’s attention while touring with Atlanta the previous summer.

A key to the negotiation was the growing confidence that Stanković had the support for his idea to make NBA players eligible to represent their countries at future Olympics and FIBA events. Moscow came to see exporting top players to the NBA as a way of generating funds for its basketball federation at a time when the Soviet Union was unraveling and money was especially tight.

“The Soviets said let’s get through the Seoul Olympics, but our plan is to allow some athletes to go,” Bohuny said. “Of course it wasn’t as if the athletes were going to keep 100% of whatever salary they made in the NBA. The Soviets were looking for payouts, but they were figuring out what percentage the country would take and what percentage the athlete would keep.”

When the Soviets took the court against the Hawks, it didn’t take an NBA scout to figure out why the league wanted these players. Even without an injured Sabonis, the Soviets fell by just one against the travel-weary Hawks in Tbilisi, Georgia, forced overtime in Vilnius, Lithuania, before breaking through in Moscow.

The Soviets captured Olympic gold in Seoul that September, Sabonis, Marčiulionis and other players reluctantly standing atop the podium under the hammer-and-sickle flag of their longtime oppressors. USA coach John Thompson famously blamed the NBA for his team’s semifinal loss to the Soviets, bemoaning the medical care that Sabonis received from the Trail Blazers and the competition and tutelage provided by the Hawks.

In 1989, Soviet players finally received permission to head west, Volkov signing with Atlanta and Marciulionis breaking the Hawks’ hearts by accepting an offer from Golden State. Dražen Petrović, a Yugoslavian guard considered the best player in Europe, joined the Trail Blazers that same year, while fellow Yugoslavian stars Vlade Divac and Zarko Paspalj latched on with the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, respectively.

Some in NBA circles were scarred by the memory of Glouchkov going from “the Balkan Banger” to “the Balkan Benchwarmer.” They wondered if the league’s new quintet of Eastern Europeans would fare any better.

The answer was an emphatic yes.

Petrović lived up to his billing as the Croatian Mozart after a trade to New Jersey, averaging 22.3 points and earning third-team All-NBA honors the season before his tragic death. Divac, barely out of his teens and speaking little English, by his second year became the Lakers’ starting center and a fan favorite. Marčiulionis added firepower to an already potent Golden State backcourt and twice finished runner-up for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.

Those players, Bohuny says, “dramatically changed the NBA’s mindset about European players and inspired other players down the road.”

They offered a blueprint for the droves of kids around the world who were about to become enthralled with basketball.

SPAIN - AUGUST 06:  Basketball: 1992 Summer Olympics, (L-R) USA Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, and Karl Malone victorious with USA flag after winning final game, Barcelona, ESP 8/8/1992  (Photo by Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)  (SetNumber: X43178)
When the NBA unleashed its players onto the Olympics, it had no idea what the global impact would be on the game of basketball.

On April 8, 1989, moments after the FIBA World Congress emphatically voted to drop “Amateur” from its name and to open its competitions to NBA players, a joyous Stanković declared, “We see this as our triumphant entry into the 21st century.”

Not everyone was quite so optimistic.

There was considerable hand-wringing in the American media at the time about whether the U.S. should be assembling a team of NBA stars capable of bludgeoning most international foes. The USA Amateur Basketball Association even voted against making professional players eligible because the majority of college coaches opposed it.

Only 58% of NBA players were willing to play in the Olympics if given the opportunity, according to an Associated Press survey released days before the FIBA vote. Some high-profile NBA figures questioned whether players would be willing to give up their summers and whether owners would be willing to allow their stars to risk injury.

“If I was an owner, I wouldn’t let our players play,” Jerry West told the Los Angeles Times back then. “You play until June in the NBA, then they would have to play all summer without a rest and then come back in the fall. I don’t think the owners would want that.”

That sentiment had changed by the time Granik and fellow NBA executive Rod Thorn began reaching out to NBA stars to gauge their interest in participating in the 1992 Barcelona Games. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley said they were in. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did, too. As Granik said, “Nobody wanted to be the one superstar left out. The players, every one of them, said, ‘If you’re putting together that type of team, then I want to be in.’”

Traveling with the Dream Team, head coach Chuck Daly once said, was like touring with “Elvis and The Beatles put together.” Throngs of fans swarmed hotel lobbies and airport terminals for a glimpse of the players. News conferences attracted as many as 1,500 media members. Opposing players asked for pictures, autographs or keepsakes after games — or sometimes even during stoppages in play.

The Dream Team won every Olympic matchup by an average of 44 points. The Americans were so dominant that Daly never once had to call timeout. They set an impossibly high standard for the rest of the world to chase and emboldened kids across the globe to pick up a basketball for the first time.

Last August, when he entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Pau Gasol thanked the Dream Team for inspiring him as an impressionable 12-year-old growing up outside Barcelona.

“It changed my life,” Gasol said. “The Dream Team showed us how basketball could be played. It made me dream of playing at that level, playing with the best of the best.”

Watching the Dream Team evoked similar emotions for two of Gasol’s fellow 2023 Hall of Fame inductees. Tony Parker attended a 1992 exhibition game in Monaco between France and the Dream Team and came away obsessed with Michael Jordan and determined to make it to the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki said he made a point to catch every Dream Team game and that it had a “huge impact” on him.

Stern may not be personally responsible for NBA players gaining the right to participate in the Barcelona Olympics, but he deserves immense credit for how he capitalized on the opportunity. His determination to make NBA games accessible to international viewers had a dual effect of expanding the league’s reach to the far corners of the globe and broadening the talent pool beyond even his expectations.

“The Dream Team was the biggest thing in the history of international basketball,” Bohuny said. “What that did for not only the NBA but basketball in general, it’s tough to quantify.”

As more and more international players began coming to the NBA and proving they could play, teams began devoting increasing time and resources to scouting overseas talent.

In the 1990s, longtime NBA director of scouting Marty Blake and his son Ryan began attending junior events in Europe, scouting promising young prospects and distributing game footage and briefing books to every team in the league. Eventually, Ryan says with a laugh, “I developed a password-protected website because the shelves in my office were getting stocked full of VHS tapes and DVDs.”

By the early 2000s, it became fashionable to draft imports. Most NBA teams had at least one full-time international scout stationed in Europe and paid to fly top executives around the world based on their scouting department’s recommendations. They were each eager to uncover the next Gasol, the next Nowitzki, the next Peja Stojaković — sometimes overeager, in fact.

In 2002, 19-year-old Georgian 7-footer Nikoloz Tskitishvili went No. 5 overall to Denver, only to average 2.9 points and 1.8 rebounds for his career and wash out of the league after just four seasons. The following year, Detroit selected 7-foot Serbian teenager Darko Miličić with the second overall pick, ahead of the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Perplexed at slipping to the second round of the 2003 draft, Jason Kapono once wryly quipped, "I should have left UCLA after my freshman year, moved to Yugoslavia and changed my name to Jason Kaponovich. I'd have been a first-round pick."

Drafting international players, as with Americans, remains an inexact science, but evaluators have made strides. It took time for teams to build a network of overseas contacts rivaling what they had stateside. Teams also improved at putting players into proper context, at assessing whether a prospect carving up second-tier overseas competition could do the same against high-level college or NBA opponents.

There’s no country too far-flung and no town too remote for the NBA to seek talent. Teams have sent scouts to North Korea to observe a 7-foot-9 center and to a remote part of Iceland to scout a sheep farmer's son.

By the start of last season, more than a quarter of all NBA players were international. NBA players hailed from 40 different countries, with Canada (26), France (14) and Australia (9) producing the most. By contrast, China, Brazil and Argentina, fertile ground for future pros as recently as a decade or two ago, did not put a single player on 2023-24 opening-day NBA rosters.

Ask NBA scouts to identify the next international hotbed, and they often point to Africa as a potential source of talent if the training and infrastructure on the continent improves.

To better tap into that, the NBA has realized that it can’t just be in the talent discovery business. Talent development is now also crucial to the league’s mission.

(Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Grant Thomas/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Amadou Gallo Fall was already 17 years old when he first started playing basketball.

His older brother brought him a basketball as a gift when he came home from school in France for the summer.

The only basketball court in Gallo Fall’s hometown of Kaolack, Senegal, was at the local high school. The teenager would hop the fence and shoot by himself until a security guard spotted him and chased him away.

Gallo Fall was living in Tunisia a couple years later when he caught the attention of a Peace Corps volunteer who was conducting basketball clinics for kids. In early 1989, Kevin Lineberger told the basketball coach at the University of the District of Columbia that he had befriended a 6-foot-8 young man from Senegal who jumped like his legs were spring-loaded.

“He gave me a full scholarship without ever seeing me play,” Gallo Fall told Yahoo Sports. “I signed before they could find out whether I could shoot or not.”

The randomness of Gallo Fall’s basketball journey stuck with him long after his career was cut short by a wrist injury. It was all too indicative of the haphazard paths taken by Africa’s first basketball superstars.

Hakeem Olajuwon only played soccer and handball until age 15 when his Nigerian high school basketball team was competing in a tournament and a fellow student asked him if he wanted to try out. Dikembe Mutombo first picked up a basketball at age 16, came to Georgetown on an academic scholarship and played intramurals as a freshman before John Thompson recruited him to join the Hoyas.

The next wave of African basketball prospects didn’t have it any easier as they tried to follow in the footsteps of Olajuwon and Mutombo and find a pathway to an American college. Some posted classified ads on obscure internet basketball sites, embellishing their height, weight and on-court achievements. Others resorted to seeking help from unscrupulous agents and middlemen, leaving themselves vulnerable to exploitation.

Determined to make it easier for future African basketball prospects, Gallo Fall created the SEEDS foundation in 1998 before adding a boarding school component five years later. The purpose of SEEDs is to give young basketball players somewhere to live, study and train in hopes of boosting their chances of being recruited to play on a bigger stage in the U.S.

“Africa always had the talent but the infrastructure wasn’t there,” Gallo Fall said. "You always see people and think what could’ve been if they had access to teaching, training and basic infrastructure. That’s why I was always very motivated to make sure young people have the opportunity to participate.”

The NBA’s vision for Africa aligned with Gallo Fall’s even before he rose from Dallas Mavericks scout, to opening the league’s first office in Africa, to president of the newly formed Basketball Africa League. The NBA has poured tens of millions of dollars into Africa in hopes of growing its fan base and developing future basketball stars.

The hands-on developmental work started with the NBA’s inaugural Basketball Without Borders Africa camp in 2003. The league invited dozens of Africa’s top 19-and-under prospects to Johannesburg to connect with current and former NBA players, to learn from seasoned coaches and to participate in community outreach projects.

The annual three-day camp quickly became a rare showcase for young African players in front of American coaches and scouts. The chance to mingle with role models like Mutombo also made the NBA feel less distant to teenagers who had never left Africa before.

And yet while the likes of Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam and Luc Mbah a Moute passed through Basketball Without Borders on their way to the NBA, a once-a-year camp could only make so much impact. NBA staffers wished they could start working with high-upside African prospects at a younger age. They also felt they never had a satisfactory answer when a kid asked what his next step should be once camp was over.

"There wasn’t always a clear answer," conceded Chris Ebersole, the NBA’s head of international basketball development. “They would ask us, 'What should I do next?’ The answer often included something like, ‘Well you have to get off the continent. You have to try to get to a school in the U.S. or to a pro club in Europe where you can develop.'"

To Ebersole, the solution was improving the African basketball ecosystem to the point where players wouldn't have to leave the continent to fulfill their potential. The formation of NBA Africa in 2010 was a step in the right direction, as was the decision to ask Gallo Fall to oversee it. That organization has installed dozens of new courts, provided training to coaches, launched a year-round youth developmental program and opened a year-round academy for elite high school-aged players.

Among the NBA’s most glorious success stories is Khaman Maluach, a gifted 7-footer who not too long ago might have fallen through the cracks. He fled war-torn South Sudan with his mother and brothers at a young age. He was living in Uganda when NBA Africa scouts spotted him at age 14 and recommended him for the NBA’s academy in Senegal. By 16, he had made South Sudan’s men’s national team. By 17, he had signed with Duke.

The NBA sees its future in players like Maluach. The league is dedicated to unearthing promising young players at a young age, providing development and exposure opportunities and creating a pathway for those who hail from countries lacking basketball infrastructure.

Basketball Without Borders camps have been held in 33 countries across six continents. The NBA has academies across Australia, Mexico and Senegal for top prospects from those countries and their respective continents.

In October, when the NBA revealed that a record 125 international players had made opening-day rosters, former Notre Dame coach Mike Brey described that as “a wakeup call for grassroots, high school, college and USA Bball.” He wrote that “word is by 2029 over 50% of the league will be internationally born.”

Others across the NBA push back against that. They say it’s entirely unrealistic that there will be more international players than Americans in five years, but they acknowledge that, with continued investment in youth development, the percentage of imports should continue to steadily grow.

“The rest of the world is catching up to the U.S. and to Europe,” Ebersole said. “That’s a great thing for the game. Having competition from all over will make everybody better.”

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