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Will Allen Iverson learn Turkish?

Written By: Jonathan Haddad on October 27, 2010 3 Comments

While many of us here in the Bay Area are amped up for Game 1 of the World Series, myself, I am more excited about the start of the NBA season, and my favorite team, the Wizards, opening night match-up with the Orlando Magic.

Kevin Seraphin, a native of French Guyana, must be equally thrilled (although he and I probably also share equal chances of getting some burn on the hardwood Thursday night)… The Wizards decided to retain the rookie on their roster going into the season. He celebrated by showing off with a little creole rap, as seen in this video from the Washington Post.  Coming from one of the French DOM (Départements d’Outre-Mer), Seraphin won’t be the only francophone on the court in Orlando.


Seraphin will be joined by fellow Washington rookie, Hamady N’Diaye. According to his team profile the big man, a native of Dakar, Senegal, reflects the former French colony’s diverse history through his fluency in four languages: French, Wolof, Arabic, and English.  The two players will be joined on the court by Magic swing-man Mikaël Pietrus, a native of Guadeloupe, also among the French DOM.  In fact, with around a dozen active French nationals and the addition of Senegal’s Desagana Diop, French and francophone players have come a long way in the NBA since their symbolic Waterloo in the 2000 Olympics:

The swelling ranks of francophones in the NBA points to the larger (and well-documented) phenomenon of basketball’s internationalization.  The Wizards’ own roster is marked by the addition of China’s Yi Jianlian, who may or may not be guarded by Poland’s Marcin Gortat in the season opener.  However, as of late, the global migration of players to the NBA is no longer a one-way street, and the buzz yesterday — other than the long-awaited debut of Miami’s “big three” — was the news that Allen Iverson was packing up and taking his heart and hustle to Turkey’s Beşiktaş… Which raises the question:  Will Allen Iverson learn Turkish?

We have some anecdotes about the experiences of international players integrating an NBA team with little to no knowledge of English. While the dynamics of the game might lead one to assume that calling out “Ball! Ball!” and telling sportswriters about “taking it one game at a time” and remaining “focused on a championship” represent all the linguistic capital one needs to make it in the pros, interviews tell a more layered story.  Yao Ming’s first year in the league showed the difference between language used to communicate in the game and language used to create community:

But the Rockets were surprised to learn that, after five years of English lessons and several trips to the USA with the Chinese national team, Yao could converse with teammates far better than expected. While sitting on the bench his first night in Houston, he spoke to teammate Steve Francis about Orlando’s double-team strategy.

At his first practice, Yao uttered the obligatory “my bad” after making a mistake. And when head coach Rudy Tomjanovich chastised the Rockets for not communicating defensive assignments to each other, Yao pointed and yelled “I’ve got him” on the next play.

Yao’s only notable communications confusion during his first week in Houston was adjusting to the universal NBA greeting of “What’s up?” That phrase sounds a lot like a common Mandarin profanity, which has led to choruses of “Wazzup?” in the Rockets locker room, often led by Yao.

This shows that the language resources of the international player, far from isolating him, rather act additively towards building a sense of cohesiveness.  This echos the case of my favorite player, Hedo Türkoğlu, upon joining the Sacramento Kings.  The Bee‘s sportswriter Ailene Voisin reported:

Speaking of English, and verbal skills. Turkoglu’s command of the language was somewhere between that of Vlade Divac (none) and Stojakovic (fluent) when the two Serbs first entered the NBA, but he has made dramatic improvement, has even contributed to the Kings’ peaceful locker-room culture. Everyone, it seems, is his brother. Brother Bobby. Brother Doug. Brother Peja. Brother Chris (Webber), etc. Hence, Webber’s reference to “Brother” Hedo during the TNT interview two weeks ago.

The 6-10 versatile point-forward appears to be translating the Turkish epithet abi directly into its English equivalent.  And, again, incorporating Turkish into the team’s English builds a new linguistic community, thus contributing to locker-room harmony.  It probably doesn’t hurt that the Kings, during their epic run of the early aughts, featured Stojakovic and Divac, who share the language of Hedo’s Yugoslavia-born parents.

Oh, and did I mention that he raps, too?

Since Hedo and Yao entered the League, at the turn of the century, the number of other non-native speakers of English to come to play pro ball in the U.S. has risen steadily.  Last season, the NBA counted 83 players from foreign countries and territories, out of whom at least 68 have a non-English first language.  The result is an NBA that must reach out to a wider overseas audience:  the 2010 Finals were broadcast in 41 different languages;  but also, one might imagine, a new linguistic community which expands the reach of English, while developing pockets of hybridity where teammates riff off of the interlanguage of  their Slovenian and Spanish teammates.

But what about the case of Allen Iverson.  Back in 2002, Bostjan Nachbar reassuringly stated: “Cut, curl, rebound — everybody uses those words[.] Every coach in the world uses some English words.”  Of course, since then, English has only raised its status as “the global language.”  But what happens in the locker room when a language majority becomes a language minority?  Maybe Allen Iverson will be comfortable struggling for ribauntlar and dropping some asistler.  But will he still be able to create his own atışlar so that he can continue to put up the sayılar?  And what happens when the player steps off the court?

Stanford alum Josh Childress, who surprised everybody in the summer of 2008 by snubbing a contract offer from the Atlanta Hawks to sign a more lucrative deal with the Greek team Olympiacos, may have some insight to share with AI:

He once got so lost in his car that he hired a taxi to lead him back home. He cannot yet hold a conversation in Greek. In fact, his Olympiacos teammate Sophocles “Baby Shaq” Schortsanitis told him that if Childress learned the language within a year, Schortsanitis would give him half his salary.

“I think he’s pretty safe,” says Childress, whose learning curve will be as steep as the hills on which the Parthenon lords over Athens.

There’s no sign of whether he had any easier time navigating the roads, but his level seems to have improved to the point where he can ask for directions:

After two years, though, J-Chill has put away the Rosetta Stone and will be speaking hoops alongside Türkoğlu and Slovenian Goran Dragic with the Phoenix Suns.

When we look at the game of professional basketball today, we can see a space that reflects the transnational migration and hybridity that mark our times.  The stories related by players here reflect a rosy picture of integration and the production of a multilingual environment in the midst of a culture currently experiencing an upsurge in xenophobia that reinforces a prevailing monolingual language ideology.  It would be interesting, then, to look behind the anecdotes and find the data.  How do players experience learning another language? Why would they choose to do so?  How is their language perceived in the locker room?  How do language attitudes of professional basketball players shape a team’s identity?  What does this negotiation of identity tell us about the broader phenomenon of transnational migration?

While you’re answering these questions, I’ll be trying to find someone with TNT to invite me over for tomorrow night’s game.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Frenchman and NBA Champion Tony Parker speaking the other global language:

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3 Responses to “Will Allen Iverson learn Turkish?”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 28 October 2010 at 8:53 am

    Hi Jonathan, great post! There’s a book called “Globalization and Development” (published 2006) that notes the internationalization of the NBA that you might find interesting, check it out…

  2. daveski on: 31 October 2010 at 11:00 am

    If you’ll forgive my departure from the court so we can head back to the diamond for a while (local boys in the World Series and all, y’know?), the case of U.S. baseball players in the Japanese professional leagues might be interesting to study–or, even better, the fascinating case of cross-cultural comparisons between U.S. players’ (in)ability to speak Japanese and the (perceived) acceptability of that linguistic ineptitude, at least from an American, English-speaking perspective, in contrast to the flak that Japanese players like Ichiro have received in the U.S. for not making enough efforts at learning the language, and coming off as ‘arrogant’. http://www.japantoday.com/category/entertainment-arts/view/ichiro-featured-in-us-documentary-as-he-nears-milestone

    Truly, it goes both ways…and fascinating to study from multiple perspectives, like you have here. Is the case of U.S. English as one of the languages being brought into the mix in multilingual, multinational pro sports teams, whether ‘here’ or ‘there’, unique? How does this phenomenon vary across different sports?

  3. mike on: 2 November 2010 at 4:29 pm


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