Maybe it is the cevapi, the souvlaki or the mbanga soup.
Whatever it is, there is no denying the tinge of international flavor when it comes to the NBA elite, with Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic on Wednesday winning the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for a second straight season.
Jokic made it four straight MVPs for foreign-born players.
Photo: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
The Serbian big man beat out two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece and the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid of Cameroon to mark another first — never before have the top three in MVP voting all been internationals.
The NBA playoffs are loaded with international talent, including Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, the 2019 rookie of the year and EuroLeague champion from Slovenia.
The influx of international talent was former NBA commissioner David Stern’s vision. He saw the league as a global entity and insisted it be a driving force in growing the game internationally.
“It’s David Stern’s dream,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. “Everybody else is good. It’s a world game. It’s no longer just ‘us,’ whatever us means. It’s a world game and that’s a good thing.”
The ripple of effect of international players extends well beyond the US.
For the basketball-mad countries of Serbia and Greece, the success of Jokic and Antetokounmpo means bragging rights.
He won back-to-back MVP awards (2018-19, 2019-20), and now the pride of Sombor, Serbia, has matched him.
“We are a country of basketball. This is more proof that we are the best,” said Marko Cosic, who trained a teenage Jokic as strength and conditioning coach at Belgrade club KK Mega Basket. “It is not easy for a country like Serbia with 7 million people to compete with the rest of the world.”
Cosic, now a professor at the University of Belgrade, said Jokic’s style of play “is really poetry ... he’s an artist.”
The 27-year-old Jokic averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists in the regular season.
Across NBA Europe’s social media channels, content featuring Antetokounmpo performs 100 percent better than the average post, the league said.
Jokic content does 10 percent better than average, it added.
It is impossible to overestimate the effect Antetokounmpo has had on Greece, both as a player and a person.
He was born to immigrant Nigerian parents and only acquired a Greek passport shortly before being drafted in 2013.
“Giannis is a hero. He’s a good image of Greece. He’s an ambassador of Greece worldwide,” said Vassilis Skountis, a broadcaster for NBA games on Cosmote TV.
In Greek sports media, there is soccer, basketball and Antetokounmpo.
He is basically in his own category of news. There is live coverage of games, no matter the hour in Greece, and analysis of his performances.
Parents love him, kids want to be like him.
“He’s Greek, he’s very spectacular, he’s very strong, he dunks, he wins championships, he’s playing with the national team,” Skountis said. “The kids here in Greece, everybody wants to be like Giannis.”
In Cameroon and around Africa, where soccer dominates, Embiid is a budding role model, as is Antetokounmpo.
“These kids coming from abroad ... they end up working twice as hard,” said Joe Touomou, associate technical director at NBA Academy Africa. “When it’s time to compete, you see the result of that hard work. That’s why you see those three foreign guys at the top.”
Embiid was a shy, skinny camper back in 2011.
“Quite frankly, Joel was not the best prospect that we had,” said Touomou, who is Cameroonian and a friend of Embiid’s family.
However, Embiid had size, coordination “and he was fearless.”
He is reportedly interested in gaining French citizenship, which would make him eligible to play for France at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
He would likely be forgiven in Cameroon, which mostly cares about soccer.
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