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How basketball became the world’s second-biggest sport

Poland’s Marcin Gortat vies with France’s Joffrey Lauvergne during the group A qualification basketball match between France and Poland at the EuroBasket 2015. France defeated Poland 69-66. (Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, NBA players and coaches kicked off the summer’s last Basketball Without Borders camp in Serbia. Basketball Without Borders is a series of clinics and competitions that bring a region’s best youth players together to learn about basketball, leadership and each other.

In raising the sporting bar by diffusing skills, tactics and techniques, Basketball Without Borders continues a trend accelerated 70 years ago at the 1948 Olympics, which transformed the way that basketball strategies and approaches spread across borders. This led to a richer, cross-cultural game that has developed into a truly global sport that could someday challenge soccer as the world’s game.

The London Games of 1948 marked the progression of basketball on numerous levels. Importantly, they helped legitimize the game as a global one. Invented by Canadian James Naismith in Springfield, Mass., in 1891, the sport was quickly exported abroad by Young Men’s Christian Academy (YMCA) educators and within a decade, was played in Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America. The First World War popularized basketball overseas, as YMCA leisure foyers and U.S. doughboys helped spread the game and its cultural association with American “coolness” and modernity (as the U.S. military and G. I.s did again in the 1940s).

But it took a while for basketball to be woven into the web of worldwide governance, organization and competition. Although it was an exhibition sport at the 1904 Olympics, basketball wasn’t welcomed as an official Olympic sport until the 1936 Berlin Games. By then, it had its own international governing body, FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basket-Ball). But the FIBA board didn’t agree upon final codification of international rules until the 1948 Games.

In an era before FIBA established its own quadrennial competition — the World Championship (now World Cup) — the Olympics were the only global tournament in which national teams could contest each other and gauge their skills and styles of play.

As the birthplace of basketball, it was a given that the United States would be the dominant team, but 1948 illustrated how far other countries had progressed on the court. “Though the U.S.A. won the championship, that they played the best basketball to watch may be in doubt,” the International Olympic Committee’s official post-Olympiad report commented.

High marks were given to China, the Philippines and Korea, while Canada and Mexico also won props for their skills and finesse. In short, the London Games put Team USA on notice. “Mr. Omar Browning, the U.S.A. coach, was astonished at the high standard of play,” the IOC reported, “and expressed the view that, by 1952, his country would have to improve still further to hold the Olympic title.”

France battled its way through tough competition from opponents including Mexico, Chile and Brazil, to the final match on Aug. 13, 1948. “The United States will be without pity,” journalist Gilbert Bideaux wrote that morning in L’Équipe, the French sports daily. Odds heavily favored the Americans, 1,000-to-1, and the United States didn’t disappoint. “Brilliant American demonstration in basketball,” L’Équipe noted the following morning in its report on the U.S. team’s 65-21 victory.

Yet the most significant impact of the tournament is often overlooked. In an era before satellite technology and global player mobility facilitated the spread of tactics and techniques across borders, the tournament provided an opportunity for players and coaches alike to learn. And the level of competition was so high — and styles of play so diverse — that countries scrambled to crib ideas from their opponents. This facilitated the diffusion of different styles of play. Teams picked up new ideas and plays; despite their defeat, the French learned from watching and playing against the Americans.

Seventy years later, the game’s development and the exchange of ideas is thriving on a vastly different scale and scope.

Fans around the world can watch live broadcasts of elite-level matchups to see the varied styles in play, whether in the NBA, EuroLeague, national team FIBA competitions and beyond. The Internet enables people to follow results, spread game plans and share skills through a web of forums, how-tos and media outlets. Social media encourages people-to-people exchanges that are further shrinking the chasms between national hoops cultures and styles at a rapid clip.

Greater player and coach mobility also facilitates the spread of basketball and different styles of play. In 2017, the United States was the world’s largest exporter of basketball talent, sending some 1,650 players abroad, followed by Spain (544) and France (491). Globally, 44.6 percent of top-division players were born and raised outside of the country where they presently play, with Spain (706), Germany (668) and the United States (533) importing the most number of foreign players. This translates into the globalization of how basketball is learned, played and understood.

Moreover, the grass-roots mutual admiration society that’s cropped up between the world’s best soccer and basketball players, further spreads the hoops gospel across the globe thanks to soccer’s dominance of the sports landscape outside of the United States.

All of this has produced a more diverse, competitive global game. The United States, Spain, France, Serbia and Argentina top FIBA’s world rankings, but as qualification play for the men’s 2019 World Cup in China reopens next month, expect tightly contested competitions across all regions.

Team USA is vying for a spot next year in Beijing, but the days when the United States could count on dominating are over. Its three-on-three basketball team failed to qualify for the 3X3 World Cup in the Philippines. These results illustrate how global hoops competition has become much more competitive and captivating, especially within the realm of three-on-three, which, because each team only consists of three players, enables countries with smaller populations or fewer resources to flourish. This new format will make its Olympic debut at Tokyo in 2020 alongside the more “traditional” five-a-side discipline, and is anticipated to help grow the game around the world.

While 70 years ago the IOC found that the “most astonishing thing” about Olympic basketball was the “extremely close competition,” that tournament actually unleashed a more concentrated method of basketball cultural diffusion that has made today’s hoops world a much smaller, more competitive and more global one. Basketball is today the world’s second team sport, played across all continents, bridging cultural divides and bringing people together through love and appreciation of the game.

And it’s ascendant. More competitive tournaments, more hotly contested rivalries and new opportunities for countries other than the United States to prove their hoops mettle through competitions like 3X3 may well empower basketball to challenge soccer as the king of global sports.