There's also some cultural stuff that gets lost in the translation. "I want to say this gently," says Barone, "but foreign players tend to lose interest in winning and losing. Their agendas are different. They may be aspiring to play on a club team back home. To Quesada, the Texas A&M-Texas rivalry didn't mean a thing."
Washington State suffered perhaps the worst luck with a foreign player. On Jan. 4 the Cougars' leading scorer, 6'6" guard Rodrigo de la Fuente, up and left Pullman to sign a three-year, $1 million deal with F.C. Barcelona, defending champions of the premier league in his native Spain. De la Fuente's departure came on the eve of the Cougars' Pac-10 opener. "I know people may be mad and think I am selfish," he said before he headed back to his homeland, "but I just think I cannot pass this up."
De la Fuente's departure illustrates why there are relatively few college players from Spain (with 11 collegians this season), Greece (nine), France (four), Italy (two) and Turkey (one), all countries which have established national leagues with well-heeled clubs that sign the most promising indigenous teenagers to lavish contracts. Players from Eastern Europe (56), Africa (26) and the Caribbean (22) have no such options, and a scholarship to go to school in the States is tantalizing to them. Exposed to basketball American-style by the 1992 Dream Team and caught up in the ensuing worldwide hoops boom, players in developing countries see the U.S. as the Rucker Playground of the global village and want to call "Next." As Koul says, "In Minsk we play on the playgrounds. We love rap music and baggy clothes."
There will always be a few xenophobic killjoys who regard all this as unhealthy. They suggest that aliens are taking scholarships from Our Boys. But they forget that Americans have stocked foreign professional leagues for years and that Yanks are welcome at the Sorbonne to study the great French philosophers and at the University of Athens to riddle out a ruin. You want to learn something, you go where it's taught the best.
Cross-cultural interaction is among the things that are supposed to take place on a college campus. To show how rewarding that can be on a school basketball team, consider the relationship between Majerus and Ma Jian, the 6'8" forward from Tianjin, China, who played at Utah from 1993 to '95. Majerus remembers that after the Utes lost a game to Weber State, he went off: "Ma, you must have gotten hold of some old George Gervin tapes. You've got the body of a Greek god, and you're shooting that friggin' finger roll. Well, you and that move can go back to China!"
The next day Majerus found Ma on the stoop of the basketball office, tears in his eyes. "I don't want to go back to China," Ma said.
"I don't want you to go back to China," Majerus said.
"But you told me to go back to China."
"I was being sarcastic."