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

Yordan Alvarez Astros
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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With both Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers making their way back from surgeries that sideline that Astros pitchers last season, and given the team's thin depth in their starting rotation, Houston fans and media have waited on bated breath for scraps of information to leak out of the notoriously secretive organization regarding their progress.

In a week full of mostly Hurricane Beryl-related bad news, the Astros organization had some discouraging news of their own when manager Joe Espada told the media that Lance McCullers has been shut down from pitching after his arm did not respond well to his latest bullpen session. The team says they are "formulating a plan for what's next."

Another Astros starter making his way back from injury is HOF-bound Justin Verlander. Verlander has been on the IL since June 16th with neck discomfort and, while there was initial hope that JV would only miss a start, his status has become increasingly murky as he is still apparently not close to returning.

Shifting from the health questions of the starters to the performance questions of the bullpen, some Houston fans have voiced concern via social media that Astros big-ticket 9th inning pitcher Josh Hader is not looking like a "shut-down" closer. Hader gave up more home runs in the first week of July (3) as he did the entire month of June (2).

In this week's episode of Stone Cold Stros, Charlie Pallilo and Brandon Strange discuss how the fluid dynamics of Astros pitching is impacting the competitive landscape of the division race. To watch the conversation, just click the video YouTube embedded in this article. To listen to the entire episode on podcast, search "Stone Cold Stros" in your favorite podcast app or click one of the following links.

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