A MANNER OF SPEAKING

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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The Houston Texans have just a couple of practices before their preseason debut. Here are 11 observations from Tuesday’s workout.

1.The offense stunk on Tuesday. It was inconsistent and resembled more of last year’s disappointing performances than any other practices in this training camp.

2. Davis Mills and his receivers had a few miscommunications on Tuesday. Mills sailed a pass to nobody when he and Brandin Cooks weren’t on the same page. There were some other throws to nowhere in the day. It was something that hadn’t been present at all in training camp to this point.

3. There were a few “good coverage” notes on Tuesday. Not to say there was one specific player, but a handful of team-level efforts that led to the note.

4. It wasn’t all wrong from the offense. After a pass to nowhere Davis Mills and the offense bounced back. It was a second down during a team drill and Mills fired a pass to Chris Moore for six yards. Rex Burkhead would pick up a first down on a rush a play later. A non-positive play last year on first down doomed this team. That hopefully won’t be the case for this year’s team.

5. Chad Beebe is going into his fifth season in the NFL, his first with the Texans. The former Vikings pass catcher has flashed a few times in training camp. He has an uphill battle being new to the team but is trying to make himself a factor.

6. Phillip Dorsett had a big catch over the middle. Davis Mills stood back and delivered as the offensive line held up and Dorsett reeled it in for a huge gain. No defenders were around him. It is between Dorsett and Chris Moore for the chance to be the slot wideout opening day. With Dorsett’s return to practice, it is becoming a fun camp battle.

7.Speaking of returns to practice, Tytus Howard was back. Howard has his reps managed and after practice, offensive line coach George Warhop Howard was “getting his wind” back. When Howard was having his reps managed rookie tackle Austin Deculus played at right tackle. Deculus looks much more consistent than minicamp and OTAs.

8. Kenyon Green is still out with an injury. It is getting to a critical time where the time missed might prevent the first-rounder from starting week one. Max Scharping hasn’t looked bad in his chances with the first team. Offensive line coach George Warhop said they believe in Green and his ability and he has been in meetings to stay up to date.

9. Ka’imi Fairbairn was perfect in one of the special team periods. He drilled all five kicks, each further than the last, and was crushing the football.

10. Derek Stingley was very sticky in some early reps on Nico Collins. The third overall pick is so smooth when he is working. Later his coverage forced a throw from the offense that had no chance of being completed.

11. The play of the day was made by Derek Stingley. The offense was about five or six yards out of the end zone needing a touchdown to win. With six seconds left on the clock, any completed pass that wasn’t a touchdown was game over. Davis Mills dropped back a step and fired to Nico Collins who Stingley covered. The rookie kept the second-year player out of the end zone to earn the defense a win. This was one of the better Stingley days and he did a lot of work. At one point, it looked as though he and Rex Burkhead had some words and almost led to an offense and defense scuffle, but it stayed to just some shouting. The rookie shined today.

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