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International Scouting

Today’s guest blogger is writing from China on the topic of “International Scouting.” His name is Tom McCarthy, and he has 22 years of experience in Asia. Here is his report:

While today I run a sports marketing company in China that primarily focuses on tennis, I still consider myself a “Basketball Guy” and scout for the Boston Celtics in Asia.

In fact, anyone can be a scout. I would wager that most people who attend and watch games consider themselves somewhat of an expert on judging talent. Picking a good player from a bad one does not seem to be too difficult, but as you move up the “sport food chain,” a different perspective must be taken into account.

Take the NBA, for instance. Only one-tenth of one per cent of basketball players from around the world will ever get the opportunity to even be invited to an NBA camp, let alone step onto the court for an NBA game. Here in China alone, more than 300 million people are playing basketball. Yet, only Yao Ming, Wang Zhi Zhi, Menke Bateer, Yi Li Jian and Sun Yue have ever made the NBA grade. Quite a limited NBA group for a country like China that started playing basketball in 1896.

Two decades ago finding players that the NBA might consider tended to be more of an art form than today. No internet, no cable news services and not as many formal international competitions and scouting services meant that a scout really had to get out there in the bushes to find a player. Even though now all these scouting tools are available, there is no substitute for the human eye and intuition to evaluate a player.

Once you have the opportunity to get into the stands at games and on the sidelines at practices, you need understand the game and the team you are scouting for.

The NBA pro game is a completely different animal than high school, college and most international game settings. The size of the players, physicality of play and the speed of the NBA game are overwhelming. Hey, that guy at the end of your favorite pro team’s bench was most likely the best player on every team he ever played on before arriving in the NBA! So there are physical qualities that you need to immediately assess. Scouting for the Celtics brings certain team elements into consideration. The Celtics play an up-tempo style, so we look for players who play extremely hard at both ends of the court. Slow, lumbering players need not apply for employment for the green & white!

But physical talent is just one indicator. The NBA is a 48-minute game, the longest regulation basketball game in the world. If you are playing hard, 48 minutes seems like 48 days to players not ready to step up. Fatigue leads to body breakdown and the injured reserve list. With NBA contracts guaranteed, teams cannot take too many chances on the faint of body or heart!

So you have found your physically and mentally tough player. You have seen him more times than you would like to remember in games and practices. Do you have the courage to put your personal stamp on that recommendation sheet and bet a valuable draft choice?

Here’s the next level of analysis. Does your hot prospect understand the game? Does he or she (WNBA) know that the game is played with five players instead of one? Basketball intelligence and team play sometimes can overcome a lack of physical skills. Larry Bird needed a step ladder to jump over a dime and could not run faster than molasses going downhill. Yet, he was the “Einstein of the Hardwood.” It did not hurt that he had mental toughness and confidence matched by only a few in NBA history.

So you have your guy. Physically tough, mentally tough, understands the game and is a great team player. Terrific! For an international player there are other elements that are important.

For one, it is one thing to get on a plane from Boston to LA. Food is just about the same. People look and talk just about the same. You might miss your “boys” back in the “hood,” but that can be easily overcome.

How about if you come from Xi’An (the 6,000-year-old city in the middle of China)? While you may have heard people speaking English (now is a lot different than 20 years ago when English could have been Martian), you cannot say much but hello and goodbye. You have been brought up in a culture where generations of family all live under one roof. The food? Well, they may have opened up McDee’s or KFC in the city, but the fact is that you are accustomed to 10-course meals for every meal of the day with everything from soup, meats, noodles or rice, salad and fruit as your staple diet. Are you getting the picture?

This same cultural scenario could use Iran, India or Mongolia as a backdrop. Cultural shock must be overcome if you are going to perform at a high professional level. Of course, you really never know how a player will handle a new culture, but you better be pretty certain that the player has the courage to meet these challenges off the court as strongly as he meets the challenges on the court!

What about the human relation part of recruiting a player? You have to convince mom and dad that their son is not lost forever. You have to convince government officials and the player’s present club that their interests will be taken care of.

Maybe you have followed the “Yao” journey to America in great detail. To get him out of China, the Chinese and Shanghai governments had to be guaranteed he would be available for important international and national competitions, and they had to have a “taste” of the spoils. Wang Zhi Zhi did not come back to China one year, and both the China Basketball Association and Bayi Rockets (his club) got out the big blackball, which is not something in any walk of life you want happen to you in China. It makes a visit from the IRS feel like a homecoming party!

So you can add political ambassador to your many other titles of talent evaluator, psychiatrist and babysitter!

Finally, how about you? Budgets are tight these days — 25 hours in economy class to get here. New culture, lots of travel jumping from country to country, city to city and the like. Remember, there is probably a 12-hour time difference between you and home. Expect middle-of-the-night calls in addition to plenty of email communication (Not every place you visit has Wi Fi or internet.) Oh yeah, home. Having a wife and children does not make it any easier when you are on the road for great lengths of time.

All the above sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Why would anyone want a job like this?

Because absolutely there is no feeling like finding a player who makes the grade!!! A player who contributes to winning a ring!!!!

So now you have a taste. I am sure there are plenty of questions out there that can be addressed in a future article.

For now, as NBA practices open up soon, I’ll be booking my ticket for Shandong to watch the China National Games!


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