A New Breed Of Basketball Players Are Chasing The American Dream


Michelle FlorCruz
Displayed with permission from International Business Times

POTTSTOWN, Pennsylvania — A gym in suburban Pennsylvania doesn’t sound like the most obvious place to be for a young Mongolian-Canadian student with dreams to make it big in sports. But that’s where Jacob Tala spent all of July, perfecting his basketball game.

“You know, we’re descendants of Genghis Khan,” Norma Tala, Jacob’s mother, says excitedly, keeping a watchful eye on the court. She erupts in applause as her son sinks a basket against the Philadelphia Vipers. His purported ancestor’s famous drive to conquer seems mirrored in Jacob’s bid to make it big in a foreign land. He wants to be a basketball star in America, and if he makes it, he will have a small basketball academy in Pennsylvania to thank.

The 17-year old is one of the kids from 12 countries spending part of the summer at Alexander Basketball Academy, a monthlong sleepaway camp for international high school talent from countries ranging from Denmark to China.

Tala is one of the emerging international players who are changing the face of the sport in America, some of them originally from countries, like Mongolia, where basketball has been catapulted rapidly from an oddity into one of the most popular sports.

His parents have achieved the immigrant dream: After leaving their native Mongolia, they are naturalized Canadians, and are currently living as expats in Shanghai, China, where Jacob’s father, Tony, is a successful businessman. Now Jacob, the elder of their two children, is chasing a dream of his own: playing Division I college basketball in the U.S.

Three summers at the camp have transformed “two-point Tala,” a moniker he got after scoring only two points in his entire first summer session, into a prospective collegiate-level basketball player.

The place where he morphed into a contender for American basketball is Alexander Basketball Academy, held on the perfectly manicured grounds of the Hill School, 40 miles (70 km) outside of Philadelphia.

Every summer John Alexander, the camp’s 33-year old owner, and his fellow coach Kevin Breslin, an entertainment basketball player for the Washington Generals — the team that famously tours with, and loses to, the Harlem Globetrotters — bring 45 young men here for a shot at college-level play.

For most international prospects, getting into the American college-basketball system and reaping the benefits of college-level play and exposure is not easy. Typically, NBA scouts only pluck out players who have already had experience in their respective national leagues and have grown a thick enough skin to survive a transition to the NBA. This means young players like Tala would never get in front of an NBA international scout.

Like Tala, the rest of Alexander’s recruits are largely unknown within their countries, let alone internationally. While the NBA is busy looking for ripe talent, the Alexander operation spends its time growing it. “The camp is for students that would probably never have been seen,” Alexander says. For inexperienced kids from around the world, even just getting a chance to be scouted is “unfamiliar territory,” he says.

In four years of operation, Alexander has established himself as a pioneer of a new method of international recruitment. With the help of a dozen coaches, most of whom played college basketball themselves, the Academy houses and trains four teams divided into two levels. Golden Dragon athletes are players with basketball experience and fundamentals, but who need the finesse and exposure to play at a college level; and the Red Dragons, the camp’s younger group, usually are rising high school freshmen or sophomores who are still working on gaining time on the court and learning fundamentals.

Collectively, they are known as Global Squad — and Alexander was once just like them.

Along with his two brothers, Jeremy and Joe, he used to be a high school student playing basketball overseas in China, pursuing hoop dreams long before the now basketball-crazed country was a blip on the NBA’s radar. The process is personal for the three brothers, who went through the same struggles to get noticed by American college scouts while living as expats and playing at the International School of Beijing.

Though they excelled on their Beijing team, they quickly realized college basketball programs weren’t going to notice them in China. After moving back to the U.S., John and Jeremy were able to secure spots playing Division III basketball at Washington College, while Joe, the youngest and the best player of the three, earned a spot on West Virginia’s Division I team. The process wasn’t easy — Joe had to do an additional year of prep school to eventually get noticed by West Virginia. In 2008, his dreams were realized when he was drafted to the NBA by the Milwaukee Bucks.

His brother John says his business is born from his first-hand experience of the setbacks and tribulations of a young player who wants to make it in America and can’t rely on NBA scouts, the people who according to Grantland columnist and former Ohio State basketball player Mark Titus “occupy the most dreaded position in the business.”

Today, while some American high school students are opting out of the NCAA’s famously stringent rules by looking for opportunities overseas, Alexander spends his time developing a business that helps student-athletes overseas go in the opposite direction. For now, John is the Academy’s only permanent, full-time staff member, putting in the legwork year-round, sending information to college scouts, and flying overseas to various international high school basketball tournaments. On these trips John watches kids play and seeks out young talent with the potential to succeed.

That’s how the academy found Jacob Tala, who in 2012 was a 5’7 combo-guard who had just finished the eighth grade at the Shanghai American School. “Have you heard about the Legend of Jacob Tala?” asked Christian Matthews, a former Washington College forward who began coaching with Alexander in 2012. Sitting at a local watering hole where the academy’s personnel gather, fellow coaches chimed in: “You gotta hear this!”

The freshman was the youngest player and one of the smallest at camp that year. At first, Tala stood out for the wrong reasons. “To be totally honest he was a chubby kid. Just wasn’t very good,” Matthews said. That was the summer when he scored exactly one basket. But Tala wasn’t discouraged. He was hungry. He became a gym rat, spending hours before and after school, year round, on the hardwood court, most times by himself. Over the winter holidays his high school gym would close, but that didn’t stop him either. “I would just play outside in the rain and the snow, alone, until it got dark,” he said.

The following summer, Tala came back to be on the Academy’s Red Dragon B team, and showed exponential growth. He was his team’s leader in points and three-pointers, scoring 104 points by the end of the month. Suddenly his dream of going to an Ivy League university and playing for its basketball program was not so far-fetched.

He would be following in the footsteps of Global Squad alumni like Nasser Al-Rayes, a 6’9 Qatari-American center who found himself playing for CalTech, where he enrolled in the mechanical engineering program after leaving the academy. This summer Al-Rayes returned to camp, working as part of the staff, taking game stats for his former teammates and also doing some scouting of his own for CalTech. According to Al-Rayes, two of this year’s Global Squad athletes, Brandon Rogers, a Tokyo-based American, and Yujin Yamamoto, from Osaka, are likely to join him in Pasadena next year.

Cross-cultural and academically successful, these athletes are a unique breed of basketball players, and they are a good indication of the direction where U.S. basketball is headed: abroad. One-third of this year’s first-round NBA draft picks were foreign-born, including the No. 1 pick, Canadian Andrew Wiggins.

International players have grown to be a significant part of the NBA. 39 different countries and territories were represented on NBA rosters during last year’s opening games, a record high for the league that has Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Manu Ginobili and Hakeem Olajuwon among some of its most famous and prolific players.

Some of them, like shooting guard Nik Stauskas, a Canadian of Lithuanian origin, came to the NBA from the U.S. college system; Stauskas played for the University of Michigan.

Hoping to follow a similar path, this summer the Global Squad attended four tournaments, and were easily the most popular teams everywhere they went. Globalized basketball players are still unusual enough to turn heads in America.

Kasper Christiansen, a 6’9 Copenhagen native, for example, is hard to ignore. Aside from his imposing stature, Christiansen has Division I prospects, with schools like Davidson and Michigan — the alma mater of eighth-round pick Stauskas — already asking about the Danish small forward. But at just sixteen, Christiansen still has a long journey ahead of him to be ready for the NCAA, let alone the NBA. By the end of camp, he already had his sights on next year, vowing to bulk up and fill out his tall frame.

Christiansen is hoping to follow in the footsteps of fellow Dane and Academy alumnus Peter Moller, a combo guard who is beginning his collegiate Division I career this fall at Liberty University, a program he picked over those at George Washington University, Northeastern and Ohio.

Alexander Basketball Academy Danish athlete Kasper Christiansen is one of the camp’s most promising players, with Division I school’s already expressing interest in the forward. John Alexander

As for Tala, the legend continues. This year, just over a week into camp, Matthews and his assistant coach, current Washington College forward Sean Flanigan, noticed Tala was consistently outplaying his Red Dragon teammates. So they bumped him up to the next level: the Golden Dragons, one of the Academy’s two advanced squads, training to be scouted by college recruiters.

Tala still has a lot of work ahead of him to achieve his dreams of playing at a Division I program, but the prospects are there, and Alexander says that some Ivy League programs have already expressed interest in the rising junior.

In the meantime, Tala is keeping a level head.

“When he moved up to the Golden Dragons, you know what he said to me?” Matthews recounted. “He shook my hand, looked at me and said, ‘Coach, it was an honor.’ That’s the type of kid Jacob Tala is.”

Cleveland Cavaliers Welcome Kevin Love to join with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving


Jason Lloyd
Akron Beacon Journal
Displayed with permission from MCT Information Services

As another dreary season concluded in April, one wide-eyed team executive stood in the back hallways of Quicken Loans Arena gushing about the possibilities in front of the Cavaliers this summer.

“This thing is teed up,” he said. “It’s ready to go.”

It was difficult to believe given the 33-49 finish to the season and all the uncertainty surrounding the franchise, but as the Cavaliers welcomed Kevin Love on Saturday, all of their most far-fetched wishes came true in what has been perhaps the most magical offseason in franchise history.

The construction of the NBA’s newest Big Three is complete. Love is officially a member of the Cavaliers, a team that once again appears to be a wrecking ball across the league.

The much-anticipated three-team deal involving the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers was completed Saturday, the first day Andrew Wiggins was eligible to be traded after signing his rookie contract.

As expected, the Cavs shipped out Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a 2014 first-round pick (which previously belonged to the Miami Heat) in exchange for Love, a three-time All-Star whose 26.1 points per game last season was a career high and ranked fourth in the league (directly behind LeBron James).

“Kevin joining the Cavaliers represents a very special and unique opportunity for our team,” Cavs General Manager David Griffin said in a release. “At only 25, Kevin has already firmly established himself as one of the NBA’s elite players and his talent, versatility and fit are major parts of our team’s vision for success.”

Love, who turns 26 in two weeks, is a fierce rebounder and arguably the best stretch 4 in the game. He has averaged 19.2 points and 12.2 rebounds for his career, but he struggles defensively and was never able to carry the Timberwolves to the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference in any of his six seasons there. That is no longer an issue. Not only is Love moving to the weaker Eastern Conference, but now he’ll also have fellow All-Stars James and Kyrie Irving as teammates.

Love’s arrival had been rumored for weeks. The Cavs and Timberwolves agreed to the framework of a deal weeks ago, but had to wait a month after signing Wiggins. ESPN reported the Phoenix Suns made a late push for Love, but were rejected.

In Wiggins, the Timberwolves are getting a 19-year-old with star potential, but there are also plenty of executives across the league who question if he’ll ever reach superstar status. Cavs executives preferred Jabari Parker to Wiggins throughout the draft process, but were overruled on draft day by ownership.

Nevertheless, the Timberwolves were believed to prefer Wiggins over Parker, so everyone walks away happy.

The Cavaliers are ecstatic to get Love, who could be the final piece needed to end the city of Cleveland’s 50-year title drought. He completes a stunning offseason that began with Irving’s max contract extension and exploded when James announced he was coming home.

The addition of Love means the Cavs have soared from 10th place in the East last season to heavy favorites to win the conference and advance to the Finals for the first time in seven years.

In order to make the trade possible, the Cavs had to surrender the No. 1 pick in each of the last two drafts. That meant including Bennett, who stumbled through a disappointing rookie season marred by injuries and shattered confidence. Bennett arrived at summer league last month slimmed down and searching for the swagger that made him a top pick out of UNLV.

He was blocked in Cleveland by Tristan Thompson and now will be blocked in Minnesota, at least for one season, by Thaddeus Young. The Timberwolves sent Alexey Shved, Luc Mbah a Moute and the pick acquired from the Cavs to Philadelphia for Young, who will replace Love and step in immediately as the Timberwolves’ starting power forward.

Love’s arrival in Cleveland would seem to make a reserve out of Tristan Thompson, who is eligible for a contract extension this summer. Thompson and Shawn Marion, who previously agreed to play for the Cavs this season, appear to be the top two reserves now on a Cavs team loaded with shooting and depth.

Defense remains a concern, but for now, the Cavs can celebrate a stunning turnaround and one of the greatest summer makeovers in league history. They also have room for at least one more small trade if it presents itself.

They acquired the non-guaranteed contracts of Malcolm Thomas, Erik Murphy and John Lucas III from the Utah Jazz last month. Since they didn’t need any of them to complete the deal for Love, the Cavs could acquire a $4 million player through a trade to bolster a frontcourt that still needs a rim protector and insurance policy in case Anderson Varejao gets injured.

Thomas, however, can’t be traded for another month because of complicated salary tax rules.

The Cavs also announced the signing of second-round pick Dwight Powell on Saturday. Powell was acquired in a draft-night deal with the Charlotte Hornets. The day, however, belonged to Love. Both James and Irving tweeted out welcome messages to Love.

James has been vacationing recently in Greece, while Irving is en route to Spain for the FIBA World Cup. He was officially appointed to the roster early Saturday morning, joining Derrick Rose and beating out Damian Lillard for the point guard job.

Love was also expected to be part of Team USA before withdrawing, citing his uncertain future. That future now is clear. He’s a member of the Cavaliers, the newest powerhouse in the NBA.

Kevin Love’s Exit From Wolves Is An Enigma


Chip Scoggins
Star Tribune
Displayed with permission from MCT Information Services

“I just think that they need to realize that I love being here. I don’t know where the misconception came along, but I love this team. I love this organization, and somewhere along the line it went the other way. I think that wholeheartedly they need to realize that I do want to be here.” — Kevin Love, February 2013

Did you believe him? Did you buy his contrite tone?

That was just 18 months ago, but it feels like a lifetime. Despite all the resentment he carried on his All-Star shoulders, Kevin Love tried to convince fans, media, perhaps even Timberwolves management, that he was willing to make this work.

Maybe he was sincere. Or maybe he was conning everyone. Just saying what he thought people wanted to hear, knowing he would bolt out the door as fast as he could orchestrate his exit.

He’s always been a tough nut to crack. Doesn’t matter now.

Love’s final day as a member of the Wolves was Saturday, when his trade to Cleveland can become official. He’ll leave a villain to a segment of fans, another star athlete who forced his way out of town.

Love’s legacy is more nuanced than that. He became an enigma, a complicated character who showed the best and worst of himself in his six seasons with the organization. His timeline doesn’t fit neatly into one box.

How will you remember him? How should you remember him? For me, that’s not an easy answer.

Let’s start with this fact: He is undeniably the second-best player in franchise history, behind Kevin Garnett, of course. Few would have predicted that outcome the night the Wolves traded for an undersized, chubby forward. Did anyone honestly believe Love would become one of the top 10 players in the NBA?

In that regard, Love’s dedication deserves admiration. He transformed himself and his game. He worked tirelessly in the offseason to lose weight and reshape his body.

He developed his outside shooting touch to go along with his rebounding, making him one of the NBA’s unique talents at power forward. He led the league in rebounding one season and made 190 three-pointers this past season. His long outlet passes are a thing of beauty.

Love gave the organization hope post-Garnett. Remember when he nailed that three-pointer at the buzzer against the Los Angeles Clippers? Felt like the Wolves were on the right path.

Love’s climb to stardom created optimism amid a vortex of organizational missteps and nonsense.

No wonder he got fed up with this place.

Yet, this professional divorce is Love’s creation, too. He undercut goodwill that he earned by becoming increasingly detached through his own mistakes.

His explanation for a broken hand — knuckle pushups — still engenders skepticism. His interview with Yahoo came across as whiny and turned off fans as he unloaded on his contract snub again. His lack of hustle to the defensive end as he flapped his arms in disgust at the officials grew tiresome.

For all his talent, Love earned a reputation as a player who collects stats but couldn’t lead the Wolves to the playoffs in six seasons. That’s not entirely fair. A star should be able to elevate his team, but you also can’t ignore circumstances and talent put around him by management.

But a definite woe-is-me undercurrent existed that seemed to create a disconnect between Love and his team. Love desperately wanted to be the face of the franchise, but he never really figured out the leadership part of it.

Teammates admired his individual talent and how hard he worked to improve, but they didn’t necessarily view him as someone who could rally a locker room in any situation. One comment this season felt particularly revealing.

“For me, I’m allowed an off game every now and then,” Love said following a tough shooting performance. His tone reeked of a guy who felt he is being dragged down by a dead-weight organization.

This ending is unfortunate because Love seemed to genuinely embrace this place at times. His annual coat drive was a heartfelt gesture. Occasionally, he’d tweet a location downtown and ask fans to come meet him. He took out a full-page ad in this paper in February to thank fans for voting him an All-Star starter.

“These are exciting times for all of us,” Love wrote.

Seems hollow now, doesn’t it? Uneasiness over Love’s future always lingered, creating a perception that he had one foot out the door, to the degree that his departure became a question of when, not if. Love moved the needle to full throttle this summer when he informed the team he would opt out of his contract after this season.

Ultimately, he got his wish.

The Wolves will close the book on Love with this trade. Some fans will miss him, others will say good riddance, and that’s a telling conclusion to his six seasons.

Love made himself one of the best players in the NBA, but his legacy here is a complicated one.

He’s Gone: Kevin Love Traded by Wolves to Cleveland

Jerry Zgoda
Star Tribune
Displayed with permission from MCT Information Services

Seven years later, the Timberwolves on Saturday morning once again traded away an All-Star named Kevin.

Yes, finally.

This time around, it was the guy named Kevin Love, their unhappy three-time All-Star who officially was sent to Cleveland in a three-way trade that also included Philadelphia.

Long after the team traded former league MVP Kevin Garnett to Boston in 2007, the Wolves completed a trade that has been expected for weeks but couldn’t be finalized until Saturday because of NBA salary-cap rules.

The Wolves received No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett from the Cavaliers, and veteran forward Thaddeus Young from the Sixers while sending Love to Cleveland and Luc Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved to Philadelphia along with a 2015 top-10 protected first-round draft pick they’re getting from the Cavs.

The trade’s announcement was delayed until Saturday because an NBA rookie can’t be traded for 30 days after he signs a contract. The Wolves and Cavaliers needed Wiggins signed because his $5.5 million salary helped financially balance under those salary-cap rules a trade that sends Love and his whopping $15.7 million salary away.

Love was traded away before he could opt out of his current contract next summer and leave the Wolves without any compensation in return.

Love received that opt-out clause when he reluctantly accepted a four-year, $61-plus million contract extension in January 2012 instead of a maximum five-year, $80-plus million “designated player” deal he sought.

Wolves owner Glen Taylor and then-president of basketball operations David Kahn held firm, offering Love only the four-year contract because they presumably believed the NBA’s new supposedly restrictive labor agreement — hammered out two months early after a two-month player lockout — would allow the team to guarantee Love more money on his next contract extension than any other team.

It also kept the Wolves’ option open to offer that one singular designated-player contract allowed each team to promising young point guard Ricky Rubio. The Wolves, in theory, could then sign Love to a five-year extension in 2015 or 2016 while keeping Rubio long term with a five-year deal as well.

That was all in theory, of course.

When Love was presented by Kahn with the offer in the team’s Target Center training room late after a game one day, he inevitably crumpled it up and called it, well, no good.

Two days later, Love accepted the offer that included the chance to get out of his contract after just three seasons, in July 2015.

On the day Love signed, his brother Collin tweeted that the Wolves had just rented their best player for the next three years, implying his future in Minnesota was limited.

Turns out, the Wolves had rented Love for just the next two seasons.

They were forced to trade him Saturday when Love’s representatives made it clear to team executives in recent months that he planned to opt out of his contract next summer and sign with another team.

He presumably was willing to do so even if it meant forgoing a fifth year and an extra $26.5 million that only the Wolves could have paid him.

Love likely forced his way to Cleveland — where he will play alongside superstar LeBron James and pal Kyrie Irving — both because of that contract snub he never quite fully put behind him and because he lost faith in the franchise’s ability to build a winning team around him.

Selected fifth overall by Memphis and acquired by the Wolves in a 2008 draft-night trade, Love played six seasons for the Wolves. In that time, established himself as the NBA’s best rebounder and most feared outlet passer but never reached the playoffs with a team that for years failed at nearly every turn to put equal talent beside him.

He transformed himself from a pudgy undersized rookie at his position whom Wolves coach Randy Wittman implored not to shoot three-point shots into a chiseled three-time All Star who is now the NBA’s best “stretch” power forward.

Written off by some critics early in his career, Love now — just days shy of his 26th birthday — is also the league’s most unique big man, a relentless inside presence who shoots three-pointers like a guard.

Love missed the start of his second season because of a broken hand and played just 18 games during the 2012-13 season after he broke that same hand not once but twice. The first time, he said he did so while doing knuckle pushups during a workout on his own during preseason in October 2012.

He returned healthy last season and in 77 games averaged 26.1 points while shooting 37.5 percent from three-point range and 12.5 rebounds.

Love refused to address his future repeatedly last season, saying only “I want to win” wherever he plays in coming seasons.

But it became increasingly obvious as the weeks after last season turned to months that Love wanted out of Minnesota. A very-public weekend visit to Boston — one of several teams that sought to trade for him — in May seemed to announce his intentions even if he never publicly asked to be traded.

Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders preferred a trade that would have brought young but established NBA players in return. He approached a deal with Golden State that would have brought Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and David Lee to Minnesota but the Warriors pulled Thompson from the package when advisor Jerry West advised Golden State owner Joe Lacob not to trade Thompson.

The Cavaliers seriously joined the pursuit after James declared himself a free agent and returned home to Ohio and Cleveland earlier this summer, despite their early public protests that they wouldn’t trade Wiggins.

Now Love joins a Cavaliers team poised to contend for an NBA title.

The Wolves, in return, receive in Wiggins and Bennett the No. 1 overall picks chosen in the last two NBA drafts and in Young a seven-year veteran who’s just 26 years old.

Wiggins and rookie guard Zach LaVine, the team’s own first-round pick this summer, give the Wolves two athletic 19-year-olds who each can vertically leap 44 inches or higher from basically a standing start.

Young gives them a proven player — if undersized — who can start at Love’s power-forward position.

USA Announces Final Roster for FIBA World Cup

K.C. Johnson
Chicago Tribune
Displayed with permission from MCT Information Services

Now, the only question becomes whether Derrick Rose reclaims his starting spot.

Rose, the starting point guard when USA Basketball captured gold at the 2010 World Championships in Turkey, was named one of 12 finalists for the FIBA World Cup that begins Aug. 30 in Spain.

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski announced the roster overnight Friday. It contains Rose, Irving, DeMarcus Cousins, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond, Kenneth Faried, Rudy Gay, James Harden, Mason Plumlee and Klay Thompson.

“Since taking over the USA Basketball men’s national team program in 2005, this was without doubt the most difficult selection process we’ve gone through,” Colangelo said. “I can’t stress enough the outstanding effort and commitment that has been given by each finalist. I also want to make it clear that this is not just about talent; each player is incredibly talented and each player offered us unique skills. In the end, it was about assembling the best team, selecting guys who we felt would be able to best play the kind of style we envision this team playing.”

After sitting out Wednesday’s exhibition in New York because of fatigue and soreness, Rose came off the bench to spell Kyrie Irving in Friday’s exhibition victory over Puerto Rico at Madison Square Garden.

Team USA was scheduled to leave for Spain on Saturday afternoon and open preliminary play against Finland in Bilbao on Aug. 30.

Rose’s inclusion in the final roster followed a bumpy week in which Rose missed two practices and one game, which seemed to set off alarm bells for a player who has suffered two season-ending knee surgeries. But Rose all along privately expressed confidence, as did Bulls coach and Team USA assistant coach Tom Thibodeau.

“I think Derrick feels very confident,” Krzyzewski told reporters in New York following Friday’s game. “Thought he played great (Friday). And these guys want to play with him. Part of getting back is to be around a group of peers. These guys are peers who want (Rose)to be really good. Hopefully, that will help Derrick as he gets ready to keep participating in this, but also for the NBA season.”

The final cuts were former Bull Kyle Korver, Damian Lillard, Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward.