Professional basketball teams selected 13 international rookies during last Thursday's draft, including players from places like Spain, Finland, and China. The Bucks snatched up Yi Jianlian with the sixth overall pick, but the 7-footer wasn't thrilled with the idea of playing in Milwaukee. Yi's agents said he would have preferred a city with a bigger Chinese population. Do these foreign rookies get any help adjusting to life in the United States?
Yes. The NBA has a formal program for international players, who now make up about a fifth of the league. Officials meet with athletes and their families after the draft and follow up throughout the year to make sure they are adapting to the new environs. Foreign draft picks also get extra sessions at the NBA's yearly orientation workshop, called the Rookie Transition Program. The newbies learn how to manage money, talk to reporters, and deal with legal issues like sexual harassment and gambling. International rookies get extra information, like how to bring family members to the United States, what they need to know about their visas, and how to deal with marketing contracts back home. Veterans of the program, like Manu Ginobili, dole out advice.
In general, the individual teams handle the immigration papers for their rookies from overseas. (The players often get P-1 visas, which the government reserves for those with "internationally recognized" skills, like entertainers.) Some teams, like the Golden State Warriors, don't do much else to help them assimilate. The Warriors will send a car service to pick up international players when they come off the plane for the first time, but for the most part the team leaves the rookies—and their agents and managers—to fend for themselves. You won't find any interpreters hovering around a Warriors huddle, though the team did help with an English tutor for the Francophone Mickael Pietrus. Another teammate, Latvian Andris Biedrins, had to teach himself English.
Others teams, like the San Antonio Spurs and the Denver Nuggets, provide a lot more hand-holding. Nuggets staff will wait in line at the DMV so a player can get his driver's license. Or they'll take him to look at apartments, instead of leaving that job to a realtor.
As for adapting to cultural differences—like scouting out comfort food from home or deciding whether to get the requisite tattoo—that's up to the players themselves. Teammates look out for one another: Back when he was with the Houston Rockets, Steve Francis was one of the first players to welcome Yao Ming from China in 2002. Watch your money, he told him, and watch out for women. It's unclear if Yao took Francis' advice, but the center lives with his parents, who have settled in and opened a restaurant in Houston.
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Explainer thanks Ric Bucher, co-author of Yao: A Life in Two Worlds, and Tim Dixon of the Denver Nuggets.