During the 1996 NBA All-Star Game, commentators on the TV show began discussing the chances of Jason Kidd, then a second-year guard for the Dallas Mavericks, making the men’s Olympic basketball team. this year.
Kidd was a prodigious young talent, commentators agreed, but his outside shooting remained a problem. “That might be the only thing that could hold him back,” Matt Guokas, one of the commentators and former NBA head coach, said on the show. Guokas broadcast partner Steve Jones laughed. “They win by some 40 points,” he said, referring to the usually lopsided wins of the “Dream Team,” “and we have to worry about outside shots?”
The United States men’s basketball team was so dominant in the 1990s that player selection didn’t matter, strategy and tactics didn’t matter, and rule changes made no difference – the Americans would win anyway. way. More than that, winning alone was insufficient. They were expected to destroy their opponents.
But in those destructions the seeds had been planted, working together with a confluence of other factors – the proliferation of the internet, more TV shows around the world, and the NBA sending its players around the world to raise their profile – to raise the level of international plays.
And in the process, America’s most successful sports export has achieved its greatest success: Americans are no longer the best at it. The United States has long cultivated the narrative that it is a place for immigrants, the best and the brightest, to create incredible things and generate extraordinary wealth, and that the example the country sets can inspire people all over the world. The story is not entirely true, nor so simple. Yet it is a narrative that the country nonetheless seeks to promote, and the standard by which I suggest we judge changes in basketball.
Several outlets reported, citing unnamed sources, that the NBA Most Valuable Player for the second year in a row was Nikola Jokić. Jokic is Serbian. The other two finalists for the prize were Joel Embiid, from Cameroon, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, born in Greece. The top three players in a sport America has dominated since its inception come from overseas. In fact, the last time an American won the MVP award was in 2018. Kidd, that young talent who couldn’t shoot from the outside, is now the Mavericks’ head coach, and their best player, Luka Doncic is from Slovenia. .
Basketball made its debut as a medal-winning sport at the Olympics in 1936 for men and 1976 for women, and for the first few decades it was played in the Olympic spirit – by amateurs. American teams in particular were populated by collegiate athletes even as rival nations were allowed to include professionals who played in foreign leagues. Still, the American men’s team managed to win nine of the first 11 Olympic basketball tournaments.
For the 1992 Olympics, FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, agreed to allow NBA players to participate for the first time. The Americans’ narrowest margin of victory was 32 points, in the gold medal game. Most of their opponents were totally amazed; some even asked to pose for pictures alongside the Americans who had just routed them. And for a while that chasm remained (but without the photo-taking): at the 1994 Basketball World Championships and the 1996 Olympics, their closest victory was 15 points.
But all over the world, young athletes captivated by American excellence were training and improving. Dirk Nowitzki, for example, was a 14-year-old tennis and handball player in the Bavarian city of Würzburg who had just started playing basketball when the Dream Team won gold in Barcelona. After those Olympics, he focused on basketball and eventually got drafted by the Mavericks (there are other teams in the league, I promise you); he himself won the MVP award and then an NBA championship.
The NBA has made other efforts to expand its reach, signing television deals and promoting the game overseas. In 1989, David Stern, then commissioner of the NBA, traveled to China to offer free games to the public broadcaster. The trip went badly, but Stern was undeterred and continued to press for better access to the country. He may have been inspired by a visit to the Great Wall, where his guide told him she was a big “Red Oxen” fan. It took a while for Stern to realize she was talking about Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Stories like Nowitzki’s – of young players growing up overseas and then heading to the NBA – are no longer remarkable. Over the years, more and more non-American players have entered the league, and more and more of them have been true elites. While the 1996 All-Star Game in which Kidd participated featured three players born outside the United States (two of whom eventually played for the U.S. National Team), the latest edition featured six. During the NBA’s last season, 109 players came from outside the United States, which equals about one-fifth of the available spots on the roster. NBA efforts in China resulted in Yao Ming being selected as the top prospect in the 2002 NBA Draft.
Most NBA players are still American. In fact, most of the NBA’s top players are American (of the top 15 players, as measured by last year’s All-NBA teams, nine were born in the United States). But the success of Jokić, Embiid and Antetokounmpo illustrates something else: the success of professional basketball in projecting itself outwards, from America.
In this, the sport has achieved something that its domestic professional rivals have not. Basketball is by far the most popular American sport outside of the United States. (I grew up in Hong Kong and pretended to be sick on Bulls game days to skip school and watch Jordan at 9 a.m., due to jet lag. My parents made me happy.) This has helped attract and develop the most talented athletes. from overseas, which helps her gain even more overseas fans, and so on.
It transformed not only the NBA, but Olympic hoops as well. The American men’s team experienced a lull in the early 2000s, when most of the top American players refused to compete internationally and the United States had to settle for bronze at the Athens Games in 2004. Even once they were rocked to attention by their defeats, the following gold medals were won by narrower margins: in 2008 and 2012, the United States faced tough tests of Spain in the gold medal game, and although they easily beat Serbia in 2016, they had to survive several close exits along the way. At the Tokyo Games, the Americans lost their opening match, to France, before racing down the draw to win gold, only to narrowly defeat France again.
Basketball is by no means unique when it comes to its international reach and resulting positive feedback loop. Football (of the international variety) is much more global at its highest levels, with several elite teams in several elite leagues competing for talent, almost regardless of nationality, and winning fans around the world in the process.
But among its national competition, basketball stands out. Football (of the American variety) may be the most popular sport in the United States, and baseball may be its historic pastime, but basketball is in some ways the most American sport.