Merhaba. Zdrahvo. Mambo. Pryvit. Zivjo. Hola.

Did we miss any greeting besides, How's it going, dude?

Welcome to the Rosetta Stone Language Learning NBA Playoffs. When the Jazz and Lakers meet tonight in Game 5 at the Staples Center, it might take a linguist to sort things out.

There will certainly be an international flavor. There's overseas legend Andrei Kirilenko from Russia. And Mehmet Okur from Turkey. Although he won't be in uniform, there's also Kyrylo Fesenko from Ukraine. If you want to get technical, Carlos Boozer was born in Germany.

Foreign-born players on the Lakers include Vladimir Radmanovich (Serbia and Montenegro), Pau Gasol (Spain), DJ Mbenga (Congo), Sasha Vujacic (Slovenia) and Ronny Turiaf (Martinique).

A regular United Nations assembly.

The influx of foreign players started a couple of decades ago and grew like, well, the world population. Five No. 1 draft picks since 1997 were born in foreign lands. Five of six MVPs from 2002-07 were born outside the good old USA (Steve Nash and Tim Duncan twice, Dirk Nowitzki once).

You know that phrase "A billion Chinese don't care?" Apparently they do. Houston Rockets' center Yao Ming has 10 to 12 Chinese media members at every game, eight of whom actually move to Houston during the regular season.

"I think the NBA soon will be an NHL," said Kirilenko, "where everybody is from different countries of the world."

Odds are good that foreign-born players will play a big part in tonight's outcome. Sunday's game was a case in point. Kirilenko had five blocks, and Okur's late shooting was the Jazz's salvation. Vujacic scored 15 points off the bench in L.A.'s Game 1 win. Radmanovich and Gasol are starters.

Even the most talked-about play of Sunday's game — Turiaf's flagrant foul on Ronnie Price — involved an international player. (Incidentally, Turiaf can say, "That's a charge!" in five languages.)

Ten years ago, when the Jazz and Lakers met in the playoffs, there was only one foreign-born player on either team: L.A.'s Rick Fox, who came from the decidedly un-foreign city of Toronto. Back then, the NBA had 29 international players from 21 countries. This year there were 76 from 31 countries.

"I don't know that I envisioned MVPs and the numbers that would be here, but I knew it would probably come," said Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson.

Johnson held clinics in Italy two decades ago and saw what he calls "tremendous interest in the game."

"They were so enthusiastic about learning what we knew, I knew that sooner or later it would come," said Johnson.

Changes have come with them. Johnson said foreigners "have been taught to play basketball like we did 50 years ago." By that he meant passing, screening, moving without the ball and squaring up for shots, rather than the one-on-one street ball favored by many Americans.

Curiously, it was American coaches that turned the international tide. They held clinics and took jobs, teaching foreign players fundamentals that many American-born players found boring.

While Americans were imitating Michael Jordan on the blacktop, foreigners were practicing the joys of the simple jump-shot or screen.

Soon players were flocking to America like lemmings to the sea: 7-footers like Nowitzki, who can make 3s all day; all-purpose players like Kirilenko, who turn in freakish box scores, filled with rebounds, steals, assists and blocks.

Though most foreign players speak respectable English, it doesn't always translate. Last year, Kirilenko's wife postulated that it was a communication problem that caused her husband's rift with Jerry Sloan.

Gasol and Yao stage post-game press conferences in two languages.

The game itself has varying languages, too, as each country contributes its own nuances.

"Like the French," said Kirilenko. "Always physical, good post-up players. The Spanish teams like, always fast break. Like, defense/fast break, defense/fast break."

Russians, he said, are versed in every position. "Like, even fives play the one and ones play the five."

Lithuanians, he said, are "always very skillful; all five can do other things."

"International guys bring different styles of basketball," he added.

Consequently, tonight's game won't be so much an American event as an international spectacle. Sure, it will feature Kobe Bryant's own red, white and blue brand of hoops. But it will also be a testament to the international cooperation and good will that have made the game global.

If only nations worked so well together, it might be enough to save us all.


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