TONY DILEO and Courtney Witte shrug and say they hear the same thing every year:
Why don't the 76ers draft or sign European players?
Well, why don't they?
The truth is, they haven't done a whole lot of either, but certainly not for lack of trying. DiLeo, the senior vice president/assistant general manager, coached for many years in Germany and retains lots of contacts. Witte, the director of player personnel, makes annual major trips to various European outposts. So does president/general manager Ed Stefanski. The Sixers were one of the first teams to hire a full-time European scout, Danko Cvjeticanin, a former Croatian Olympian.
DiLeo likes to remind people that the 2000-01 Sixers were 41-14 with Toni Kukoc, the multiskilled Croatian forward they had to include in a trade with the injured Theo Ratliff to acquire Dikembe Mutombo.
And, yes, Mutombo, by way of Georgetown, is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Oh, and they conceivably could have taken Tony Parker, of France, in 2001, but they already had Allen Iverson and they believed Parker would not have been able to coexist and develop in that atmosphere. Hard to argue with that.
But Witte said any perception that the Sixers don't thoroughly scout all over the world, or that they have in any way cut back because of the struggling economy, is a mistake.
"Really, scouting over there is no different than scouting in the U.S.," Witte said. "You see everybody. You hear about a guy who might be a prospect, you take a look. We do as much of that as anyone."
And, yes, they have come close to gems from overseas. Sometimes their intentions have been good, their evaluations excellent, only to see circumstances block their opportunities. Other times, the Euros available at their spots weren't deemed as good as the American options.
"I used to feel bad for Danko," former president/general manager Billy King said. "Because he would say he felt he wasn't helping. I would tell him we made decisions based on his evaluations, and that he was helping."
This was June 26, 2000, the day before the NBA draft.
The kid's name was Hidayet Turkoglu, a 6-8 forward from Istanbul, Turkey. You know him today as "Hedo," the sweet-shooting forward of the Orlando Magic.
His English then was better than he initially let on, although it seemed to improve when King gently prodded him to deal with reporters without the use of a translator.
As it turned out, he was the real deal. He was King's target at No. 20 in the first round, even though it would have meant a $300,000 payment to Efes Pilsen, Turkoglu's Turkish team. And Turkoglu had to pay a $1.1 million buyout.
In the end, none of that mattered. The Sacramento Kings took him at No. 19.
The Sixers were holding their breath at No. 9 in 2004. Andre Iguodala was their target, but the fear was that the Toronto Raptors would snap him up at No. 8. The Sixers had already had Iguodala in for a private workout.
The Raptors, inexplicably, reached for Brigham Young's Rafael Araujo, who turned out to be a huge bust.
"What no one remembers," said King, "is that if Toronto had taken Iguodala, we were prepared to take Andris Biedrins."
Biedrins, a center/power forward from Latvia, had been in Philadelphia for nearly 6 weeks, training with summer-league impresario John Hardnett.
And sometimes it's the deal you don't make.
During the 2004-05 Olympics, King and then-coach Jim O'Brien dutifully watched Turkish shooting star Ibrahim Kutluay.
King's memory is that, afterward, O'Brien all but begged him to sign Kutluay.
King investigated the price, and decided it was too steep.
Kutluay eventually signed with the then-Seattle SuperSonics. He played in five games and was gone by the All-Star break.
"The only teams that miss the boat are those that don't explore," said agent Marc Cornstein, who represents the Sixers' Haitian center (by way of Seton Hall) Samuel Dalembert. "Talent is talent, whether it's in New York, Los Angeles, Serbia or on the moon. Because the game has become so global, to not explore would be silly. And there are times when a team decides a player here is better than a player there."
And then there's the case of Edin Bavcic.
The Sixers acquired the Croatian forward from Toronto in '06, viewing him as a prospect. The question is whether he will ever develop into an NBA player.
"I don't know if he will be," Witte said. "We thought he could be. It was a calculated risk, a 50-50 thing."
Reaching for a Euro in the lottery, Witte said, isn't exactly a sure thing. Fifteen foreign players have been taken in the lottery since 2000. Some, such as Pau Gasol, who just won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, have been successful. Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' center from China, has obviously been a force. Nene Hilario, from Brazil, finally found his niche with the Denver Nuggets. Mickael Pietrus, from France, has had success with the Golden State Warriors and the Magic. Biedrins has become an outstanding rebounder and shot-blocker with the Warriors.
In recent years, the Sixers have selected internationals such as Thabo Sefolosha, Jiri Welsch, Petteri Koponen and Kyrylo Fesenko, but always as part of prearranged deals.
The San Antonio Spurs, with Parker, Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Tim Duncan (U.S. Virgin Islands, by way of Wake Forest) and Fabricio Oberto (Argentina), have done the best job mining the world market. The Raptors have tried, with Andrea Bargnani (Italy), Jose Calderon (Spain), Nathan Jawai (Australia) and Roko Ukic (Croatia), but failed to reach the playoffs this season.
There have been individual busts, too: Nikoloz Tskitishvilli, of Italy; Darko Milicic, of Serbia; Yaroslav Korolev, of Russia; Saer Sene, of Senegal; Yi Jianlian, of China.
"A lot of times, you do your scouting to be informed, to also know which players not to pick, to avoid mistakes," DiLeo said.
Said Witte: "There have been so many more ineffective European players than effective ones. It's not even close. More fail than succeed."
There was Marko Milic, a Sixers second-round pick in 1997 who vaulted into the public eye because he jumped over a car to dunk.
"He was very athletic," King said. "He couldn't shoot and didn't know how to play."
He never played for the Sixers.
There was Efthimios Rentzias, once a star in Greece and a first-round pick by Denver. The Sixers acquired him in 2002. He played 35 games, rarely in important moments, and was gone.
Stefanski, who arrived Dec. 4, 2007, with an excellent reputation as an evaluator of talent, placed his stamp on the Sixers' philosophy this way:
"If a kid can play, we don't care where he's from. Why would we?" *
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