When you study the rosters of all thirty National Basketball Association teams or even casually watch a game, you find yourself facing two stubborn facts: (1) every team possesses an international mosaic of talent; (2) the last All-Star produced by the high schools of New York City is 32 years old and just changed his name to Metta World Peace.
Calling hoops “the city game,” as Pete Axthelm did forty years ago, only makes sense if the city is Barcelona. Two decades of globalization alongside the crumbling of our urban infrastructure has dramatically altered who we see on the court. If there was one moment that represents both the birth and brutal pathos of this process, it was draft day 1998 when two teams took part in what must be seen as the most lopsided trade in NBA history. That was when a Michigan Wolverine superstar born and raised in inner-city Detroit, Robert “Tractor” Traylor, was sent from the Dallas Mavericks to the Milwaukee Bucks for a skinny teenager from a place called Wurzburg, Germany named Dirk Nowitzki, and role-player Pat Garrity. Now Dirk is considered the best player on earth and Robert Traylor is dead, having passed away earlier this year from a heart attack at the tender age of 34.
It’s unbelievable that these two folks were traded for one another. But equally unbelievable is that this was seen as a steal for the Milwaukee Bucks. Then CNN/SI scribe Dan Shanoff wrote at the time, “After trading away No. 4 draft-pick Stephon Marbury last year, the Bucks get it right in ’98 by stealing the marketable and talented Robert Traylor from the Mavs for an overhyped foreign prospect.”
I asked Dan Shanoff about this ill-fated prediction this week, and he said, “Looking back, I am mostly appalled at my simple-minded analysis and implicit xenophobia. Projecting (and developing) draft picks into Hall of Famers demands imagination that Don Nelson and Mark Cuban clearly had and I lacked. I also didn’t account for the maniacal dedication that Dirk would put in to honing his craft. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that as my 5-year-old son became aware of basketball this past spring, he announced that Dirk was his favorite player. Nowitzki’s talents are that obvious. I only wish I could have understood that back then.”
We can laugh, scoff, or shake our heads at Dan Shanoff, but his analysis wasn’t a wild statement by any stretch. They represented my thoughts at the time along with most observers. But in hindsight it’s now clear that this deal was more than the most lopsided trade in hoops history. It was a “canary in the coal mine” for the way the game and the world has changed over the last fifteen years.
The Dirk story is now well known. From Wurzburg, Germany, the 19-year-old blew up in pre-draft workouts and, despite having the muscle tone of a baby deer, became the object of numerous team’s affections, including the Celtics (who had to “settle” that year for Paul Pierce.) But in the shadow of Dream Team I and II and the utter domination of “our guys” at the Olympics, the conventional wisdom was that Euro players were too weak, too fragile, and basically too lame to make it on the big stage. A soft seven-foot jump shooter? Not in this man’s league.