During the 1996 NBA All-Star Game, television broadcast commentators began discussing the prospect that Jason Kidd, then a second-year back at the Dallas Mavericks, would enter the U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball team that year.
Kidd was an amazing young talent, commentators agreed, but his outside shot remained a problem. “That might be the only thing that could stop him,” Matt Guokas, one of the commentators and former NBA head coach, said in a broadcast. Guokas broadcast partner Steve Jones laughed. “They win by 40 and a few points difference,” he said, referring to the typically distorted victories of the Dream Team, “and we have to worry about outside shots?”
The American men’s basketball team in the 1990s was so dominant that the choice of players was a little important, strategy and tactics were irrelevant, and the changes in the rules made no difference – the Americans would have won anyway. More than that, victory alone was not enough. They were expected to destroy their opponents.
But in that devastation, seeds have been planted, acting in conjunction with other factors – the spread of the Internet, more global television coverage and the NBA sending its players around the world to increase its profile – to raise the standard of international gaming.
And in the process, America’s most successful sports export has achieved its greatest success: Americans are no longer the best at it. The U.S. has long nurtured the narrative that it is a place for immigrants, the best and smartest, who create amazing things and create extraordinary wealth, and that the example the country sets can inspire people around the world. It’s a story not quite true, nor is it that simple. However, this is a narrative that the country is still trying to promote and the standard by which I suggest that we judge the changes in basketball.
Multiple points of sale they announced, citing anonymous sources, that the most useful player in the NBA for the second year in a row is Nikola Jokić. Jokic is a Serb. The other two finalists for the award were Joel Embiid, who is from Cameroon, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was born in Greece. The three best players in the sport that America has dominated since its inception are from abroad. In fact, the last time an American won the 2018 MVP award, Kidd, that young talent who could not shoot from outside, is now the head coach of the Mavericks, and his best player Luka Dončić is from Slovenia.
Basketball debuted as a medal sport at the 1936 Olympics for men and the 1976 Olympics for women, and for the first few decades it was played in the Olympic spirit – amateurs. American teams in particular were populated by collegiate athletes, although rival nations were allowed to include professionals who played in overseas leagues. Still, the U.S. men’s national team managed to win nine of the first 11 Olympic basketball tournaments.
For the 1992 Olympics, FIBA - the international governing body of basketball – agreed to allow NBA players to participate for the first time. The smallest difference in the victory of the Americans was 32 points, in the game for the gold medal. Most of their opponents were in utter awe; some even asked to be photographed together with the Americans who had just smashed them. And for a while that gap remained (albeit without photography): at the 1994 World Basketball Championships and the 1996 Olympics, their closest victory was 15 points.
But around the world, young athletes fascinated by American excellence have been training and getting better. Dirk Nowitzki, for example, was a 14-year-old tennis player and handball player in the Bavarian city of Wurzburg who had just started playing basketball when the Dream Team won gold in Barcelona. After those Olympics, he focused on basketball, and joined the Mavericks (there are other teams in the league, I promise); he himself won the MVP award and later the NBA championship.
The NBA has made other efforts to expand its reach by signing television contracts and promoting the game overseas. In 1989, David Stern, then an NBA commissioner, visited China to offer free games for state television. The trip went badly, but Stern was not discouraged and continued to press for better access to the country. He may have been inspired by a visit to the Great Wall, where his tour guide is I told him she was a big fan of the Red Oxes. It took a while for Stern to realize she was thinking of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Stories like Nowitzki – about young players growing up overseas and then breaking into the NBA – are no longer extraordinary. Over the years, more and more non-American players have entered the league, and more and more of them are truly elite. While the 1996 All-Star Game in which Kidd played to point out three players born outside the US (two from who eventually played for the U.S. national team), the latest release has been released six. During the last NBA season, 109 players originates outside the United States, which is equivalent to approximately one-fifth of the available places on the list. The NBA League’s efforts in China led to Yao Ming being selected as the best overall potential candidate in the 2002 NBA Draft.
Most NBA players are still Americans. In fact, most of the top NBA players are Americans (of the top 15 players measured by last year’s All-NBA teams, nine were born in the U.S.). But the success of Jokić, Embiid and Antetokounmp illustrates something else: the success of professional basketball in projecting outwards, from America.
In that, 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 would pretend to be sick on Bulls game days to skip school and watch Jordan at 9am, due to the time difference. My parents had fun.) This helped attract and develop the most talented athletes from abroad, which in turn it helps to gain even more fans abroad, and so on.
This changed not only the NBA, but also the Olympic hoops. The U.S. men’s national team went through a lull in the early 2000s, when most of America’s top players refused to participate in international competitions, and the U.S. had to settle for bronze at the 2004 Athens Games. Even after drawing attention to their losses, gold medals were later won with a smaller gap: in 2008 and 2012, the US faced tough tests from Spain in the gold medal game, and although it successfully beat Serbia in 2016, it had survive more close trips along the way. At the Tokyo Games, the Americans lost their first game, to France, before winning gold, but only by barely beating France again.
Basketball is by no means unique when it comes to its international reach and the positive feedback it creates. Football (international varieties) is far more global at the highest level, with multiple elite teams in multiple elite leagues competing for talent, almost regardless of nationality, while winning over fans around the world.
But basketball stands out among its domestic competition. Football (American type) is perhaps the most popular sport in the United States, and baseball may be his talked about funbut basketball is in a way the most American sport.