NBA commissioner David Stern dusted off an old photo at the last league owners’ meetings.
The subject? The first McDonald's championship game the NBA played in Europe in 1987 when Milwaukee beat an Italian Club called Tracer Milan.
“There was this shaggy-haired (Milan) player named Mike D'Antoni," Stern said Monday. “He's been a part of the growth of the game."
Then and now.
As the NBA continues to expand its international aims, the Italian-schooled D'Antoni and his free-wheeling Suns are the perfect marketing tool for global domination.
Sure, there are international players on other NBA teams.
San Antonio has Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki. Houston has Yao Ming.
But the Suns' frenetic style of play — engineered by a Canadian point guard and hastened by a Brazilian guard and a French center — offers entertainment value the league simply cannot deny.
And it highlights the skills of international talent that is miles ahead of the stiffs that once dotted the league.
“With deference to Phoenix's early efforts in this regard, Georgi Glouchkov," said Stern, referencing the Suns' infamous 1985 Bulgarian bust, “the game has moved a long way to see the Leandro Barbosas or Boris Diaws of the world." Who can deny it after the Suns' 130-123 win over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal?
Nash picked up the MVP trophy before the game and then added 31 points and 12 assists.
Barbosa had 17 points, drained a huge 3-pointer midway through the final period and had a terrific second half.
And Diaw added 19 points to his growing postseason resumé. “A lot of guys filled up the stat sheet tonight," D'Antoni said.
Diaw watched plenty of NBA games while growing up in France, but there was never the thought, at the time, that he might someday join them.
“When I was a kid there were not many European players in the league," Diaw said. “Then, guys like (Peja) Stojakovic, (Andrei) Kirilenko and Tony Parker had success.
“Now, if you want to say you're world champion you have to have the best payers from everywhere in the world. Otherwise, you're just the American champion."
That transformation has been hastened, D'Antoni said, by detrimental attitudes pervading the American game.
“The biggest difference," said D'Antoni of international players, “is that when they're 17 or 18, they're fighting for a spot on the team. They're not the high school star, the All-American that the shoe companies are giving stuff to.
“They are sitting at the end of the bench and the only way to get in the game is to pass every time, not make mistakes and to be a nice guy."
“The European style is more of a collective. The American way is to have a star on your team," he said. “In Europe, everybody scores without the big stars getting 40 and that's what we have going on the Phoenix Suns." The Suns will always face doubters. Until they win an NBA title, they won't validate this hybrid style of play in the minds of old-school American basketball thinkers.
But the NBA is moving more and more toward international rules that will benefit the Suns' style. Stern said Monday the league is even looking at eliminating basket interference. If that's the case, D'Antoni's internationally learned staples — perimeter-oriented big men, plenty of passing and armies of shooters — will beg closer examination.
And maybe emulation.