CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that there were 38 international players from 24 countries featured in the NBA’s Christmas Day quintuple header. Because of the way the NBA counts two way contracts, the correct number is 37 international players from 23 countries.
This year’s NBA Christmas Day marquee, a tradition that dates to 1947, showcased some of the season’s hottest teams and attracted millions of views in the United States and around the world. But it’s not just the high-quality game and players’ pizazz that unite and excite people from Chicago to Cairo, Paris to the Philippines and beyond. For many outside North America, they’re also cheering on their own.
Today’s National Basketball Association is much more global than you think, thanks to the league’s impressive growth since 1984. The rosters of the 10 teams that played Monday’s quintuple-header included 37 international players from 23 countries, with Australia, Canada and France most represented (four men each). Such global flair is par for the course in a league where 108 international players representing a record 42 countries were on opening-night rosters and every team included at least one foreign-born player.
Yet such success wouldn’t be possible without the game’s deep-seated cultural cues abroad. What began as a recreational game involving missionaries became a sport played worldwide, one adapted and customized to fit local passions and proclivities. As a result, many countries claimed their own basketball culture long before the NBA’s marketing and star appeal transformed the game into a global commercial phenomenon.
It’s a remarkable twist for a sport invented by a Canadian in the United States. YMCA educator James Naismith created the game in 1891 as a way to keep his students engaged while bound indoors by snow. The first-ever basketball match was held that Dec. 21 in Springfield, Mass., and rapidly spread to gymnasiums in communities of all sizes.
Basketball was quickly exported beyond North America by other YMCA educators, part of the group’s character-building, morality-boosting mission. In 1893, one of Naismith’s original players, Melvin Rideout, introduced the game in France; that December, the first match on European soil was played at the new YMCA building on Paris’s Rue de Trévise, which now boasts the world’s oldest original basketball court. The game then spread across the continent, sowing deep seeds in Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Russia. Basketball also caught on in South America, particularly in Brazil, where it was introduced in 1894.
At the same time, it made inroads halfway around the world. YMCA missionaries brought the game to Chinese treaty ports such as Shanghai and Tianjin in 1895, as well as Australia two years later. In the Philippines, local populations enthusiastically watched U.S. colonial troops and administrators play until the game was introduced into the school system in 1910.
Basketball’s success stemmed from its ease of play and perception as a healthy, nonviolent activity, but the two world wars boosted its popularity as the sport mixed people, culture and ideas. The YMCA and American Red Cross organized basketball games for off-duty and convalescing troops during World War I, an activity enthusiastically taken up by men of various nationalities who separated the sport from its Protestant YMCA-affiliated roots.
Hoops-swishing U.S. doughboys, with their aura of youth, strength and energy, conferred new degrees of modernity to the game and aided its implementation in Central and Eastern Europe, as did émigrés returning home. Basketball became the de facto national sport in China by the 1930s, while Chinese coaches further diffused the game as they trained and drilled teams in neighboring countries such as Cambodia. The liberation of occupied Europe, Africa and Asia by the Allies in 1944-1945 only reinforced basketball’s “cool” image, although in most of the world it lacked the widespread popularity and commercial appeal of soccer (football).
In the mid-1940s, efforts to jump-start a professional basketball league in the United States benefited from two trends: the country’s wartime enthusiasm for the sport and the need to fill often-vacant stadiums. When the organization that eventually became the NBA formed in 1946, scouts, coaches and owners were focused on solvency and survival, not on sourcing top talent from an ever-expanding overseas pool of players. Still, early league rosters weren’t entirely devoid of international representation. The first foreign-born NBA player was Henry Biasatti in 1946, and in the 1950s the nascent league drafted its first players from abroad. But the first European-born and -trained player to sport an NBA jersey was France’s Hervé Dubuisson, who played for the New Jersey Nets in summer 1984.
Dubuisson’s short stint in the United States foreshadowed an influx of international players. At first, it was a trickle in the 1980s, as men such as Nigeria’s Hakeem Olajuwon and Germany’s Detlef Schrempf were drafted out of the NCAA. But the fall of the Iron Curtain and dissolution of the Soviet Union facilitated the entry of foreign-trained players, professionals who often bypassed the NCAA circuit entirely, including Lithuania’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Croatia’s Toni Kukoc.
These early recruits were influenced by the NBA’s brand of basketball, one that was increasingly broadcast into homes around the world and represented a triumph of the league’s marketing model. Starting in 1984 under then-Commissioner David Stern, the league expanded its reach abroad to build new fan bases to sustain its future. The Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers rivalry thrived and ignited new interest in basketball at home and overseas. The arrival of Michael Jordan stoked the dreams of youths around the world who longed to “Be Like Mike.”
The 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team was a tipping point. It took the NBA and its stars to new stratospheres worldwide. In the wake of the Barcelona Games, where the United States won all of its games with an average 43.75-point differential, national basketball federations overseas rode the wave of basketball’s rekindled popularity among kids who now aspired to play in the world’s elite championship. They improved homegrown hoops training, drills and techniques, often aided by U.S.-born coaches and NBA clinics. Growth of satellite television and video-recording technology, as well as the Internet, expanded the ability of coaches and players to watch NBA games and study the moves and styles exhibited on North American hard courts.
The result of this investment in resources, technology and personnel translates into today’s globalized NBA. The league’s popularity seemingly knows no bounds. Even after the 2011 player lockout, fans returned and tuned in around the world for the 2012 Finals, a trend that continues to this day. Media outlets from 35 countries sent reporters to cover this year’s NBA Finals, to say nothing of the ability to watch and follow the game via online streaming and social media platforms. New efforts are constantly underway within the league to innovate and keep the spectator experience, whether in stadium, on television or online, evolving, maintaining and attracting new bases worldwide.
The NBA succeeded in monopolizing basketball globally in ways that the YMCA never could, thanks to its marketing of stars, the universality of its up-tempo, athletic game and its inclusion of a labor force that reflects its international fan base. U.S. stalwarts LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant play alongside standouts such as Marc and Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili. The success of these players encourages more youths “back home” to emulate their heroes, thus feeding the cycle.
For all of this phenomenal business growth, the NBA’s global popularity wouldn’t be possible without the longer roots of the game. Because countries such as China, France and others embraced the game shortly after its creation and made it their own, basketball has perhaps not been perceived as an American imperial export in the same way that baseball may be viewed (especially in Latin America, the Caribbean, Japan and the Philippines). Basketball was primed for success in many parts of the world; it just needed heroes, stars and a strong enabler (that is, the NBA) to make it a truly global phenomenon.