We don’t think there can be any doubt about which country sits on the basketball throne. The US of A has top billing now, and with second-to-none high school through to college systems and a basketball crazy culture that envelops both rural and urban America, nobody’s going to knock them off their peg anytime soon.
But just because there’s a clear king doesn’t mean some countries aren’t putting out some great players and even great teams. Considering the export and series cultural globalization, the game is realistically only 20 years old (thanks to David Stern, and of course Michael Jordan). The rest of the globe is making leaps and bounds towards something near parody, and in 20 more years it’s almost guaranteed the lay of the land will be unrecognizable.
We wanted to take a look at the biggest basketball countries outside the US, what they’re already bringing to the table, and what they’ve got cooking for the future. The only thing for certain is the NBA is trending towards a more and more cosmopolitan makeup, and there’s no signs of slowing.
Well, like just in about everything else, the Chinese are coming. Basketball is a phenomenon in the People’s Republic; it’s tied for most popular sport with soccer and is easily the most popular for Chinese youth, and NBA games are as ubiquitous over there as they are here.
In international play, they’re Asia’s dominant team by a Texas mile, but they’re mostly an exercise in being a gracious winner for American and European teams. The Chinese are famously violent at their games, and bench-clearing fights are a regular sight in their 17 team national league.
A ballpark figure of 300 million Chinese people play it regularly. For those of you counting, the equivalent of America’s entire population, babies, adults and seniors alike, is learning how to dribble, shoot and pass (likely not dunk though…). Their Adidas might be counterfeit, but their skills are real, and we’re mathematically certain to see a flux of NBA-ready Chinese stars in less then a generation.
Imagine the surprise of most USA fans when they watch the Spanish Olympic team and recognize all the starting players. Spain has a bead on the USA, and they’re punching well above their weight internationally with no signs of slowing down.
Even though the Spanish host the ACB (what’s widely regarded as the 2nd best basketball league in the world) they’re absolutely bananas about the NBA, and to that effect the league has made great efforts to bring the game to them, including a sanctioned exhibition game this October between the 76ers and Uxue Bilbao (Spain’s answer to the Lakers). Plus, they call it “baloncesto”, just try saying it… it’s beautiful.
If Argentinean basketball never did anything worthwhile besides eliminate the USA in the Athens Olympics, they’d still probably be on this list. All a game of basketball requires is a ball, a net, and a few kids with nothing better to do than play a game. Does that sound like another sport South Americans have embraced?
South America is a big deal for basketball, and as the country’s “Liga Naciona; de Basquet” rises in popularity with the generation of kids still patting themselves on the back over ’04. Manu Ginobili of the Spurs Dynasty (Yes, we’re calling it a Dynasty) gets recognized everywhere in his home country, and the celebrity and rags to riches hip hop elements of the NBA mystique play really well with a country (and continent) that’s really coming into its own economically. They might not be challenging anybody for longtime supremacy, but it’s hard to find a country where overall interest in basketball is rising faster.
As the cultural little brother of the States, the home of Dr. Naismith, the game’s inventor and the only country outside the US with an NBA team, it’s only natural that Canada would have a pervasive basketball culture of it’s own, but besides the contributions of the odd superstar (Nash, duh) and providing a nice place for high draft picks to live before they get traded to good teams, they haven’t done much.
This is changing very fast, thanks in no small part to Andrew Wiggins and the powerhouse training house that is the Toronto high school system. The Canadian national team, a perennial underachiever, was always keen on picking players that represented more than just the Greater Toronto Area, ignoring the fact that almost without exception the best prospects were coming out of the “Golden Horseshoe”.
Steve Nash, a notable West Coaster and now chief of Basketball Canada, aims to change that. He’s raising corporate and federal cash, bringing energy to the organization, and serves as a perfect and constant reminder that the country does more than just hockey. Expect Canada to make waves all over, and soon.