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Mark Woods on the NBA 2001 Draft
It has been the very epitome of the American Dream since Columbus first set foot upon the shores of the New Continent. The fresh-faced immigrant from Europe disembarks in New York, casts a hopeful eye upon this new land for the first time and vows to reap his fortune in the country where anything remains possible.
Pau Gasol last week inhaled the Big Apple air and gazed in wonder.
"Wow, it was a big city," he said. "Big buildings. A lot of people. People go crazy there."
But for the 21 year old from Barcelona, the rewards and fame arrived barely before he had time to catch sight of the Manhattan skyline.
Less than 24 hours after his initial acquaintance with the United States, Gasol walked onto the stage of the Madison Square Garden, received a pristine baseball cap bearing the logo of his new employers and became an instant millionaire.
The Founding Fathers never had it so good. Selected as the third choice in the National Basketball Association's annual draft of new players, Gasol, a seven foot forward who spent last season within FC Barcelona's sporting empire, was immediately guaranteed a starting salary worth over £3 million per year from the newly-relocated Memphis Grizzlies.
No European-born basketballer had previously been considered so tantalising a prospect, despite the hefty transfer fee which it will cost to sever his ties with the Nou Camp. Yet in an age where the likes of Claudio Reyna have ensured an American influence among our native sports, the signals are growing ever stronger that the old continent will have an increasingly strong influence upon those disciplines which once seemed the insular preserve of our trans-Atlantic cousins.
In total, seven Europeans were chosen in the NBA draft, all of whom had eschewed the traditional learning arena of American universities and opted instead for a structured apprenticeship with their local clubs.
Where once this would have been a gamble, attitudes are rapidly changing towards the potential All-Stars lying in wait across the pond.
In particular the leap taken by Dallas Mavericks' forward Dirk Nowitzki from Germany's second division toward the NBA's elite has changed the perception of European hopefuls. Once tarred as being mechanical and unathletic, the new generation of players transferring across the ocean are as versatile and often more accomplished than those already in situ.
"Five years ago they probably weren't ready," offers New Jersey Nets' president Rod Thorn. "With the success of some of the foreign players, it's not as much today. One of the advantages foreign players have is playing against more experienced players and pretty talented players. A player of comparable age might be further along than a player in the United States because of the competition."
It is a trend even more marked in ice hockey where no less than nine Euro imports were recruited in the first round of the NHL's recent summer drafting. And while the NFL and Major League Baseball have welcomed only a handful of immigrants from the Old World into their ranks, both enterprises are investing heavily in identifying suitable prospects.
"We would like to see some European players coming over and playing first in American universities," emphasised NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue at the recent World Bowl in Amsterdam. "We will try to support that. Certainly having European players in the NFL is another goal and we've had some come over and play at a very high level.
"We see progress in that area. As yet, there hasn't arrived the young Boris Becker or Steffi Graf of American football coming through. But that will happen. It's the nature of athletic competition. From a fan standpoint that could be the most significant development for us, to have players (from Europe) competing at that level."
Gasol may have stamped his passport but he still has much work to do to justify the hype which has turned him overnight from unknown to marquee performer.
"I just want to help my team as soon as possible," admits the Catalan. "The first year will be hard. I need to adjust to the game, to a new country, a new culture and a new way of life."
Like most arrivals into the NBA, he will spend much of his first season on a weights programme. And there will be a learning curve to cope with a daily grind which is far above that found in the Spanish ACB league.
America may be a meritocracy but like any immigrant into the Land of the Free, success must earned rather than given away.
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