SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Boris Diaw arrived at his favorite Salt Lake City coffeehouse expecting to meet fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert, and just smirked when told Gobert was running late.
The two have a big brother-little brother relationship, a bond many international players seek.
”For me it’s been better, for sure,” Gobert said of Diaw’s arrival in Utah. ”Just speaking French, makes me feel better. It’s a stupid thing, but I needed a French player on the team.”
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The 7-foot Jazz center is not alone.
A record 113 international players from 41 countries were on opening-day rosters this season and many, from Manu Ginobili to Nikola Mirotic to Patty Mills, go through a significant adjustment playing in a foreign country, speaking a different language and just trying to fit in.
Diaw and Gobert have known each other for years and were members of the French national team in the Rio Olympics. Their comfort level is a significant reason the Jazz are in the thick of the playoff race heading down the stretch after the All-Star break.
Gobert has emerged as a defensive player of the year candidate. He has scored off 190 assists this season and 26 have come from Diaw. That’s the third-most from anyone on the team, and Diaw is a power forward averaging the 11th most minutes on the team.
Diaw and Gobert, both veterans, say having a teammate from their native country can help young players focus on just basketball.
Gobert didn’t have to do all the little things when Diaw arrived, like introducing him to the local restaurants. Diaw, a 14-year veteran, is well-versed in the different eateries across NBA cities.
”It was different,” Diaw said of his early years in the league, ”because there were not that many European players. … A little bit (of culture shock). Because the only time I came was a couple years before, I came for Christmas to visit Tony (Parker) in San Antonio. That was the only experience I had in the U.S., just coming for vacation. It was a little different.”
Ginobili, the veteran Spurs guard, said he would get lonely at times when he was younger with a lot fewer international players in the league.
Mirotic and Diaw both say international players, even those from different countries, tend to stick together on the road. They go to movies and dinners together because they often have similar interests.
The Bulls forward was thankful to have fellow Spanish national team member Pau Gasol on the roster as a rookie in 2014.
”It was different completely,” Mirotic said. ”Not just basketball. Lifestyle was different. All my life being in Europe, eight years in Madrid.
”The little things, you know. … My English, first of all, was not that good. It was all different for me. And the game was different for me. At the beginning of the season I didn’t play a lot, (Gasol) was always the one telling me Nikola you just need to have patience. You need to practice hard. Your time will come. … Our relationship grew outside the court. It was huge for me, especially the first two years.”
Mills, the Spurs backup point guard, had a similar experience having fellow Australian Aron Baynes on the roster early in his career. Both played college ball in the U.S., so that helped, but Mills still gets homesick and misses things like the Australia Day holiday each year.
”You’re in South Texas and it’s very different from Australia,” Mills said. ”When you can have someone from your own country that can help get you out of that southern twang, it definitely helps.”
Teams, and the league, try to make the transition to the NBA easier for all players, but internationals need some special attention. That could an interpreter and/or English lessons. There’s help with visas, green cards, housing, vehicles and other necessities. But there are things that can’t be arranged.
The Jazz opened the season with a league-high seven international players and seven other teams began with six. The Spurs have been one of the most active teams in the league when it comes to procuring international talent over the years.
”I think the acclimation into your team and into your structure helps, especially with language or cultural barriers, if there are people that are native speakers,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. ”Like just this year, when (Argentina native) Nico Laprovittola came and has a teammate like Manu from the national team. I’m sure that that aids in the comfort level of that adjustment.
”As opposed to Boban (Marjanovic, now with Detroit) coming from Serbia, who didn’t have anyone and whose wife was having a baby two months after the season starts. … Being away from your wife, who is having a child, creates its own challenges. Boban spoke good English, but it still wasn’t a native tongue for him. I’m sure he had a different acclimation process than somebody else.”
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said there’s no doubt having players from the same country on the roster is a bonus.
”How would you feel if you were all of a sudden had to go to Paris, France to apply your trade?” Lindsey said. ”Food is different. Lifestyle is different. Rhythm of the life is different. And you have someone there in market that is doing the same thing that you’re doing that you can share experiences with, whether it’s your current experiences or what’s going in the states.
”Rudy can speak his native tongue. He can talk about current events and politics and things that are going on in France. … There’s a relationship. But it wasn’t like the trade was consummated because we wanted Rudy to feel better.”
Though it has helped.
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AP freelancer Raul Dominguez contributed to this report.