The NBA is a global competition: the best basketball players are increasingly foreign

The NBA is a global competition: the best basketball players are increasingly foreign

Luka Donjic vs Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics in MarchBuild Getty Images

Luka Donjic, a brilliant 22-year-old playmaker from Slovenia, single-handedly rocks the favorite Los Angeles Clippers. Joel Embiid, born in Cameroon and 2.13 meters tall, dominates champion Philadelphia 76ers. Nikola Jokic (2.11 metres), the Serbian multi-tiered from the Denver Nuggets, is the favorite for the Most Valuable Player title, an award given to Greek-Nigerian Giannis Antetokonmo (Milwaukee Bucks) over the past two seasons.

The quartet is just the tip of the iceberg.

Nearly a quarter of NBA players this season were not born in the United States. For the seventh year in a row, more than a hundred foreign basketball players play in the league. This year, there are 107 players from 41 different countries (plus ten other dual-contract players who switch between the NBA and the Development League).

Each of the 30 teams employs at least one foreign player. By the mid-1990s, just over 20 non-Americans were still active in the entire league.

The first impetus for globalization was the visit of the NBA team Atlanta Hawks to the Soviet Union in 1988, at the request of CNN founder Ted Turner. Shortly thereafter, Olympic basketball champion Soviet Union allowed players to leave for America for the first time.

In 1989, Šarūnas Marčiulionis was the first in the Golden State Warriors. Citizens followed his example, and players from then Yugoslavia were very popular with NBA scouts.

In 1992, during the Barcelona Games, young basketball players around the world fell under the influence of the American Dream Team, which included stars such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They were an inspiration to foreign players who came to the United States in the 1990s and 2000s.

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The advent of the internet brought the NBA champions closer. “I used to be able to watch one or two games a year,” Vladi Divac, the Serbian center who made his debut with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989, told a news conference several years ago. Sports Illustrated. “Not live, but on VHS tapes.”

In Cameroon, high school student Joel Embiid, who is currently with the Philadelphia 76ers, spent hours watching YouTube videos of Kobe Bryant imitating her in nearby fields, decades later. The National Basketball Association felt very close to him.

In China, the first American game was broadcast on state national television in 1987, with more and more in the years since. In 2002, the tall Yao Ming (2.29 meters) was brought in by the Houston Rockets as the first star Chinese player.

At first, the newcomers faced the necessary adaptation problems. In their country they were great, in the NBA often meaningless with tough (for Americans) names. The stars were an exception.

Croatian Drachen Petrovic made a name for himself with the New Jersey Nets from 1991 to 1993, before dying in a car crash. Hakim Aliwan, a Nigerian turned American, became the first foreigner to win the MVP award in 1994.

Influential was German Dirk Nowitzki, who played with the Dallas Mavericks for twenty seasons until 2019. With a height of 2.13 meters, Nowitzki was one of the NBA’s top scorers, especially for his height. After him, he also began to build other centers and in front of him from a greater distance.

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The German, in turn, was an example for young Luka Dončić, who took charge of him at Dallas in 2019. As a teenager, Dončić was the best player on his continent at Real Madrid, and led Slovenia to the European title in 2017. However, doubts remain. About it in America: For a long time Europeans had the character of not being able to withstand physical matches in the NBA.

What if Dončić could also do that in America? After three seasons (with over 25 points on average), he is seen as the successor to LeBron James nominee as the NBA Most Valuable Player.

Other non-Americans, such as Joki, Antetokounmpo, Embiid and French blocker Rudy Gobert, are also among the absolute top. Eight of the 24 players selected for the traditional All Star game earlier this year grew up outside the United States. Last season’s top fifteen selection included six “international” basketball players.

The National Basketball Association stimulates globalization, including offices in cities such as Johannesburg, Mexico City, Madrid and Hong Kong. In 2001, the league started the “Basketball Without Borders” program, which gives the greatest talents from abroad the opportunity to prove themselves to the coaches and players of their dream league. Of the 107 foreigners currently playing in the NBA, 34 participated in the program in their youth.

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