“Globalization” has become the bugaboo of populist politicians from Warsaw to Washington. Ultranationalists denounce “globalizers” as traitors who violate national sovereignty, destroy cultural traditions and consign blue-collar workers to unemployment and opiate addiction. In 2016, for example, Donald Trump defined the election as “a choice between Americanism and [Hillary Clinton’s] corrupt globalism.”
No doubt, some of the same people who rage against globalization are enjoying the dramatic NBA finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors without realizing that the series and the National Basketball Association as a whole are textbook illustrations of how globalization is actually a beneficial process that, at its best, allows people, money, goods and ideas to flow across borders for the benefit of all.
This is the first NBA finals that features a team from outside the United States, and the Raptors’ participation has sparked a basketball frenzy in Canada. The Raptors aren’t just a foreign team; they are, as my colleague Jack McCaslin notes, also full of foreign-born players. Serge Ibaka was born in Congo, Pascal Siakam in Cameroon, Marc Gasol in Spain, and OG Anunoby in London to Nigerian parents. The genius who put the Raptors’ lineup together — team President Masai Ujiri — was born in London to a Nigerian father and Kenyan mother and grew up in Nigeria before moving to the United States to play basketball.
The Raptors are not unusual in today’s NBA. At the beginning of the season, there were 108 international players on NBA rosters, representing 24.5 percent of all players in the league. Two of those players are now, sadly, retired, but in their day, Dirk Nowitzki of Germany and Tony Parker of France were among the all-time greats. Parker formed part of a dominant trio on the San Antonio Spurs along with Tim Duncan, born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Manu Ginóbili, born in Argentina. The Spurs’ dedication to international recruiting helped them to become one of the most successful NBA teams in history, with a higher winning percentage than the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics. A rival franchise, the Milwaukee Bucks, nearly made the finals this year because of an all-star player from Greece — Giannis Antetokounmpo — who is now favored to be named league MVP.
The NBA has embraced all of these international stars, because the league knows that signing the best players produces the best games — and not all the best players are born in the United States. To cultivate talented youngsters from around the world, the NBA created Basketball Without Borders, a training program that made it possible for Siakam to shine in this year’s finals.
The NBA is aggressively expanding in Africa, where Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo were trailblazers, and China, where Yao Ming was the pioneer. Forbes reports that 640 million people in China watched some kind of NBA programming during the 2017-2018 season — nearly twice the population of the United States. One wonders whether President Trump’s trade war will endanger the NBA’s growth plans.
The NBA’s success abroad has far outstripped that of other U.S. sports leagues, such as the National Football League and Major League Baseball; not coincidentally, only 3.8 percent of the NFL’s 1,696 players are foreign-born. The success of the Raptors truly marks the arrival of the NBA as an international competition. Both the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies were founded in 1995. The Grizzlies have since moved to Memphis, leaving the Raptors to reign as the “Kings of the North.”
This is globalization in action. Despite its “nationalist” name, the NBA is importing foreign-born players and exporting its products (ranging from TV shows to jerseys) to reap millions — even billions — of dollars in revenue.
Are there losers? Sure. There are 108 native-born basketball players who weren’t on NBA rosters this season because 108 foreign-born players were. No doubt, some of them are bitter about not making it to the big league. But as a tiny minority, they have no political clout. No one is running for office promising to restore “lost” basketball jobs that have been “stolen” by foreigners. But that is precisely the pitch that Trump makes regarding coal-mining, steelmaking and auto-manufacturing jobs. He claims globalization is costing us jobs and bringing rapists and drug dealers here.
The problems of globalization are real, if vastly exaggerated; the benefits, entirely ignored. There is real hardship for those who cannot adjust to a changing society (although the biggest transformative factor is automation, not globalization), and there are real victims of criminals and terrorists who cross borders. But the answer is not to build walls and try to roll back time. We will never return to the days when Detroit dominated global auto production and Dolph Schayes of the Bronx was leading the Syracuse Nationals to NBA glory. The Nationals are now the Philadelphia 76ers, and one of their biggest stars is Joel Embiid from Cameroon.
The NBA represents America at its best, because it has the confidence to compete internationally and the flexibility to embrace a multicultural future. This is true Americanism — not the noxious nativism and malignant nationalism touted by popeyed populists.