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The United Nations of the Hardwood

The New York Times June 17, 2014




San Antonio Spurs Use Language Barriers to Their Advantage


San Antonio's Tony Parker, left, and Boris Diaw are French. Italy, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and Canada are also represented on the roster.


SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs played seamlessly through all five games of the N.B.A. finals, moving the ball from player to player, from corner to corner, all their effortless teamwork earning them their fifth N.B.A. championship in 16 seasons.

On Sunday, they avenged their loss in last season’s finals, beating the Miami Heat, 104-87, at AT&T Center. They made a complicated game look easy — look being the operative word. On the court, it sounded a bit different and more complicated.

“You’ve got this language and that language and that language and this language,” the reserve guard Cory Joseph said before Game 5.

Manu Ginobili, an Argentine, is the team’s one-man version of the United Nations, capable of conversing in Spanish with his Brazilian teammate Tiago Splitter and in Italian with Marco Belinelli, who was born outside Bologna. (Ginobili speaks in English with everybody else.)


The Spurs' Tiago Splitter, left, of Brazil, and Manu Ginobili, of Argentina, often speak to each other in Spanish on the court. Credit Tony


The Spurs, as has been well established, have developed an international flair under Coach Gregg Popovich. Eight players on the current roster were born outside the United States. Loosely translated, that means the Spurs use at least four languages — English, Spanish, French and Italian — to communicate among themselves.

Boris Diaw, who is from France, converses en français with Tony Parker, who was born in Belgium but grew up in France. Both players also know some Italian, enough to eavesdrop on conversations between Ginobili and Belinelli.

Even the two team’s two Australians, Patty Mills and Aron Baynes, have their own dialect.

“We’ll hear them and be like, ‘Whoa!’ ” the assistant coach Chad Forcier said.

Tim Duncan, who is from the United States Virgin Islands, is considered an international player by the N.B.A.

Being fluent in another language helps on the team bus. Matt Bonner, who grew up in New Hampshire, seldom feels left out of conversations. But there are occasions when he does, he said.

“If Manu says something in Spanish and Tiago dies laughing, then I might be like, ‘What’d you say? Translate it!’ ” Bonner said.

Language barriers have not been an issue for the Spurs — quite the opposite, in fact. Players described it as an advantage since they can essentially speak in code to one another on the court. Parker can say something to Diaw — or even shout it across the arena — and the odds are that no one else will understand them. Likewise, Belinelli cited the benefits of playing with Ginobili.

“When me and Manu speak Italian on the court, we try to use that as an advantage,” Belinelli said. “All the time. All the time. I think it is good.”

Only a handful of players in the N.B.A. speak Italian. Belinelli rattled off a few of them: Danilo Gallinari, Andrea Bargnani and Kobe Bryant, who spent several formative years in Italy. So Belinelli tries be careful when other Italians are in his general vicinity, lest he divulge secrets during his conversations with Ginobili.

The Spurs’ predominant language, of course, is English. Everyone on the team speaks it fluently, and the coaching staff encourages the players to use English.

“We have to use our language to communicate the plays we’re calling and the defensive schemes we’re using,” Forcier said. “In terms of making sure you execute your system, communication is one of the most critical components of the game.”

In other words, everyone needs to be on the same page. If Diaw and Parker spend the entire game speaking in French, few others would understand them — teammates included — and it could cause breakdowns in their overall scheme. So they often resort to French in emergency situations — when one of them messes up, for example.

“When something urgent happens between them, they default to French,” Bonner said. “If that makes sense.”

Several of the team’s players are also known for indulging in the occasional monologue, using language not suitable for print. During ABC’s broadcast of Game 2, for example, Parker appeared to mutter an expletive to himself, pardon his French.

Timeouts, too, can be a well-choreographed adventure. After Popovich makes his points, Ginobili will lean over and reinforce the message to Belinelli in Italian. Belinelli has been in the N.B.A. since 2007, but this is his first season with the Spurs. Popovich has his own way of communicating, and understanding can be an acquired skill.

“If there’s any degree of hesitation where a language barrier could come into play, they want to make sure it’s eliminated,” Forcier said.

Popovich has long espoused the virtues of an international roster, not merely because the players have a diverse set of skills but also because having them around enhances his own life. Popovich, who was born to a Serbian father and a Croatian mother, takes great pleasure, he said, in learning about his players’ lives and backgrounds. On road trips, the Spurs visit museums together.

“I think it’s just a respect for letting them know you understand they’re from another place,” Popovich said, adding, “We all grew up differently.”

Popovich, who majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy, draws on his past experiences when he interacts with players, and it goes beyond quizzing them on world affairs. When Hedo Turkoglu and Rasho Nesterovic were Spurs teammates several years ago, Popovich was capable of conversing with them in broken Serbian.

This season, Popovich has largely stuck with English, although there are exceptions. He sometimes greets Belinelli with an enthusiastic “Bonjourno!” (Or something that approximates enthusiasm for Popovich.)

“He also knows how to say, ‘Ciao!’ ” Belinelli said.

Growing up in Toronto, Joseph studied French through the ninth grade. He said he would be able to understand pieces of Parker’s conversations with Diaw if they would slow down. At least Joseph can take solace in his claim as the team’s lone Canadian.

“I just speak my own dialect,” he said. “Nobody understands me.”

Correction: June 16, 2014 
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article, using information from The Associated Press, misidentified a Spurs player. The player on the left, speaking with Manu Ginobili of Argentina, is Tiago Splitter of Brazil, not Marco Belinelli of Italy.
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