MIAMI -- While driving to AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday, brothers Pavel and Yuri Kopeche listened to Russian rap music to get into the mood for the Heat's game against CSKA Moscow.
The rapper, Don Zagru, is known for satirizing the state of Russian society and wearing LeBron James jerseys.
We know that King James has worldwide appeal. Here was confirmation that LeBronsky is the ultimate symbol of cool in cool-hungry Moscow.
Somewhere, basketball salesman David Stern is smiling.
"The NBA is the new vodka in Russia," said Yuri Kopeche, a Russian native who has lived in Miami for five years. "People cannot get enough basketball. If you're wearing a LeBron James shirt or a Knicks or Lakers cap, people know you are Americanized.
"Of course, Russia is usually about five years behind the United States. Britney Spears is very popular right now."
James, who enjoys mentioning his personal "brand" almost as much as he likes dunking, wouldn't mind being lumped with Britney. Whatever sells, baby.
And the NBA is a hot seller. The Heat's 96-85 preseason victory over CSKA Moscow was illustrative of the league's global reach. There were pockets of Moscow fans in the stands. Alexey Klochkov, a bank manager from Moscow, is on a package tour with his favorite team, stopping in New York, Miami, Oklahoma City and Cleveland. He spends 300 rubles per month (about $10) to get the Basketball TV channel back home.
"I would like to see even more NBA games on TV," said Klochkov, who got hooked on the game when Michael Jordan played for the Bulls.
The action itself demonstrated the influence of the NBA. At the beginning, when the Heat fell behind by 10 points, Moscow was playing better fundamental, half-court, good, old American basketball than the Heat pros.
"It's very difficult to prepare for European teams in one or two days and I know that first hand from my international play," James said. "They do a lot of cutting and weaving. One through four can shoot. Even five can shoot."
Moscow, a cohesive, experienced team, also exposed the Heat as a collection of players still learning how to play together.
"They had us moving all over the place," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We were confused and getting to their shooters late. We were a little bit shell-shocked by the threes they were hitting."
In some ways, American basketball is a victim of its own success. Gold medals at the world championships or Olympics no longer are a given for succeeding generations of the Dream Team. Players all over the world have improved by emulating American players, by playing alongside them at American universities, by learning from American coaches.
"When an international team beats the U.S., out of that grows confidence," said Trajan Langdon, a former Duke star who is in his sixth season with CSKA Moscow. "They know if they keep working hard they will get opportunities to play in the U.S. They know they're going to get looks from NBA scouts."
Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas grew up in Lithuania, where basketball is the No. 1 sport. He said many European players choose not to move to the NBA.
"There is so much talent people don't even know about," he said. "Everyone can play now. In the last decade, the competitive level has improved dramatically."
The NBA, which sent half a dozen teams abroad this preseason, has many things going for it beyond its brilliant and aggressive international marketing. Globalization has shrunk the planet; in China, you're as likely to see James on a billboard next to a McDonald's as Yao Ming. Basketball is not quite as portable and accessible as soccer, but it is much easier to sow than equipment-heavy and space-eating American football or baseball. And the NBA has recognizable, charismatic stars on a first-name basis with curious fans. Kobe is to basketball as Kaka is to soccer.
Pavel and Yuri Kopeche -- wearing red Moscow jerseys and blue-and-white Moscow face paint -- were thrilled to see James play their hometown team in their adopted hometown. But that doesn't mean they agreed with his "Decision."
"We are big Knicks fans and we wanted him to go to New York, so our family dislikes him a lot," Pavel said. "I still don't think Miami will win the championship. Miami will have a problem with ball-sharing. Too many chefs. The Lakers will win again."
Spoken like a true NBA convert.