Tony Parker, Rudy Gobert and the world of the black international player in the NBA
Players discuss adapting to African-American culture, dealing with racism and where they hope to live after their basketball careers are over
While the overwhelming majority of players in the NBA are African-American (just about 80 percent last season), many are black international players who bring a unique perspective to the league.
What is it like to be a black international player coming directly to the NBA from overseas? What are the biggest challenges? Did they encounter racism outside of the U.S.?
The Undefeated discussed these topics with international players from around the league. Each player in this roundtable came directly from playing professionally overseas to playing in the NBA without going to high school, prep school or college.
Who was your favorite basketball player as a kid?
Tony Parker, Charlotte Hornets (France): Michael Jordan. I watched him in France on TV at 3 in the morning because of the time difference. I watched every game with my brothers. I was just loving basketball and being a big Bulls fan.
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors (Republic of Congo): Kevin Garnett was my favorite, and I never watched him play. As a kid I couldn’t watch NBA basketball. The only time I was following something NBA was in magazines, Slam magazine. I knew him from his posters and his pictures. He is fun-loving, had passion and had energy in the pictures.
Dante Exum, Utah Jazz (Australia): Paul Pierce. My dad said I played like him, and once your dad, who is your idol, says you play like someone, you always watch. This was in the era where [the Boston Celtics] won a championship and had a really good team. It was just tough watching in Australia because a lot of the games are on during school, so it was mostly just watching highlights.
Thabo Sefolosha, Jazz (Switzerland): Michael Jordan. I didn’t really watch anyone else. Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant later on. It was tough to see NBA games. I would have tapes I watched 20 times of the same game because we can’t see games on a daily basis. So we had like maybe one game every month that we could get our hands on. That is how I learned.
Clint Capela, Houston Rockets (Switzerland): Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. Those guys were showing up on the court every single night. Every night they would dominate.
Nene, Rockets (Brazil): I didn’t have sport channels to watch basketball. The first time that I saw a game was my birthday, and my friend — I was like 13, 14 — he brought me to his house and he showed me a game. It was like the Finals, Bulls and Utah. … He showed me a Shawn Kemp [basketball] card because he said I reminded him of Shawn Kemp. And when I got drafted, I had the Shawn Kemp card in my wallet.
Rudy Gobert, Jazz (France): When I was younger I couldn’t watch a lot of games. I remember seeing LeBron [James] a lot. I liked Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett. There were a lot of players. I’m just a fan of the game.
Frank Ntilikina, New York Knicks (France): I watched Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and all they did to be great at the sport. I was staying awake to 2 a.m. in the morning. I would find a website from the other side of the world to try to watch games and keep up. If I couldn’t watch because I had school in the morning, I would watch the highlights of the games right before school.
What was your biggest challenge when you first came to the U.S.?
Nene: Everything. I was 18 years old. No English. No family. I was a true stranger. I was afraid. Something go wrong, where was I going to run to? I always knew God gonna be with me. … Speaking English was one thing; speaking slang and cursing is a different thing. When I came here, I was in big, big shock about the culture.
Gobert: It was the language. My first year, my English wasn’t perfect. I had to get better at talking. I watched movies. I like to discover new cultures, new places and people with different mindsets too. When you go to France, the U.S. or South America, people have different mindsets for the most part. I’ve always been someone who is very open-minded.
Capela: One of the biggest challenges was leaving my family and all of my friends. I had to go [to Houston], where I had no idea what it was like. Learning the language was hard. Of course, I already knew how competitive it is to come here to this country and to make it, so I was very worried about that.
And what really surprised me when I first got here was how hard it is to get the respect from everybody. Nobody was trying to make me feel comfortable. I had to prove myself on the court to everyone. In Europe, people make you feel comfortable and try to get you involved. Here, you have to grind it out.
Exum: I’m always kind of an introvert, so I’ve always adapted myself. Plus, I’ve been to the States so many times, so it wasn’t that much of a challenge for me adjusting. The biggest thing for me was driving on a different side of the road.
Ibaka: My biggest challenge was I had to learn the language on the court or wherever [I’d] go. It was tough. You don’t know anybody. Your only friends are your teammates and you don’t know English. But the good thing is you woke up every day to go play basketball, which is something you love to do, so you don’t really think about all the other things. During my first year, I had Thabo Sefolosha as a teammate. He spoke French too, so he kind of made it easier.
Sefolosha: The biggest challenge was just getting used to the culture. I came from an environment where you play basketball and we all do things together. I was in France, then in Italy, and everybody was very together. And then you come to the NBA and it’s kind of different. Everybody’s on this side because they have family, they have this, they have that, so it was tough just adjusting to the American way of life.
It was my first time coming to [the U.S.] when I got drafted, so I didn’t know [Chicago]. I didn’t know nobody in the U.S. It was a little lonely at times. I could lie and say it was great, this and that, as far as a teammate helping. But to be honest, no one really looked out for me.
Ntilikina: The life is tough. It is a big adjustment. I did a good job of learning English in my country. But still, I’m not talking French all day, or for weeks. Learning that real fast language is different.
Culturally, the habits that Americans have is always different from others. But it is the challenge and it is so much fun for me. Ever since I was young, my dream has been to live in America. I just enjoyed it.
Parker: Everybody was very friendly. The whole city embraced me. They all treated me like family and like I was their little son because I was so young at 19 years old. Malik Rose, Bruce Bowen, Terry Porter, David Robinson, Steve Kerr, I had great vets that took care of me. It was not hard to relate at my age. I always lived my life beyond my years.
There was nothing hard to adapt to, to be honest. If there was one thing, it was Coach Pop [Gregg Popovich], the way he was coaching. I was trying to please him and play my game. Find a happy middle. He was a really tough coach.
Did you feel like you had to integrate yourself into African-American culture?
Gobert: Not really. When I was in France, I had American teammates, usually black American teammates. I kind of know their history. I’ve never been really focused on that. I try to focus on what’s positive, even though you have to be aware of what’s been going on and what is going on.
Exum: You kind of do, just being in the situation that we are in. We kind of have a voice, and when given the opportunity to speak to the media, there is a sense that you have to stand up for who you are and your culture.
Sefolosha: By default, I’m seen as a black man in America. And everybody is kind of in the same basket. What happened to me in New York proved a point. So, yeah, I always liked history and stuff like that, so I was very interested actually in seeing what was the influences and the forces that made people act and react the way they did. That was interesting for me, and I’m still learning about that. But there was definitely differences between being black in Europe and being black in the U.S.
Ntilikina: What happened to black people in the country, you have to learn about the history. You learn what to say, what not to say. It’s fun to learn about everyone’s culture. That is one thing I had to adjust to. I had to learn the words that my teammates were saying. Also, my teammates’ life in general. I would ask about what was happening in TV shows or what this word means.
Capela: There was a barrier because of the language. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying to me at first with the slang. Whenever somebody said, ‘Are you going to the thing?’ you were, like, ‘OK, whatever.’ It was hard. It took me a year and a half to have a real conversation with the slang.
Nene: Music was the best way. When you listen to music, you know, that’s when you learn about a culture, the style. Of course, education.
Did you deal with racism in your respective countries?
Capela: In Europe, yes. Whenever I used to play with the Swiss under-16, everywhere we would go, Montenegro, Italy. Every time I was scoring, monkey yells. Oh, my God. Yeah, all the time. You’re in their country that is all white people. They are allowed to say that. No one says anything. I’m the only black guy in the gym. I can’t do much about it. It also happens in soccer. They throw bananas.
It hurts, man. But you got to play. You got a goal, and you have to stay focused on it. It really helps me to stay calm, not get angry on what’s happening around me and stuff like that.
Gobert: There was always a little bit, but I never really paid attention to it. It was just showing me that someone was more stupid than anything. My mom is white. My dad is black. So, for me, I’ve never felt [racism] in my heart. I’m about cultures. I don’t want to say you shouldn’t pay attention to it, what’s going on. But at the same time, you don’t want it to be a burden. Be proud of what you are and be positive.
Parker: No. I grew up in Normandy. Obviously, I knew it existed, but I never really felt it where I grew up. And I grew up where I was the only black guy. But everybody was always nice. I never really felt it at school or at basketball.
Sefolosha: No. I wouldn’t say so. I mean growing up, few things here and there. I was the only black guy at school for a while. But I didn’t have to go through the systemic racism as far as I never really looked for a job in Switzerland and things like that. I know that can be a challenge, you know, whether it’s in France or it’s in Switzerland or it’s everywhere in Europe. If you got a name with an African or Muslim sound, it’s a little harder to get a job. So I didn’t have to go through that.
Nene: [Racism] is still going on all around the world. There are a lot of weak minds that try to separate people using excuse about color. When I came here, I used the opportunity. I used my faith. … I treated people very well, very nice, and with respect.
Exum: Yeah, in patches. When I look back at it now, it was just because you were different. It wasn’t that people hated black people or anything like that. It was just because you’re different or something to pick on. Australia is not a racist nation. It’s just, a lot of people like to protect themselves in a way.
Ntilikina: It’s not that bad. I was accepted by most white people. I have a lot of white friends who accepted me in their lives. We don’t care about each other’s race, skin color or background in my entourage.
What do you think about the racism and social issues that African-Americans face in the United States?
Exum: It is definitely an issue. The prejudice that we face, it’s tough and it’s just something that people are going to have to learn to adapt to over time. It’s not something that can change someone’s opinion overnight, and that’s the tough thing about it. There’s a lot of these things that people try to do and say and protests that [bring] change. But it’s just how people are and it’s how people were raised. It just starts with children, and over generations or something that we’re going to have to phase out.
Capela: I have so much respect for black Americans and what they’ve been through, what they’re fighting every day for on a daily basis. I watched Roots on Hulu. I respected it so much. I had tears when I watched it. How they got separated from families. It’s something in Europe we don’t have because there is not enough of us.
Every single day, I see that black people, they’re always together, they support each other. This is huge because it is something we don’t have in Europe. I saw white people all the time. [Black unity] is not something we are taught in Europe.
Gobert: The human race has been taking advantage of people since they arrived. I don’t think it’s going to change. It’s about positivity and bring a positive message. Of course, human beings, we should all be equal, and whether you’re black, Muslim, white, Asian, we are born with the same chances in life.
Ibaka: It’s kind of crazy. Overseas, you don’t see that. But everyone now is different. You’ve got social media where you can see everything. Like 10, 15 years ago, I was in the Congo, social media was not like that. Everything that was going on you didn’t know about. You don’t know the racist things. You hear about it, but you don’t know until you get here. Then you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s crazy.’
Nene: If you study the history, all the immigrants came to the U.S. for an opportunity. For free religion. For free liberty. Anyone who came from anywhere else is going to have obstacles, adversity. Sometimes you still have things about color and class. But when you have a positive mind, when you work really hard, you move all of those things back.
Ntilikina: I didn’t know the troubles going on in America, but then I learned about it. It’s just sad to see it. But at the end of the day, we’re all just human. I just hate racism. I hate discrimination. For me to see that is kind of tough. I just hope that it goes away in the future.
Parker: It is real. It will take some time, but I feel like we are making progress. But we still got a long way to go.
Sefolosha: The political climate has become very apparent. There has been a lot going on in the last three or four years, and it’s been more and more visible. I think I have a good sense of it because of my South African roots. And when I think about it, there were problems, as segregation and apartheid were very similar. I can understand the struggle a little bit and relate to it in a way. It’s troubling to say the least. …
What did I learn from my incident in New York? I learned that it’s a f—ed up system and there’s problems everywhere. I still feel like I’m lucky. That night could’ve been extremely wrong. The process could have been extremely different. I feel lucky still. But it just highlighted a lot of the problems that are here. It’s sad to see, and I’m still troubled by it.
Will you live in the United States when your NBA career is over?
Parker: I will stay in San Antonio. I’ve been there 17 years. All my friends are there now. I like everything. The people, the air, the culture, everything, all the memories. I have a [routine] there now. Schools for the kids, movie theaters, different restaurants. It’s just home.
Exum: I would probably go back to Australia. I just feel like the way I was raised and grew up, when I hopefully have children one day, I want them to be raised how I was raised. It’s nothing against America. I do think the schooling is better in Australia.
Sefolosha: I will not. I have kids. They’re a little bit older now — they’re 10 and 9 — and I want them to experience something different. The [American] culture is one that glorifies values that I don’t really share, so I want them to see something else, grow up around something different, and then they’ll make a decision. But for a while I think I want to be back home, do business there and be close to family as well.
Gobert: Yeah. It’s probably a long time from now, so you don’t know how the world is going to evolve. I love to live in Utah, but I also like to move and try other things. So I’d probably be going to different places, probably spend a few months here and few months there. That’s the best way to do it.
Ibaka: That’s a deep question. It has to be my decision. But why now? I got two places in mind. But I don’t want to really say. Not yet.
Capela: To me here, the mentality is really different. I don’t always agree with it. I think more Europe for now: Switzerland or France or something else. Maybe Spain. I like the vibe. The people are not always trying to show off what they have or what they wear. They’re just simple people. I hung out in Barcelona this past summer. It just felt so good. It doesn’t matter if you’re a movie star. You’re just simple people at first, and this is something that I really embrace when I go back to Europe. I always have people who keep me to be the same person from Day One.
Nene: In America. My kids are here, I live here and my career is here. I do love my life here. Of course, I love my culture. I want to see my family, see my friends, see my business. Enjoy both worlds. But, you know, I grew up here and everything is here.
Ntilikina: If I want, I can have a place in America and France, but I just want to make sure I have a place in France. … Actually, before coming here I was kind of like, ‘Oh, I’m sure I’m going back to France’ because I am used to that culture and used to living here. But now I feel way more at home here than before, so that’s why I feel like I want something in both places.