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LOS ANGELES — The Phoenix Suns had just finished a practice earlier this season when Steve Nash, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and Grant Hill joined a man in jeans and a T-shirt who had arrived carrying a soccer ball. They formed a small circle and with their feet, thighs, chests and foreheads took turns juggling the ball. Each took more than a few touches, some to control the ball, others to show off tricks learned long ago. Then the ball was flicked to someone else in the circle. Rarely did it touch the court.
These skills — honed on fields in Canada, France, Brazil and the United States — made it hard to tell that only the man out of uniform had played soccer professionally. He was Frank LeBoeuf, a member of France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team.
The Suns may be gone from the N.B.A. playoffs, but with the league continuing to gain a more international flavor, fans do not have to know the difference between a free throw and a free kick to see soccer’s influence on basketball.
“When you grow up playing soccer, you obviously carry that over to other sports,” said Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who lived in Italy from age 6 through 13. “I think it has helped me tremendously."
Bryant is not the only one. The most recent Most Valuable Player award winners are men whose first touches of a ball may have been with their feet: Bryant; Dirk Nowitzki, a native of Germany who plays for Dallas; and Nash, a former Canadian youth player whose brother and father played professionally. And last year’s N.B.A. finals M.V.P., Tony Parker of San Antonio, played soccer as a child in France.
Three of the league’s more entertaining and free-wheeling teams this season — Phoenix, Toronto and the Lakers — were loaded with foreign players who grew up surrounded by soccer. The Lakers, with their increasingly international roster, seem to be demonstrating that influence more than any other team left in the playoffs.
Their quick-passing offense is predicated on proper angles, spacing and movement without the ball. That the fulcrum is Pau Gasol, the Spanish center with the vision of a playmaking soccer midfielder, seems more than coincidence.
In all, six Lakers were reared overseas: Vladimir Radmanovic (Serbia), Sasha Vujacic (Slovenia), D. J. Mbenga (Congo), Ronny Turiaf (Martinique), Gasol and Bryant. Among them, they learned to speak more than a dozen languages and had one thing in common growing up.
“When they offer the first gift,” Mbenga said, “if you’re a boy, it’s a football.” The newly hired Knicks coach, Mike D’Antoni, who played and coached in Italy, is credited with bringing the wide-open style of play to the N.B.A. as coach of the Suns. D’Antoni said he did not consider himself “a big soccer guy,” but the parallels between the way the sports are played in Europe are easy to see.
In both, the idea is to let the ball do the work.
“The whole culture is they appreciate the guy who passes the ball to the guy who gets the assist and passes to the guy who scores,” D’Antoni said in an interview Thursday. “They appreciate the work that went into it. Even the guy who is not getting the stat is important in the whole function of the team and the goal that is being made. That, to me, is fundamental.”
Tex Winter is not a soccer guy, either, but he, too, knows plenty about fundamentals. Winter, an 86-year-old consultant for the Lakers who has served alongside Coach Phil Jackson for years, sees the congruency between his triangle offense and the triangular formations that are fundamental to soccer. Jackson’s teams have used the triangle strategy to win a combined nine N.B.A. titles in Chicago and Los Angeles.
“Soccer is a lot like basketball,” Winter said. “It’s a game of geometry. Spacing, distances, direct lines — they operate on these angles and reverse sides of the court with the ball, just as we would in the triangle. Not being a soccer coach, I can’t really address it with intelligence, but a lot of the concepts are similar.”
Foot skills, naturally, apply well to basketball. Nash once said that when he began to play basketball after years of playing soccer, it almost felt unfair to be able to use his hands. Hakeem Olajuwon, who will go into the Basketball Hall of Fame this year, has credited soccer during his days growing up in Nigeria for his exemplary footwork in the post.
But there are other, more subtle applications. Mehmet Okur, the All-Star center for Utah, was a forward in a Turkish professional soccer club’s youth program before growing into a goalkeeper and eventually a basketball player. Using his body to seal off a defender, moving without the ball and rebounding are skills he said he first gleaned from soccer. Turiaf, a reserve forward, said his constant talking to teammates on the court stemmed from his days as a goalkeeper growing up in Martinique.
What really catches Winter’s eye are the occasions when Radmanovic and Vujacic will use a basketball to perform soccer tricks with their feet.
“I’m amazed what they’ll do just messing around,” Winter said. “It helps their footwork, their agility and their defense.”
Then, as Radmanovic approached down a hallway one recent day, Winter wryly noted, “Sometimes you wonder if it’s helped enough.”
If inattention to defense is one piece of baggage that many with a foreign influence — including D’Antoni — bring to the N.B.A., another is that they are serial floppers when it comes to fouls.
The retired center Vlade Divac from Serbia was “the king” of drawing the whistle, said Andrei Kirilenko, Utah’s Russian forward. That title now belongs to San Antonio’s Manu Ginóbili, who is from Argentina, where the soccer idol Diego Maradona once play-acted his way to the infamous Hand of God goal. “In soccer, they’re masters at that — it’s an art,” said Vujacic, an accomplished embellisher. “It looks like I do, but I’m just trying to play good basketball.”
Good basketball? That may be a matter of opinion. Smart basketball may be more like it.
As the Lakers, who clinched their second-round series with Utah on Friday night, unexpectedly charged to the best record in the Western Conference, Bryant on many occasions lauded his team’s basketball I.Q.
After explaining earlier this week how playing and watching soccer helped him see a basketball game unfold in a different light, allowing him to read sequences three, four and five passes ahead, Bryant was asked if there might be a correlation to his team’s basketball smarts and its soccer background.
He thought for only an instant and smiled.
“If I hear your question right,” he said, demonstrating a soccer player’s ability to see down the road, “basically, European players are smarter and American players are just a bunch of idiots?”
Then he sighed.
“I hope it’s not the case this summer in Beijing.”
It's usually pretty easy to tell when guys are embellishing contact or flopping. Some you would swear they just got shot. Or their head will jerk like they've been punched.
I'm for calling obvious flopping fouls, and just letting them play if there's doubt.
I'm also for calling a foul on guys backing in and knocking his guard backward. It's ridiculous that's not called a foul.