The Miami Heat are an anomaly.

Tuesday night they won the NBA Finals without any foreign-born players on their roster. Everywhere else, the NBA resembles the international smorgasbord currently being hosted by Germany—a relatively minor 32-country tournament known as the World Cup.

Just look at the Dallas Mavericks, whom the Heat vanquished in six games. Their most popular player is a seven-foot German and their roster includes players from Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Russia.

When the Mavericks acquired Dirk Nowitzki in a 1998 draft-day trade, they were at the forefront of what is now a league-wide movement to capitalize on non-American talent.

For general manager Donnie Nelson, however, Nowitzki was just the latest in a line of his successful foreign forays. Recognized as one of the most influential international scouts in the league, Nelson is responsible for signing the first players to NBA contracts from the former Soviet Union (Sarunas Marciulionis) and China (Wang Zhizhi).

Nelson graduated from Wheaton College in 1986 and was introduced to international scouting by Athletes in Action (AIA), a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ that was founded in 1966 to use the platform of athletics as a tool to fulfill the Great Commission.

The idea was new at the time, but makes perfect sense in our sports-crazed world. As Nelson found out during his four summer trips with AIA, the worldwide popularity of sport has created an international language that can help transcend traditional barriers.

"I had the chance to see how basketball was played in different countries and different cultures. It was just an incredible mix of experiences that cannot be replicated," Nelson said in an interview during the NBA Finals. ...

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Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
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