TORONTO - After the Celtics drafted the first African-American in NBA history in 1950, owner Walter Brown said, "I don't give a damn if he's striped, plaid, or polka-dot! Boston takes Chuck Cooper of Duquesne."
Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge feels that way today - he simply wants the best players to help his team win. And this season, Ainge's Celtics own the best record in the NBA (19-2). Boston, however, joins Indiana, New York, Charlotte, and the Los Angeles Clippers as the only NBA teams without an international player on their rosters. Ainge said it is nothing more than a coincidence. By contrast, today the Celtics visit a Toronto Raptors team that has five foreign players, and an international influence in their front office and coaching staff.
"We have looked at international players from all countries and have come close," Ainge said. "We've attempted to negotiate with free agents. We've come close to drafting international players. It just hasn't happened."
The Celtics had one international player last season - Nigerian-born Michael Olowokandi. Forward-center Esteban Batista, a native of Uruguay, was waived in training camp.
The Celtics do scout strongly overseas, and have a director of international scouting, Hingham native Ryan McDonough. Ainge also plans on taking several international trips in the upcoming year to scout talent.
"We are well aware of all the players," Ainge said. "There hasn't been anybody that hasn't been drafted or come on the scene in the last four or five years that we weren't well aware of. We have sources. We have a lot of people that we talk to. We have [scouting] services, statistical services. We spend a lot of time over in Europe."
Toronto drafted Italy's Andrea Bargnani with the top pick of the 2006 draft over the likes of Americans LaMarcus Aldridge and Tyrus Thomas. The Raptors also added American Anthony Parker to their roster last season after he played in Israel from 2000-06. Raptors vice president and assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini is from Italy, director of global scouting Masai Ujiri is Nigerian, and assistant Jay Triano is Canadian.
"What I tried to create here, much like the city, is a multicultural team," said Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo, who was hired Feb. 28, 2006. "Even our front office, Maurizio was a pretty high-level guy there [in Italy]."
Ainge believes the Raptors' number of international players may be more coincidental than it looks.
"In the Toronto case, they had some money to spend and they felt like there were some players around the world that were as good as players and free agents that were in the States with professional experience like Tony Parker and [Jorge] Garbajosa," Ainge said. "I don't think they once thought they need to go international. I think they drafted Bargnani because they thought Bargnani was better than the players in that draft."
In recent years, many NBA teams were determined to find the next Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, or Tony Parker.
Canadian Steve Nash of the Suns won MVP awards in 2005 and 2006, while Nowitzki of Germany was the 2007 MVP. Frenchman Tony Parker of the Spurs won MVP honors for the 2007 Finals. An international player has been the top pick in the draft three times since 2002. About 10 percent of the NBA's income comes from overseas and approximately 60 percent of visits to NBA.com in November came from outside North America.
Even so, Ainge doesn't make roster decisions with those international statistics in mind. Without an international player, the Celtics still lead the NBA in merchandise sales, have received a lot of press internationally, and promoted themselves and the league in Rome and London during the exhibition season.
"That's not in my thought process at all," Ainge said. "My thought process is strictly basketball, winning basketball games. I never once think about the international marketing implications."
According to recent statistics, however, the NBA's love affair with international players seems to have dipped.
There were a record 85 international players on NBA rosters at the end of last season. But as of Dec. 5, the league featured 77 international players. For every Nowitzki, Yao, and Parker, there also have been busts such as Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Yaroslav Korolev, and Darko Milicic.
So, was the recent interest in international players just a fad or is this just a down season?
"A lot of people thought they were missing the boat and put a lot of time and resources into scouting the world," Ainge said. "But there have been a lot of mistakes made."
Gherardini said: "I think it's more a matter of understanding the impact that eventually the international player can bring to the team he is playing on over here."
Ainge maintains he will sign anyone if that player can help the Celtics.
"I don't think about where players are from," Ainge said. "I just look at each player as an individual, how good they are. I would have no idea what those [lower international] numbers would suggest or where the players came from, whether they came from Detroit or Serbia."
Guard Ray Allen didn't make the trip to Toronto and will miss his second straight game with a sore right ankle. Center Scot Pollard made the trip and is expected to be available after missing the last two games with a back injury . . . The Celtics tried to complete practice early yesterday before leaving for snowy Toronto, but discovered their plane had a mechanical issue . . . Coach Doc Rivers teased rookie forward Glen Davis for practicing with a wrap on his left wrist. "We'd rip your hand off if we saw that back when I played," said Rivers. "He's putting a bull's-eye on," Rivers said.
Peter May of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Marc J. Spears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org