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Foreign Fling a Flop?
While the Bulls continue their multimillion-dollar courtship of Yugoslav star Toni Kukoc, the argument over whether foreign players will ever make a real impact in the NBA rages on. Most teams now have at least some semblance of a European scouting operation, yet the foreign players currently making major contributions in the league number exactly one—Vlade Divac, the Lakers' starting center.
That doesn't matter, says Sonics general manager Bob Whitsitt. "It's a new development that's significant, and though we don't know what the long-term ramifications are, we'd better be ready," adds Whitsitt, who this season hired a full-time European scout for the first time.
Others agree with Whitsitt, and the general feeling is that the mining for foreign nuggets will go on. Warrior coach Don Nelson, who has been one of the leaders in the European manhunt, believes that the foreign players who have entered the NBA are being judged too quickly. "It's different for them than for guys coming out of college, who spent their whole lives thinking about playing in the NBA," says Nelson. "This is new ground for players from other countries. They need time."
So far the foreign talent has been somewhat disappointing. Golden State's Sarunas Marciulionis is a solid player, "one of the meanest, toughest players in the league," in the words of mean and tough Minnesota coach Bill Musselman. But Roonie, as the Soviet guard is known around Warriorland, will have to improve a lot to be an All-Star, as many predicted he would be, and also to justify a contract that is costing the Warriors about $1.3 million this year. Another Soviet player, Alexander Volkov, hasn't helped Atlanta at all, though, in fairness, he has been beset by wrist injuries. Onetime Soviet phenom Arvidas Sabonis, who could never be coaxed into coming to the U.S. by the Trail Blazers, is playing in Spain. Portland did get the highly regarded Yugoslav Drazen Petrovic to sign his name to a megabuck contract (he'll also make about $1.3 million this year). Petro never panned out, though, and the Blazers sent him to New Jersey last month.
Even Divac sometimes drives his teammates to distraction with inconsistent effort. Indiana president and general manager Donnie Walsh is an advocate of foreign scouting but says flatly, "All the foreign players are liabilities on defense."
Nevertheless, the Kukoc watch goes on. The Bulls are reportedly offering the 6'10" point guard, who has been compared with Magic Johnson, a six-year deal worth about $15 million. Most observers feel the Bulls arc wasting their time because a team in the Italian Professional League, Benetton Treviso, has offered Kukoc a contract worth a reported $5 million per year.
San Antonio general manager Bob Bass, for one, feels the world will keep on spinning if Kukoc stays in Europe. "He seems very talented when you watch him," says Bass. "But Zarko Paspalj was on the same team as Kukoc when we scouted him, and Zarko looked great, too." In the NBA, however, Zarko was a zero, playing in just 28 games for the Spurs last season before being waived.
In Atlanta, new coach Bobby Weiss arrived this season with a smile, a low-key attitude, and a plan to turn one of the NBA's worst passing teams into a team that used, of all things, an offense called "the passing game."