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Global star players help NBA stretch worldwide growth

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Oakland (United States) (AFP)

The NBA Finals returned to the United States on Monday after the best-of-seven showdown's first games were played in another nation, a sign of the league's growing global impact.

Defending champion Golden State and the Toronto Raptors traveled from Canada to California after the Warriors won 109-104 Sunday to pull level 1-1 as the scene shifts for games three and four Wednesday and Friday.

"Symbolically, having our first finals outside the United States maybe has a big impact on countries that follow the NBA but don't have teams," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

"This clearly is a marker of sorts... that will, I think, be a milestone."

An NBA Finals world feed is sent to 215 countries in 50 languages with viewing parties hosted by the league and its partners in Canada, China, Japan, the Philippines, Italy, Brazil and Mexico.

"Here we are today with very much a global sport, one of the most popular sports in the world, and 25 percent of the NBA is comprised of players who were born outside the United States," Silver said.

In all, there were 108 international players from 42 nations on opening-night NBA rosters this season. There were 11 Canadians, the most from any country outside the United States.

The NBA Finals features seven players from beyond US borders, including Australian center Andrew Bogut and Swedish forward Jonas Jerebko for Golden State.

The Raptors have Cameroonian forward Pascal Siakam, Spanish center Marc Gasol, Republic of Congo forward Serge Ibaka, Canadian forward Chris Boucher and England forward O.G. Anunoby, who underwent emergency appendectomy surgery in April.

Ibaka will communicate on the court with Siakam in French and Gasol in Spanish.

"That's what the NBA's about," Siakam said. "It's about opportunities and guys coming from different places and all coming to compete at this level."

And that's not counting Raptors guard Jeremy Lin, the first NBA Finals American player of Taiwanese heritage and third of Chinese ancestry. He was signed by Toronto in February, his eighth NBA club after starting with Golden State in 2010.

"To be here like this, I did not expect this," Lin said.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse is an American whose prior coaching stops included 11 years in Europe, mainly for such British squads as the London Towers and Manchester Giants.

"All those stops, and in some pretty remote places, were a valuable learning experience, just running and managing the team," Nurse said. "I used a lot of it as a testing ground."

Nurse's assistant coaches include Patrick Mutombo from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sergio Scariolo of Italy.

- Big NBA hopes in Africa -

And Raptors team president Masai Ujiri, a former NBA Executive of the Year, is Nigerian.

"When I look at all the international players we have on our team and even our staff, it has really brought us together," Ujiri said.

"We can all relate to the multicultural diversity of Toronto and Canada. That's how our team is. Being from Africa, I'm proud of that."

So many African connections to the finals is among the reasons why Silver sees the continent as a major growth area.

"It absolutely speaks to the opportunity," Silver said. "It's one of the places we're looking in the world where we see enormous opportunity. Certainly China as well."

The NBA plans to launch a pro league in Africa next year.

"I think it's awesome," Siakam said. "It's really important for African players and it's definitely great for the continent. They have the NBA Academy and things like that, just growing the game in Africa."

"Hopefully we have way more kids from Africa having the opportunity to be here at this stage."

- Aussie, Swedish growth -

Warriors' big man Bogut says the Aussie league is on a roll.

"The league's an up-and-coming league," Bogut said. "Still work to do. But hopefully it continues to grow."

Golden State's Jerebko tries to boost basketball in Sweden.

"Basketball is getting bigger all over the world," Jerebko said. "It's just awesome to see basketball grow as much as it has in the last 10 years I've been in the league.

"I'm always trying to promote basketball back home in Sweden. It's also growing. Maybe at a slower pace than other countries, but I feel the support at home."

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