How the Astros have helped turn a popular sports cliché on its head

Many foreign-born men & women are shining in American professional leagues. Composite photo by Brandon Strange

On further review, perhaps Nigeria's defeat of the star-studded, 28.5-point favorite U.S. men's basketball team last week wasn't the shocker of all time. Australia stuck it to Team USA, 91-83, Monday night, the first time the U.S. team has dropped two pre-Olympic exhibitions since 1992 when Michael Jordan, Magic, Bird, Sir Charles and the Dream Team tore it up in Barcelona.

Sports headlines are screaming "stunning upsets!"

But really? For sure both losses were unexpected, but maybe it's time to start giving credit to other countries' basketball programs. Like the tagline for Close Encounters of the Third Kind – we are not alone. The rest of the world is pretty damn good at basketball now.

While the U.S., the birthplace of basketball, assuredly has the best roster 1-12, packed with NBA giants like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker, there are equally talented and celebrated players scattered on teams around the globe.

Face facts: the last three NBA Most Valuable Player Awards were won by foreign-born stars: Nikola Jokic from Serbia (2021) and Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece (2019-20).

Four of the top six vote-getters for this year's MVP are international players: Jokic, Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic (Slovenia).

An NBA All-Star Game pitting U.S. players vs. foreign-born players probably would be pick-'em in Vegas. The international starting lineup would have Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo up front with Kyrie Irving (Australia) and Doncic in the backcourt. Reserves include three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert (France), Suns big man Deandre Ayton (Bahamas), and dead-eye scorer Jamal Murray (Canada).

Four of the top five vote-getters for 2021 Defensive Player of the Year were born outside the U.S. – Gobert, Ben Simmons (Australia), Clint Capela (Switzerland) and Antetokounmpo.

Don't panic, Team USA will be favored to win the gold medal in Tokyo in a couple of weeks. But the days of us demolishing teams like Nigeria by 83 points (back in the 2012 Games) may be gone. Far-flung teams boast players with NBA and G League experience now. When Nigeria toppled the U.S. last Saturday, Nigeria's leading scorer was Gabe Nnamdi from the Miami Heat, although he goes by Gabe Vincent in the NBA. His career scoring average in the NBA is 4.47 points per game. He scored 21 against the U.S. He can play.

Maybe Nigeria shouldn't have defeated the U.S., but they shouldn't have been 28.5-point underdogs, either. As U.S. coach Gregg Popovich noted during a heated post-game press conference Monday night, it's a myth that the U.S. blows out every opponent in international play.

It's not just basketball where the U.S. is loosening its grip on world dominance. In 1980, there were 30 MLB players born in the Dominican Republic, and eight born in Cuba.

Today there are 140 big leaguers born in the Dominican Republic and 28 born in Cuba. A total of 256 MLB players are foreign-born. The most electrifying, history-making player in America's "great national pastime" is Shohei Ohtani from Japan.

Houston is the most diverse city in America, so it's fitting that the Astros have more foreign-born players than any other team. On Opening Day this year, 15 players on the Astros roster were born outside of the U.S. Last Sunday, when the Astros took the field against the Yankees, seven of the nine players were foreign-born: Framber Valdez and Robel Garcia (Dominican Republic), Yordan Alvarez and Yuli Gurriel (Cuba), Martin Maldonado (Puerto Rico), Jose Altuve (Venezuela), and Abraham Toro (Canada).

If you think international players have made inroads against American dominance in basketball and baseball, take a look at tennis. I have a friend who is devastated that not one U.S. male player is in the Top 30 world rankings. The top-ranked U.S. player is Reilly Opelka at No. 33.

In 1980, eight of the world's top 10 players were Americans: John McEnroe (although he was born in West Germany), Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis, Harold Solomon, Gene Mayer, Roscoe Tanner, Peter Fleming and Eddie Dibbs. Twenty of the Top 30 men were from the U.S.

U.S. women tennis players don't fare much better. Only one, Sofia Kenin at No. 4, is in the Top 10. In 1980, half of the top 10 were Americans, including Chris Evert and Tracy Austin at Nos. 1 and 2 in the world.

With so many foreign-born men and women shining in American professional leagues, sorry Steven A, some (like Yordan Alvarez here), may need an interpreter for interviews. It's not a bad thing.

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We'll see if Watson is in pads on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Houston Texans.

The Houston Texans had their last practice before pads come on for the first time on Tuesday. There was plenty to see on Monday.

1. Deshaun Watson had his usual extremely light level of work. He did very little throwing to teammates, though he did throw to the tight ends in 1-on-1 drills.

2. Texans head coach David Culley said "nothing has changed" when asked if Deshaun Watson will be in pads Tuesday. Culley has maintained that answer for a couple of sessions now.

3. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor was back after missing Saturday with an excused personal day. Taylor has been the best quarterback in camp by a wide margin. Taylor makes better decisions with the football than other quarterbacks, but he does struggle on deeper passes. Taylor missed wildly on one deep ball and was a little wobbly on another.

4. Nobody in camp can cover wide receiver Brandin Cooks. This could be the easiest training camp of his life. He easily gets open in 1-on-1 situations.

5. Rookie wide receiver Nico Collins continues to flash his abilities in camp. Collins easily shook loose from defensive back John Reid and took the route vertical for an easy score. Collins later had a tough catch in traffic.

6. It's only been a few days, but the competition for inside wide receiver reps is tough. Former Bears wideout Anthony Miller has looked quick and nothing like the "draft bust" the Bears fans watched. Keke Coutee has rarely lost a rep, but Desmond King did win a few times over Coutee in the opening days of camp. Former Bengals wideout Alex Erickson finds himself constantly open. The cuts at wide receiver are already shaking out to be difficult.

7. Davis Mills bounced back in a sense that he couldn't be worse than he was on Saturday. The performance from Mills on Saturday was abysmal, but head coach David Culley said he liked how Mills responded today. With Tyrod Taylor back, there were fewer reps for Mills, but he had some impressive throws to go along with an off-target throw or two. Mills was far better than Jeff Driskel on Monday. Driskel tossed two interceptions right to defenders, including one that would've gone the wrong way for a score.

8. This linebacker group is interesting. With a new defensive scheme under Lovie Smith, the type of linebacker is very different from previous years. There was a clear emphasis on cover ability as these linebackers were added to the team.

9. Kamu Grugier-Hill and Kevin Pierre-Louis have both had some significant wins for the linebackers in coverage.

10. Rookie tight end Brevin Jordan looks the part physically, but he's had a rough few days, including a drop on Monday.

11. With the pads coming on Tuesday, it will be fun to watch the rebuilt defensive line clash with the many combinations of the offensive line. There will be no J.J. Watt who historically stirred up the team on day one of pads. Laremy Tunsil's cool confidence about the offensive line over the weekend leads me to believe they are a confident group, while there are spots to be won on the defensive side of the line.

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