When Matz Stockman arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, 4,184 miles from his home in Oslo, Norway, everything seemed bigger. Buildings were huge. Cars were massive. The menus at restaurants had a long list of options with outsized portions. And keep in mind: This is all coming from a 7-footer who towers over everyone around him. He was also new to life in the South. "You see a lot more cowboys and truck stops, things like that," he says. "I don't see that at home."
Stockman is not the only big man on the Cardinals' roster adjusting to living in the United States. Louisville actually has three players over 6'6" from foreign countries: Stockman; 6'10" redshirt sophomore MangokMathiang from Melbourne, Australia; and 7-foot freshman AnasMahmoud from Cairo, Egypt. The trio quickly bonded, and students often spot them hanging out together in the Swain Student Activities Center. Of course they're easy to spot, since they're each at least a foot taller than the average undergrad. Cardinals faithful even gave them a nickname — the United Nations.
While Louisville has more international big men than any other top team in college hoops, coach Rick Pitino is not the only one recruiting from other countries. This season, a record 536 players from all over the globe are competing in Division I men's basketball. Around 70% are classified as big men: 6'6" or taller. As of mid-December, of the 50 teams receiving votes in the Top 25, there were 47 foreign bigs from 29 countries (see our map on the following page for a more detailed look). You can trace the trend back to the NBA. This season, there were a record 101 foreign players from 37 countries and territories in the league on Opening Day rosters. But 20 years ago? Only 24 from 18 countries. Last June, the San Antonio Spurs won a fifth NBA title with a roster that included nine players with roots outside the U.S.
College coaches have also expanded recruiting abroad thanks to rule changes. Four years ago, the NCAA allowed foreign players to be eligible if they were on professional teams or competed with professional players, as long as they did not receive salaries. This allowed coaches to draw from a more talented pool.
Pitino is pleased with the way his international bigs are improving. Mathiang was born in Sudan and grew up in Australia. Naturally athletic, he played soccer and rugby but didn't try organized basketball until he was 16 years old. Pitino recruited him during his one year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where he worked hard to bring up his grades following a year at an Illinois prep school. Last season, he shot 52.8% from the field and led the team with 51 blocks. When asked by a local reporter before the season about his legacy, Mathiang said, "I hope they say, 'He's the greatest Aussie ever to step foot in Louisville.'"
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The other two members of the United Nations are growing into their roles. Unlike kids in the U.S., where basketball is often the playground game of choice, many foreign players don't start competing until they are teenagers. Mahmoud began playing for a club team in Egypt when he was 12 and joined the national team at 15. Stockman picked up the sport when he was 14, but he twice quit because he was bored with the poor competition in Norway.
Both Stockman and Mahmoud spent a year before college honing their games outside their home country. Stockman played at the Canarias Basketball Academy off the coast of Spain, and Mahmoud went to West Oaks Academy in Florida. And both generated buzz. Stockman entered his season in Spain having represented Norway at the 2013 U18 European Championship, where his star turn came against the Netherlands, a game in which he scored 18 points in just 21 minutes. Last year, Mahmoud led West Oaks to a 28--8 record, averaging 13.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks. "These guys are coming along quickly," says Pitino. "They are hungry, humble, and they want to learn."
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Back in his dorm room after morning practice, Mahmoud signs off of Skype with his parents and three siblings, who are just ending their day in Cairo, and Stockman is full of questions about Egypt. What do Mahmoud and his friends do for fun? What are the girls like? "You meet people in your life and learn that everyone has a different perspective," says Mahmoud, who speaks four languages. "You learn that even when you're with someone new — whether it's from Egypt, like me, or Norway, like Matz — you can still [have success] on and off the court."
Indeed, winning a national title and making a grand entrance into the NBA are ultimately a shared goal for every player on the Louisville roster — not just the United Nations. "It's good for our guys to learn about what life is like in other countries. It adds some flavor and flair to the class," says assistant coach Wyking Jones. "But whether a player is from overseas or Chicago or L.A., our job is to help them get better. For the most part, we're all just a big family."
Photo: Matt Hernandez for Sports Illustrated