Basketball is no longer an “American” game. It’s gone international. And that’s the best news basketball fans have gotten in a long time.
Basketball was invented by Massachusetts gym teacher James Naismith in 1891. While the godfather of basketball was actually born in Canada, he was an American citizen, and basketball is considered a quintessential American game along with baseball and US football.
23% of current players were born outside of the US
Basketball inventor James Naismith was born in Ontario, Canada
Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece has the NBA’s coolest name
Nonetheless, the sport’s international roots have shone through, as it gained popularity in Europe during the middle of the 20th century. By the 1980s the first crop of exotic foreign stars hit American shores, with names like Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Vlade Divac and Detlef Schrempf quickly becoming household.
One the spark ignited, it quickly turned into a wildfire, and every year a new crop of exciting prospects from places as far-flung as China, Turkey, Argentina and Cameroon enter the league. Going into the 2014-15 season, almost one-quarter of players on NBA rosters were born outside of the US. And fans have embraced the trend. Here are a few reasons why:
#1: Foreign players bring a unique approach to the game
The US still produces the world’s best players, but quite frankly, the American style of basketball can get a bit stale. Players usually fit into cookie-cutter descriptions: guards are fast, forwards and centers are big and strong, and that’s about it.
Basketball coaches in Europe and Latin America put less emphasis on strength and speed and more on shooting, passing and team play, so international players often have more diverse and unique skill sets. Consider Dirk. At 7-feet he passes and shoots like a guard. Giannis Antetokounmpo is 6’10 but moves effortlessly with and without the ball. In short, imports bring skills that domestic players generally lack.
#2: It gives Americans something to talk about when travelling abroad
Americans suffer from the misfortune of being in an isolated sports bubble. Top international sports such as soccer, rugby and tennis enjoy little popularity in the states. So when an American goes on vacation, business, or study abroad in Italy or Taiwan, sports don’t provide that common denominator which can help them connect with locals or other internationals.
Luckily, basketball is starting to change that. No matter the continent, American travelers can find someone interested in rehashing last season’s finals or weighing in on the Lebron-Jordan debate. Better yet, there are more restaurants and bars which televise NBA games.
#3: Foreign players have names that are fun to say
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Vassilis Spanoulis, Danilo Gallinari, Hedayet Turkoglu, Yao Ming, Tiago Splitter, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Bojan Bogdanovic, Detlef Schrempf. There’s no way around it, international players just have way cooler names than American ballers.
Sure, America has Metta World Peace, God Shammgod and World B. Free, but brilliant names like those are few and far between. Almost all European players bring something cool to the table. And best of all, American announcers usually have no idea how to pronounce them, leading to hilarious moments.
#4: It breathes new life into the US-Canada rivalry
America and Canada have never had much of a rivalry, largely due to the fact that Canada’s only comparative advantages lie in ice hockey, maple syrup production, being excessively polite, and scraping ice off windshields.
The ice hockey rivalry has been pretty intense however, and now that Canada has an impressive crop of young basketball players the cross-border competition can finally heat up. Canada might even make sport and gambling news by beating the US team.
The current best Canadian basketball players are Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Nik Stauskas, Tristan Thompson, Steve Nash, Tyler Ennis and Corey Joseph. Best of all, most of these guys are young, so Canada should have a top national team for years to come.
#5: It makes the Olympics way more exciting
As a basketball fan, it isn’t very exciting to watch a team of superhumans steamroll a bunch of pasty, skinny dudes from Azerbaijan, or wherever. If looking to bet on sports in America, there is no fun in wagering when you know your team is going to win.
The US and Soviet Union had some epic showdowns during the 1970s and 1980s, and over the past few meetings Spain, Argentina, France and Australia have all made impressive showings.
Okay, watching the US get stomped by both Puerto Rico and Greece en route to the Bronze medal in Athens in 2004 was gut-wrenching, but at least the outcomes were unpredictable!
#6: Basketball is way cooler than soccer
Soccer is the world’s most popular sport. Which is a crying shame, because it utterly pales in comparison to basketball in every single measure. Which sport features the most impressive athletes? Basketball. Which sport is played at a faster pace? Basketball.
Which sport brings people together in peace and harmony, rather than orgies of hooliganism, violence and extreme nationalism? Right again, basketball.
Basketball is a better game, and its fans behave with dignity and are united by love for the sport. As fans, we should be happy that increasing numbers of people around the world now appreciate this wonderful game.