Jim McGregor, international basketball ambassador was 91

Jim McGregor taught basketball to the Poles, the Russians, the Greeks, the Swedes, the Peruvians and the Filipinos. He gave clinics to the Watusis in Africa--where he was disappointed to learn their strength didn't match their height--and to the Indians at the headwaters of the Amazon.

He coached the national team of Italy--never mind that he didn't speak Italian--and the national teams of Turkey, Morocco, Greece, Argentina, Sweden, Austria, Peru and the Central African Republic. Some of these jobs came at the request of the U.S. State Department.

McGregor may be more responsible than any other human being for the fact that thousands of American basketball players now ply their trade at a high level (and for high salaries) in hundreds of countries around the world, many of which didn't know what a basketball was until McGregor showed them one. A large number of those countries went on to become very proficient indeed at their adopted sport, and to irrevocably change the face of international basketball, not to mention the NBA.

You say you never heard of Jim McGregor? Not to worry. Those Ginoblis, Nowitzkis and Gasols sprinkled through the rosters of NBA teams are pretty much all most Americans know about international basketball. But talk to many of the coaches and owners of teams around the world, and to the agents who funnel the best international players to the NBA, and they will tell you just how far McGregor was ahead of his time and how much they learned from him.

I'll tell you about some of this in a minute, but first let me just say that McGregor died late Wednesday in Bellevue, Wash., at the age of 91 and that he was as upbeat, cheerful and funny when we talked a few months ago as he was more than 30 years ago when I helped him chronicle his exploits in the book "Called For Travelling."

In the 1960s and 70s, when basketball was still little more than a cult sport in much of the world, McGregor, who had spent three years at the University of Southern California before joining the Marines, came up with the idea of putting together teams of college players who had gone undrafted by the NBA but had a sense of adventure and taking them to Europe.

 Here's how clever McGregor was. He cut sponsorship deals with Levis, which was happy to outfit the players in the hippie era, and with Gillette, which frowned on the very idea of beards and long hair. He had sponsorship deals with Coke and Pepsi in different parts of the world at the same time and went to great lengths to make sure that neither one found out about the other. He flew the international flag of capitalism with Gulf Oil as his sponsor for many years and he flew it on TWA, which defrayed his travel costs considerably.

And it wasn't long before McGregor discovered something far more important than winning games--selling players. Did an Italian team covet a particular player on his traveling squad? McGregor would instruct his players to make him look like an all-star when the two teams met. The player would acquire a contract, McGregor would acquire a transfer fee and the other players would acquire the knowledge that the best game of their careers lay directly ahead.

Were the teams in the country he played most interested in big men? McGregor took to traveling with teams consisting of nine centers and one overworked guard. So good did McGregor become at understanding the law of American supply and international demand, in fact, that one year he took a traveling squad of 80 players to Europe and sold the contracts of all of them. The French sports daily, L'Equipe, called him "The Merchant of Happiness."

For a number of years, McGregor's teams traveled through Europe in a bus he was able to buy at a discount because many countries had switched to driving on the right side of the road and its doors now opened into traffic. The bus had plenty of room for the players to stretch out, and for a never-ending assortment of hitchhikers, nearly all of them female. European women were simply fascinated by the American players and even McGregor, who was older, balder, shorter and paunchier than his traveling mates, met with a fair measure of success because of his airline perks.

"In a conversation with a young lady, I might find the standard question--'Would you like to have dinner with me tomorrow?'--eliciting no particular response," he said. "But when it was followed by the words, 'in Rio de Janeiro,' the response was very different. A few years often came off my age and a few pounds off my middle."

McGregor's death marks the end of an era in more ways than one. In a day when basketball is followed so passionately all over the world it is hard to recall a time when a rag-tag bunch of NBA rejects, led by their irrepressible Pied Piper, could travel the world all but unnoticed.

"When I started, there might have been 150 American players in Europe and none anywhere else," McGregor said. "Today, there are about 8,000 and they're playing all over the world--in countries like Korea, China and even Iraq. And some of them are making big money, a million dollars a year and more. And the same thing is happening all over the world. There are Hungarians playing abroad, for instance, and foreigners playing in Hungary. Go figure."

Over the years, McGregor's teams played in the original Olympic stadium in Greece, in the courtyard of a palace in Istanbul and in a church in Venice that was converted into a basketball arena. They played on an oil tanker off the coast of Ireland and in London's Royal Albert Hall, where each player had a private dressing room with a mirror and makeup lights.

"We've played in places where we outnumbered the crowd and we've played before 150,000 people in St. Peter's Square," McGregor once said. "Of course, some of them might have come to see the Pope."

Ron Rapoport is an author and sportswriter. His new book, "From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago's Best Sportswriting from the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Other Newspapers," will be published by the University of Chicago Press in September.

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