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In Your Face, Mate: The NBA Turns Global

`We're down to two seconds! The shot is up - it's good! The Croatian National team has beaten Dream Team 10!''

Obviously, this is just a daydream, since no foreign team has defeated the best of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in an Olympic matchup. But NBA Commissioner David Stern says it is not an impossible dream.

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``I think that day will come, because the Dream Team will probably face a foreign team where the players are NBA players,'' Mr. Stern says in an interview. If it were not for the breakup of Yugoslavia, the country would have fielded a team ``that begins to look like more of a challenge,'' Stern says.

As the season begins, the NBA, which used to just have players from the hard courts of Jersey City or St. Louis, has players from 18 countries, including the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, Nigeria, Jamaica, and Australia.

But foreign players are just one example of the internationalization of the NBA. On Nov. 4, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers began their season in Yokohama, Japan -- the third time since 1990 that the NBA has tipped off on Japanese courts. Stern says the Japanese foray enhances the NBA's TV coverage in that country and boosts sales of NBA merchandise in Sogo Department Stores.

The NBA is busy promoting itself in Europe as well. In October, Stern traveled to Paris with the Golden State Warriors and Charlotte Hornets. ``When we went into the Bercy Arena [in Paris], the young fans were knowledgeable about all of the players,'' says Stern, who believes the prospects in Europe are ``upbeat'' for the NBA as well.

As a result of the NBA effort, overseas revenues are growing faster than domestic receipts. Stern estimates foreign sales this season will amount to $300 million to $450 million out of $3 billion in sales. ``It has gone from nothing to whatever it is in about five years, and it continues to show great promise,'' Stern says, though he does not foresee overseas NBA teams anytime soon.

The game that fans around the world will watch this season is going to be slightly different than the last few years.

According to Stern, viewers can expect longer games as more fouls are called. The NBA decided to try to cut down on some of the physical contact and expects defensive clubs like the Knicks to take a while to adjust. For example, there are now sections of the court where players can no longer ``hand check'' (place their hands on another player's body) to slow down play or maintain contact with a player.

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Once players adapt, Stern predicts, the game will speed up, and players will reach the hoop more easily. Game scores, which dropped as teams concentrated on defense, will start to rise.

While the players are adapting, Stern will be negotiating with the players' union. The union agreed to play the 1994-95 season on the basis of the current (1988) contract. Although Stern can't guarantee that the basketball players will not join their disaffected hockey and baseball colleagues, he anticipates an uninterrupted season. In the meantime, he maintains that hammering out a contract is ``our No. 1 goal.''

And look for the NBA to put together a strong Dream Team III for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Although Stern expects to see the US lose an Olympics at some point, he doesn't want it to happen while he's commissioner.

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