Thursday, February 28, 2008 Updated: March 3, 9:08 AM ET
The NBA needs to expand beyond the U.S.
By Todd Boyd Special to Page 2
During the recent NBA All-Star weekend, commissioner David Stern announced that he is considering expanding the league into Europe. Although the concept of a five-team European division is still in the early-discussion stage, the possibility is quite intriguing.
We live in a time when technology, media and money have made a round world flat, by putting what once were far-flung places much closer together, in spite of geographical distance. This is, of course, the argument put forth by Thomas Friedman in his best-selling book "The World is Flat." The basketball world has been "flattened" as well. Gone are the days when the game was the exclusive domain of Americans. The NBA has come to represent a global village of the highest order. Its population now resembles the United Nations. Players from Eastern and Western Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America now are prominently featured in a league that was once exclusively dominated by players from the United States.
Rik Smits was one of the early European stars in the NBA.
This demographic shift can be traced back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War. It was at that time that we started to see an influx of European-born players into the NBA. First there were players like Detlef Schrempf (Germany) and Rik Smits (Netherlands), who played college ball in America before entering the NBA. Then players started entering the NBA directly from Europe, like Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis and Toni Kukoc. Lithuanian superstar Arvydas Sabonis was first drafted back in 1985 -- two years before Ronald Reagan famously declared, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," a statement that many credit as signaling the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It wasn't until 1995 that Sabonis first took the court in the NBA, for the Portland Trail Blazers. Though age and injuries had robbed him of some of his ability, Sabonis still showed flashes of his previous brilliance as he finished out his career in the NBA.
Sabonis and Marciulionis were teammates on the gold-medal-winning USSR squad at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, while Divac, Petrovic and Kukoc played together on the Yugoslavian squad that won the silver. The U.S. finished with the bronze -- the first time the U.S. team had finished with less than a gold medal at the Olympics, other than its controversial loss to the Soviet Union at the Munich Games in 1972.
The 1988 bronze medal was a shock to many American basketball fans, because they felt the U.S. owned the sport. In hindsight it's obvious that the college kids from the U.S., in spite of being coached by master motivator John Thompson, were simply outmatched by the professional European players. Eventually the U.S. decided to send professional players to the Olympics as well, and the original Dream Team was born. Following the immense success of the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, European players began popping up on rosters throughout the NBA.
I should also point out that players had begun coming from Africa into the NBA, as well. Hakeem Olajuwon was drafted in 1984, Manute Bol in '85, and then Dikembe Mutombo in 1991, around the same time the European influx began. And more recently, players like Manu Ginobili, Leandro Barbosa, Anderson Varejao and Andres Nocioni have put South America on the NBA map.
When the U.S. lost at the 2002 FIBA World Championships and again at the 2004 Olympics -- coupled with Yao Ming being drafted No. 1 in 2002, and the success enjoyed by teams like Sacramento, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix that featured either prominent non-American players or high-powered offenses that represented a distinctly European style of play -- credence was given to the suggestion that basketball might not be so "American-centric" in the future. Some people, including Dan McGraw in the Village Voice, even felt a conspiracy was afoot, intended to cut down on the number of African-American players in the NBA while expanding into bigger, more lucrative overseas television markets. Was this another case of outsourcing that would potentially displace American workers?
When the dust settled, though, it became clear that people were jumping the gun on this supposed foreign invasion. Following Cleveland's selection of LeBron James with the top pick in the 2003 NBA draft, Detroit Pistons president Joe Dumars -- the man I consider the best mind in basketball right now -- used the No. 2 pick to select Serbian big man Darko Milicic. Although Milicic has been a bust, high draft picks have flamed out before. It's the players Dumars passed up, however, that made his selection seem so misguided. Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- all selected after Milicic -- have gone on, along with James, to become the torchbearers for a new generation of NBA players. Many people believe it's the best draft class since 1984.
To Dumars' credit, practically everyone in the NBA was foaming at the mouth to select Milicic at that time. Some even had him pegged ahead of James. Hindsight is 20/20. Dumars has more than vindicated himself since. Meanwhile, Milicic's mediocrity -- coupled with Dirk Nowitzki's colossal choke-job in the 2006 Finals -- has cooled some of the fascination people once had with European players.
When one considers several other factors -- the continued emergence of James; the development of American point guards such as Chris Paul and Deron Williams, who play their own version of the "penetrate and kick" style so popular in Europe; the big-name trades of late that have reshuffled the hierarchy of power in the league; the new rule stipulating that a player must be 19 years old and a year out of high school before being drafted; and the renewed dedication and commitment of USA Basketball heading into the Beijing Olympics this summer -- it appears that American basketball may finally be back on track.
In spite of all these recent changes, the future of the NBA lies in its ability to take the game beyond its American borders. America no longer holds a monopoly on all the best players. The European style of play has energized the offensive game, very much like the old ABA's street-ball style once augmented the predictable "textbook" brand of basketball that had previously reigned supreme. More importantly, the economic and cultural realities of globalization dictate that the future will be ruled by those who transcend borders, not by those who reinforce borders that already exist. Europe could be the first stop on a journey that eventually leads to Asia, South America and beyond.
It was only a few short years ago that everyone was complaining about how boring NBA games were. The prevalence of clear-outs and isolation plays had made a once entertaining game quite predictable. Final scores in the 70s were becoming commonplace in a league in which scores in triple-digits had once been taken for granted.
Tony Parker could be playing regular-season NBA games in his home country of France in the future.
Watching a game these days is a totally different experience. The Europeans have reminded us that big men don't have to be confined to playing with their backs to the basket and that crisp ball movement and underrated skills -- like dribbling, passing and shooting -- can still provide an entertaining offensive experience.
In some ways this situation is similar to what once happened with jazz music. Although jazz was a brilliant and uniquely American art form, the music was often disregarded in its country of origin. Yet as the French and other Europeans came to embrace this American form of cultural expression, America was forced to pay attention. Similarly, Europeans and other foreign players have taken an old game and given it new meaning, thus forcing Americans to raise their own games in the process. Sometimes it takes others to make us appreciate what we already have.
The NBA is a venerable brand name. And like most venerable brand names, there comes a time when the brand needs an infusion of new life. The revival of the prestigious Italian fashion label Gucci by an American creative director, Tom Ford, in the '90s is but one example of how this cultural process often works. The proposed expansion of the NBA into Europe offers the possibility for the injection of new blood, to keep things fresh.
Right now, European fans are confined to watching the games on television. Putting teams in European markets would give these fans a chance to experience the game in person, and give European-born players the opportunity to play in front of family and friends. This would, in turn, expand the television market; European fans would feel that they really have a team to root for and something at stake. There would be new teams and new rivalries; franchises would develop new identities. The idea of "home-court advantage" would take on an entirely new meaning.
All in all, this would add up to a major transformation of the overall cultural and entertainment experience known as NBA basketball. The NBA would more accurately crown a "world champion." And if executed properly, this proposed European expansion could be the first step in elevating basketball to a level at which it might one day realistically rival soccer as the most popular sport in the world.
The NBA must remain current. Unlike Major League Baseball (which can rely on its exalted place in America history) and the NFL (which can coast on its mass appeal), basketball is, at its core an urban boutique sport, that relies on its own "cool" factor to underscore its cultural importance. Considering that globalization is "cool" right now, and all signs indicate this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future, the NBA, by necessity, needs to be where "cool" is. The proposed European expansion will allow the league to remain on the cutting edge of culture, while expanding its market and growing the game at the same time.
Oh, and one more thing? Road trips to London, Paris and Rome would be infinitely more appealing than going to Sacramento, Utah or, god forbid, Oklahoma City.
Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator, and The Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at USC. The paperback edition of his "hip hop history" of the NBA, "Young, Black, Rich and Famous," will be available in March 2008.