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Asia camp puts a little English on the ball

You and I really have no idea about just how widespread and intense the globalization of basketball is. But Lawrence Norman does.

People in Belmont know him as Larry Norman, the 1988 Globe All-Scholastic basketball player who went on to play for, and earn undergraduate and masters degrees from, Clark University. But he goes by Lawrence now, and he is a true citizen of the world, currently making his home in Amsterdam (his fifth residence in as many years) while working for Adidas as the Head of Global Sports Marketing.

Right now Lawrence Norman is about as excited as he's ever been. He is in Shanghai, where, starting tomorrow, he will be involved in a very special and highly ambitious four-day basketball extravaganza. His company will bring together the 50 young players deemed to be the top prospects in Asia. There will be players from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines and, in a bit of an "Asian" stretch, Australia.

But this is not just another basketball clinic. There would be nothing newsworthy about that. Americans have been exporting the sport for decades (ask Red Auerbach). What distinguishes this clinic -- aside from the fact that we are talking about Asia, the next great basketball frontier -- is that in addition to basketball instruction, there will be a serious attempt to teach the participants some elementary and useful English, the importance of which, maintains Norman, cannot be overestimated.

Toward that end, the key man is professor Alan Juffs of the University of Pittsburgh's English Language Institute. Juffs, who has 20 years of experience teaching English as a second language, is a linguist extraordinaire. The good professor lists Chinese and German among his many areas of language expertise. Norman himself is fluent in Hebrew and Spanish. Clinic instructors include Detlef Schrempf, who is also a noted multilingual chap, and Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards.

Still don't quite have the picture? OK, here's how it will work.

On the first day, the chief topic will be the pick-and-roll, both its execution and defense. The players will learn such words as "switch," "hedge," and bump." Juffs will be operating on the premise that language learning is understood to be most successful when instruction is linked to specific real-world tasks that learners will have to carry out. By providing the players with what are referred to as "key chunks" of language, learners will see the link between classroom and real life.

Norman and Juffs have worked up what can only be described as a curriculum. In Day 2, for example, the talk will be of defense ("get low," "hands up," passing lanes," etc.).

By Day 3 the target vocabulary will broaden. Players will be asked to express themselves on such topics as "Who inspired you?" or "What is your dream?" On the final day, players will be asked to show their best moves and explain them in English.

Oh, they'll be playing basketball. The players will be divided up into six teams of eight or nine, and they will get a chance to show their skills in competition. But before they do, they will have both the basketball instruction and sessions with Professor Juffs, who will start out the first day explaining the concept of the infinitive "to be," while giving these young Asians some "L" vs. "R" help.

By the final day, the players will have a nice grasp of 10-15 useful basketball terms and a basic functioning use of the English language.

As a bonus, there will even be some elementary trash-talking instruction, more as a vehicle to illustrate cultural differences. Norman says one of the goals is to teach players to project confidence without being arrogant.

Why the emphasis on English? Surely, not all of these players will wind up as NBA draft-eligible. It's because, as Norman points out, "English is the basic language, the lingua franca, of international basketball. Our goal is to provide the participants with essential terminology and cultural elements unique to basketball."

And if one or two of these young men do become a true prospect, English may be vital to their success. Norman cites as Exhibit A Phoenix Suns guard Leandro Barbosa, whom Norman encountered in the course of his travels. "His problem was that because he didn't speak a word of English, many in the NBA were leery of him," Norman explains. "It wound up costing him in the draft. He didn't go until the 28th pick of the 2003 draft, which definitely cost him some money."

Colleague Peter May confirms this. "It was definitely an issue for some people in the league," May says.

Barbosa, as it turns out, can play. He became a starter after the Stephon Marbury trade. And in one short year he now speaks what Norman says is "almost fluent" English.

"If he could only have had this class when he was 17 or so," Norman says, "he would have been so much better off."

Doing this in China particularly excites Norman.

"There are 10-30 million basketball players in China between the ages of 10 and 20," he points out. "You cannot exaggerate the impact Yao Ming has had. When you have an icon like that, the impact is enormous. It's the same with Nene in Brazil and [Hedo] Turkoglu."

With all Lawrence Norman's vast playing (3 1/2 years in Israel, a year and a half in Germany) and administrative experience, this promises to be an adventure like no other.

"Taking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Israel for a week was a very big deal to me," Norman says, "but this will be right up there. It is an important event here. There has been a ton of press. I can't wait to find out how it will go. I think we can have an impact on their lives."

The truth is, I don't think I've remotely conveyed his enthusiasm. Wouldn't you, like me, love to be there yourself?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is 

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