Hank Biasatti was the first athlete born outside of the US to play in the NBA, way back in 1946. Born in Italy and raised in Canada, Biasatti spent a season with the then Toronto Huskies playing six games before being drafted by the Celtics prior to the 1947 season. He played a grand total of zero games before switching back to the MLB, where he had played before his brief career in basketball.
Since then, the NBA has progressively become home to more players hailing from all over the world, with 21.8% of players in 2020 being classed as international players. The talent of these players has improved with each passing decade, so much so that the MVP in each of the last three NBA seasons was born outside of the US (Giannis Antetokounmpo 18/19, 19/20 born in Greece and Nikola Jokic 20/21 born in Serbia). NBA odds now include betting on who you believe will become the league’s MVP in the coming season.
Africa is one of the most well-represented regions in the NBA and some of the greatest players to ever grace the league have called the continent home. Hakeem Olajuwon is arguably the best Centre to ever play in the league. Playing for the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors between 1984-2002, Nigerian-born Olajuwon earned himself the nickname ‘The Dream’ during his playing days. What is astounding about Hakeem is that until he arrived in the US at the age of 17, he had never played a game of basketball. Winning back to back NBA Championships and MVP performances, the man from Lagos is an incredible representation of the talent that had arrived from Africa.
Throughout the league’s history, however, there has been just one South African born player. Though that is not to minimize his efforts in the league, as the Johannesburg born Point Guard has a long list of personal honours from his playing days. An 8x NBA All-Star, 5x League Assist Leader and 2x League MVP, Nash was a first-round pick in the 1996 draft, selected by the Phoenix Suns after being offered a scholarship by Santa Clara coach Dick Davey. He led the Broncos to a WCC Tournament title after an upset win over Arizona State in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. In that game, he scored six straight free throws in the final half a minute of play.
A fairly quiet season followed but they rebounded in the 94-95 season with Nash being named Conference player of the year after leading the league for scoring and assists. It was after that, that Nash started attracting attention from scouts and the media.
After joining the Suns, Nash struggled for game time and played just 10 minutes in his debut season. Although this increased considerably the following year, he spent just two seasons in Phoenix before being traded to the Dallas Mavericks. It was here that he made his name.
Starting all 40 games in his first season with the Mavs, Nash averaged a respectable 7.9 points, 2.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. It was in the 00-01 season that he really began to make his mark, averaging 15.6 points and 7.3 assists per game in a breakout season. With Nash leading the offence, Dallas secured a place in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Although they bowed out in the semifinals after losing 4-2 to the San Antonio Spurs, it was the start of a memorable few seasons for Nash and the Mavericks.
He became a free agent after the 03-04 season, opting against signing an extension and instead opted for a return to the Suns. There, Nash became the catalyst for an incredible resurgence in Phoenix, who went a league-best 62-20 after being tipped to have a poor season following their previous record of 29-53. He beat out Shaquille O’Neal to win the MVP award and became the first-ever South African born player to do so. Nash led the team to the finals of the Western Conference after beating out the Memphis Grizzlies and the Mavericks in the second round, securing a 4-2 series win against his former team. Although they lost to the Spurs in the Conference finals, the Suns completed their best season since 1993 thanks to Nash’s efforts.
He spent seven more years with the suns, making four All-star appearances in the process and another league MVP award and a handful of playoff appearances before moving to the LA Lakers in 2012. Whilst putting up respectable numbers, Nash was plagued by injuries during his time on the East Coast. He had a rocky start to the 12-13 season, fracturing his leg in the second game and missing seven weeks of action. He then missed a large portion of the 13-14 season due to recurring nerve issues, before announcing his retirement at the end of the following season.
Regardless of his injuries at the end of his career, Nash’s time in the NBA was incredibly successful when looking at his personal achievements and certified himself as a romantic hero. He later became the first-ever African born head coach when he took over the post at the Brooklyn Nets and his tremendous influence on the game will have inspired a generation of South Africans to pick up a ball and shoot hoops with their friends in the hopes of making it to the promised land.