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Americans in EuroBasket - Naturally

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In his EuroBasket primer this week, Kelly Dwyer took a little shot at the idea of Chris Kaman playing for Germany - "he doesn't speak any German, yet somehow FIBA keeps allowing the German-ancestored big man a spot on the team." It's a strange concept to be sure, but Kaman playing for his great-grandparents' country is certainly not an isolated incident. Among the 24 EuroBasket teams are 20 or so Americans. In fact, if you took the participants in EuroBasket and sorted by country of birth, the good old U. S. of A. would have the most representatives in Lithuania. So you may be asking yourself, what gives?

The idea of a national team seems pretty straightforward at first glance. To represent a country, you really should be, you know, from said country. And by and large the vast majority of EuroBasket participants were born and raised in the countries they represent.

But it can get tricky. My son, ClipperMax, was born in France to two American parents. He's lived in the US since he was two. He's by no means a national team level talent in any sport, but if he were, for whom would he play? The answer is, it depends. The governing body for each individual sport determines the rules. In the case of basketball, he could be considered a non-naturalized American only if he declares his intention prior to his 16th birthday. After that, FIBA defaults to country of birth as an individual's native country.

Truth be told, FIBA has a pretty solid system for these questions. They allow one naturalized citizen per team per competition, but they don't really stick their noses into the naturalization process. If Germany wants to grant citizenship to Chris Kaman because (a) his great grandparents were German or (b) he's very tall it doesn't matter to FIBA. That's Germany's business, and all FIBA cares about is that the Germans don't have a second naturalized player on the team.

Other teams have taken this practice to a much greater extreme. Earl Rowland (a native of Salinas, California who actually played a year of college ball at Cal State Dominguez Hills) won Bulgarian citizenship in a try out. Rowland is averaging 21 points per game after two days of EuroBasket. Bo McKalebb (of Macedonia) and Henry Domercant (of Bosnia and Herzegovina) also got their passports strictly based on basketball, with little or no connection to the countries they currently represent.

Before you get too incredulous about the practice, you should probably remember that Hakeem Olajuwon (born in Lagos, Nigeria) won a Gold Medal in Atlanta in 1996 playing with Team USA. Sure, Olajuwon earned his US passport based on long term residency and passed his citizenship exam like anyone else, but by the same token, did the US really need to pad their roster with a Nigerian-born center? In 1996 the Dream was splitting time at center with Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson. Talk about the rich getting richer. The other strange thing about Olajuwon's Team USA tenure is that he had played for Nigeria in junior tournaments. The standard rule is that once you've represented one country you can't represent another, but for some reason FIBA waived this rule in Olajuwon's case.

FIBA has it's one naturalized player rule, but other sports handle it other ways. The zenith (or nadir, depending on your perspective) of the international competition citizenship racket no doubt occurred during the Athens Olympics in 2004 with the Greek baseball team. As hosts, Greece had the right to field teams in any sport they wished. Baseball was a strictly amateur pass time in Greece at the time, but through lax citizenship rules and no limit to naturalized players in international baseball, they managed to field a decent team. Of the 24 players, one of them spoke Greek, and 47 of 48 parents of the team members were American (the one Greek speaking player, Chris Robinson, has an American dad). The Greeks simply scoured college and minor league baseball teams for players of Greek descent, and offered them a chance to play in the Olympics. (Greece's citizenship rules seem to be benefiting their EuroBasket team some as well, as three of their players were born in the US.)

So when compared to that Greek baseball team, FIBA's one player rule seems more than reasonable. 

Most of the naturalized players at EuroBasket are American for somewhat obvious reasons, but not all of them. In a rich getting richer scenario not unlike Team USA in 1996 with Olajuwon, the defending European Champs Spain have added Serge Ibaka, born in the Congo, to their already loaded roster. At least Ibaka did play several seasons in the Spanish ACB.

A few teams appear to have broken the rules at first glance. When you see names like Gerald Lee and Shawn Huff on the Finnish roster, the assumption is that the Finns have exceeded their American allotment. As it happens, while both Lee and Huff have American fathers and both played college ball in the NCAA, they were each born in Finland while their fathers were playing professionally there. For that matter, that's essentially the story of Tony Parker, born in Belgium to an American basketball player dad and a French mom. But he's plenty French from FIBA's standpoint (and maybe a little too French for Eva Longoria's comfort). Italian-born Daniel Hackett is another part American playing for his country of birth.

There are three players from the other Congo (the Democratic Republic of Congo) on the Belgian roster, including former Laker D.J. Mbenga. The colonial ties between Belgium and the Congo (it used to be called the Belgian Congo, after all) must explain why those three are considered native Belgians, though I don't know the details. The import on the Belgian squad is actually American Marcus Faison.

The political turmoil of the past 30 years makes for some interesting situations as well. The Croatian roster includes several Bosnians and one Slovene by birth, but they were all part of one country not too long ago. At the same time, the Serbian roster includes three players born in Croatian cities.

An NCAA hoops junkie, particularly a fan of mid-majors, would recognize lots of names in this EuroBasket tournament, and not just the European imports who happened to play some college ball like Darius Songaila of Wake Forest. Dontaye Draper from the College of Charleston plays for Croatia, Marquez Haynes from UT San Antonio plays for Georgia, David Blu (nee Bluthenthal) from USC plays for Israel, Thomas Kelati from Washington State plays for Poland, Omar Cook from St. Johns plays for Montenegro and Steven Burtt from Iona plays for Ukraine. That's in addition to the aforementioned Rowland (St. Mary's), Domercant (Eastern Illinois), McCalebb (Univ. of New Orleans), Huff (Valpo), Lee (Old Dominion) and Faison (Siena). 

The current trend seems to be to find your point guard from the ranks of Americans playing EuroLeague hoops, probably owing to the success of 2007 EuroBasket champs Russia, led by Pittsburgh native J.R. Holden who played his college ball at Duquesne. This makes a lot of sense to me, and fits with a personal theory. For those individuals who grow to 6'8" or more, basketball is an obvious choice, particularly if they've been taller than their peers all their lives. But a 5'11" mega-athlete like Draper is rarely going to wind up specializing in basketball outside of the US - he'd likely be on the soccer pitch or the tennis court. The US is a basketball culture, and with the possible exception of the Balkan nations and perhaps Lithuania, that's just not true in Europe. So a team like Germany has plenty of size and surprising skill in their bigs - in addition to Nowitzki, Benzing, Ohlbrecht and Pleiss are all solid players. But they just don't have strong guard play. Rowland, McCalebb, Burtt, Draper, Cook and Haynes all play point guard for their adopted country, while Parker and Hackett are Euro points with American dads. That's no accident.

One interesting side affect of the practice - wacky transliterations of American names. On the official EuroBasket web site, Steven Burtt is listed as Stiven Birtt. (I know from experience that Europeans have a big problem with the name 'Steve' - mine was invariably written Steeve.) On the FIBA site I was trying to see how Bo McCalebb had played for Macedonia, and it took me several passes through the box score to find Lester Mekkaleb. Such are the travails of the American playing in EuroBasket, particularly in the East where names are being transliterated from the Roman to the Cyrillic alphabet and back again.

So while it's strange to see Kaman suiting up for his vater's vater's vater's vaterland it's really not that unusual. The fact that Germany went straight to the NBA looking for their one import is a little different from the norm and one wonders if that might start a trend. Why settle for Bo McCalebb as your point guard when Kyle Lowry might be up for an Olympic experience as well?