Very few foreign players made it to the U.S. the way Olowokandi did, by placing a cold call. Most came to the attention of college coaches by word of mouth; during the U.S. tours that foreign clubs make each November and the trips abroad that the NCAA permits U.S. schools to take every four years; or by scouting services and summer camps, which bird-dog and showcase more and more overseas kids. In Paris last summer Nike staged its first camp for European prospects, but it was during a recruiting "dead period." when U.S. college coaches couldn't attend. If, as expected, Nike moves the event to July, the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle will be clogged with jumbo jets disgorging player procurers swaddled in sweat suits.
"I was stunned at how many major Division I coaches were at the junior worlds in Greece in 1995," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "There were maybe 40 of them, and they weren't there to watch the U.S. team." No, they were there to watch the latest generation of foreigners, who were so good that they didn't allow the Americans, coached by Sampson and including such talents as Stephon Marbury and Samaki Walker, to finish higher than seventh.
"Coaches go wherever they can to find talent," says Texas A&M coach Tony Barone. "Hey, if you can add 20 prospects to the pool...." And foreign prospects are no longer ordinary prospects. Coaches agree that they can be:
•More coachable. George Washington coach Mike Jarvis—whose definition of Colonial-ism means suiting up a Brazilian, a Canadian, a Dutchman, an Israeli, a Portuguese, a Spaniard, a Brazilian, a Central African and three Belarussians this season—likes foreigners because he thinks they have fewer bad on-court habits than their American counterparts. Utah's Hanno Móttólá, a 6'10" forward from Finland, demonstrates his there's-a-lot-we-can-learn attitude when he declares that Toni Kukoc, the Chicago Bull from Croatia, "should have gone to a U.S. college when he was 20. He still plays defense with straight legs." Thomason recalls that Olowokandi didn't even know where the low post was when he arrived at Pacific in August 1995. "You knew what was going to happen," Thomason says. "You just didn't know how fast."
•More studious. Eduardo Najera, Oklahoma's 6'8" sophomore forward from Mexico, couldn't speak English until he came to the U.S. as a high school senior; as a college freshman he was voted to the Big 12 all-academic team. Alexander Koul, the 7'1" Belarussian senior at George Washington, already has his degree in exercise science and is taking graduate courses in business. Olowokandi and Móttólá are the sons of foreign-service professionals who prize education. "No way were my parents going to let me play basketball without completing my education," says Olowokandi. Marcopulos loves how Olowokandi buttonholes him to chew over Eisenhower's foreign policy or discuss why Monet used thicker brush strokes later in life.
•More appreciative. None of this season's top foreigners (page 64) were on a preseason All-America team. "They haven't been spoiled yet," says Barone. "They look at their gym shoes as a gift. They're amazed at the first-class travel and first-class uniforms, and they delight at the opportunity to get a first-class education." Adds Arkansas's Sunday Adebayo, a 6'6" forward from Nigeria, "Here you get your education paid for, and you have tutors to work with you. But back home, even to get a textbook is really hard. So I think guys around here don't really appreciate all they have."
•More nimble afoot. You always hear about the importance of soft hands, especially in big men. But post-play pedagogue Pete Newell has always prized quick feet just as much—and they're common among foreigners because so many have played years of soccer. Adebayo was a goalkeeper, and Olowokandi and Ekezie played positions out on the pitch.
•More suited than ever to the college game. Remember how the Soviet Olympic team schooled David Robinson, Danny Manning & Co. at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, passing over the Americans' full-court press for open three-point shots in an 82-76 upset? Well, college basketball now meets the international player more than halfway. Good non-American players have always excelled at shooting, and with the three-pointer and a shorter shot clock, college hoops has evolved into a game that rewards what those players do best. The coaches who once spoke so reverently of Henry Iba, the defense-minded, three-time U.S. Olympic coach, now genuflect to Rick Pitino—who says he began to believe in the trey during a 1986 tour of the U.S. by the Soviet national team.
To be sure, there are disadvantages to building a team around foreigners. Washington coach Bob Bender had to let 7'1" Patrick Femerling go home for two weeks early this season so he could play for the German national team, and Utah coach Rick Majerus granted similar leave to Móttólá a year ago. "It's an honor and privilege to represent your country," says Majerus. "So I always acquiesce to the foreign coach."
Furthermore, weight-training regimens that U.S. athletes take for granted are often alien to foreign players. Texas A&M lost its starting center, 6'9" Dario Quesada of Spain, for the season after he threw out a disk in his back while lifting.