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Spurs, True Global Champions

The San Antonio Spurs had an NBA-record 53% of international players in 2013-14.

Don’t make me say what I didn’t write. I’m not saying the Spurs are world champions (USA is the current FIBA world champion). I agree with Gregg Popovich: “there are no world champions in the NBA”.

Following their recent victory over Miami, San Antonio is the NBA champion. However, in sharp contrast with the 100% American Heat, the Spurs are true global champions, with a roster including a league-record 60% of players born outside the continental United States.


Origins of a multinational blend of talents

There are two major reasons why the Spurs have such an international flavour: pragmatism and the will to build a team based on a powerful collective system, instead of individual talent. In a narcissistic era of selfies, it’s a refreshing approach.

First, pragmatism. Since Tim Duncan’s selection as the number one overall pick 17 years ago, the Texan franchise rarely had the opportunity to pick a player early in the draft. Consequently, rather than selecting second-class U.S. players, San Antonio opted for a creative global approach.

In each of the last 13 drafts, the Spurs have recruited at least one international player. During the 2014 NBA draft, the Spurs have acquired two players: Nemanja Dangubic from Serbia, and Kyle Anderson, a « typical » choice according to Bill Simmons (ESPN). This smart and skilled player should fit well into what is unanimously recognised as the league’s best system, which brings me to...

…second: a powerful system.

Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ coach, has been fully supported by General Manager R.C. Buford to build his team over the years, so much so that even the staff is international:

- Sean Marks, the director of basketball operations, is from New Zealand,

- Ime Udoka, an assistant, is a former player of the Nigerian national team,

- Daisuke Yamaguchi is a Japanese assistant athletic trainer.

Coach Pop and GM Buford have shared the same strategic vision: first create the most efficient system based on ball movement and fundamentals on both ends of the floor, then integrate versatile players with high basketball IQ and a strong passing ability to support it.

Popovich is of Serbian and Croatian heritage. He is clearly open to the world, and his cultural awareness is partly due to his visits in Eastern Europe and South America back when he was a military player in the 1970s.

He knows that international players are more likely to fit into the system, and will do so more easily than U.S. players, because of their basketball education based on club experience, fundamentals, teamwork, and early exposure to international level.


Benefits of a worldwide approach

According to Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff, the influence of international players “shows up in the style of play, in the locker rooms, in practice. Everywhere.”

On the floor, there is no language barrier: the whole team is fluent in English. Besides, the players’ linguistic skills give them an edge over their opponents. Ginobili thinks he has “a little advantage [because he] can communicate in a different language the other ones are not understanding."

Off the floor, “the team being so multicultural, it forces guys to communicate, to go out to dinner, to tell their stories”, according to Sean Marks.

Let’s start with the most obvious benefit of all: five titles since 1999, with an incredible consistency and a league-record 14 consecutive 50-win seasons.

These raw results are the rewards of a system-centric approach, which allowed the Spurs to:

- lead the league last season in assists with 25.2 per game,

- have the deepest rotation in the NBA and involve every single player,

- rest veteran star players such as Duncan, Ginobili and Parker during the regular season, keep them fresh for the playoffs, and extend their careers.

The results of San Antonio speak for themselves, and excellent communication in a multicultural environment has been a key success factor. Cross-border communication has also played an essential part in David Stern’s vision of a worldwide NBA. The former commissioner was instrumental in boosting the international exposure of the league, with offices in 14 global markets, more than 145 games played abroad, and TV coverage in 215 countries and territories, in 47 languages. 


Now, I'd love to hear from you!

How does your company manage cross-border communication?

Do you think there are business lessons to be learned in the Spurs approach?

Let me know in the comments below!


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