EUROPEANS IN THE NBA
|Luol Deng is one of three Europeans competing in the main event on NBA All-Star weekend|
Back in 1989, when Rimas Kurtinaitis was invited to the NBA three-point contest, the presence of a European at the All-Star Weekend was merely a touch of exoticism for an American TV audience that had never heard of basketball outside the US.
"I barely had time to practice," the Lithuanian former sharp-shooting player and now coach of Khimki recalls.
"The night before the long trip to the US, at 11 pm and after three training sessions that day, I tried for the first time to take a few shots from that distance."
At the time, the three-point arc in the NBA was a metre further away from the basket than it was in Europe and FIBA basketball in general.
The exhausted Kurtinaitis only had nine points in the contest and finished last, but he still remembers meeting several players that weekend that he had only seen on TV before.
24 years later, the difference between the radius of the two three-point arcs is less than half a metre, and a European player participating at the NBA All-Star Weekend is far from a novelty.
In fact, Dirk Nowitzki will not feature in the All Star Game for the first time in 12 seasons, and there will be no Spanish international in the big game for the first time in the last five years, in which at least one of the Gasol brothers (Pau and Marc) were present.
"I had fun representing the Mavs [Dallas Mavericks] all these years, but it was a tough year for me with injuries," Nowitzki said on the end of his streak.
"I guess those four days I'm going to enjoy and get a good amount of work in as well and get recharged for the second half of the season."
There is only one break in the frantic NBA schedule from the moment the season tips off until the champion team is crowned in the last game of the play-off finals, when action pauses for four days, and it is this weekend.
|This year marks Tony Parker's fifth NBA All Star game appearance|
Nowitziki and the Gasols will take a rest, but there will still be six European internationals in Houston, where this year's All-Star Weekend is hosted, just like when a star-struck Kurtinaitis dropped in for his guest-star visit in '89.
Luol Deng of Great Britain and Joakim Noah of France, team-mates on the Chicago Bulls, will play for the East in the main event on Sunday, the All-Star Game.
They will come up against another Frenchman, wily veteran Tony Parker, with the San-Antonio Spur making his fifth appearance.
Nikola Vucevic of Montenegro, who plays for Orlando Magic; Ricky Rubio of Spain and Alexey Shved of Russia, who are both on the books of the Minnesota Timberwolves; will play for Charles Barkley's team in the appetiser, the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge.
The three young Europeans will go up against a team selected and managed by Shaquille O'Neal in a game which is the equivalent of the All Star Game for players in their first or second season in the NBA (rookies and sophomores).
Deng has been there before. On Sunday, he will add a second straight All-Star appearance to his résumé, but for fellow Bull Noah this is going to be a first.
"I'm extremely excited to be recognized as an All-Star for the first time," said the Frenchman, who has been shaking off an injury in the last days but will play in Houston.
"It's more of a team honour than an individual honour, because it would not have been possible without my team-mates and coaches."
Shved, who is not only getting his first taste of the event, but is also in his rookie NBA year and has the freshest eyes of all Europeans in Houston this weekend, soaked in the atmosphere upon his arrival in the Texan city.
"It's like Las Vegas, but a basketball Vegas," the Russian said.
"Everyone talks basketball, everyone likes basketball, it's so cool to be here today."