Basketball Passion Going Global

By dispatching the Chicago Bulls in the fifth game of last night’s Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat earned a place opposite the Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. While fans in those two cities are surely excited at the prospects of bringing a title home, this championship series will also hold interest for fans outside the U.S.

The main storyline will be Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki versus Miami’s Three Basketeers. The Mavericks have ridden their big German’s red-hot post-season (32.2 point per game) into the Finals while the Heat trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are starting to show why they are the most talented trio since the Magic-Jabbar-Worthy/Bird-Parish-McHale combos of the 1980s NBA heydays.  However, there are a couple of interesting global storylines, as well.

In Germany and many parts of Europe, fans will be rooting for Nowitzki to lead Dallas to its first NBA title. With one MVP award, 11 All-NBA honors and 10 All-Star Game appearances, he’s proven himself as one of the top 10 players in the world, but has yet to win a title. Will he be the next foreign player to lead his team to a championship?

Nowitzki represents the continued globalization of a sport once dominated exclusively by Americans. This year’s NBA All-Star game included players from Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Spain and the Virgin Islands while the upcoming NBA Finals includes players from Canada, France, Germany, Lithuania, Serbia and Puerto Rico. Overall, 91 players from some 40 countries and territories suited up for NBA teams this season, including 12 from France alone. This list also includes former UofL players Francisco Garcia (Dominican Republic) and Samardo Samuels (Jamaica) and former UK player Jamaal Magloire (Canada).

 

In the Philippines and many parts of Asia-Pacific, fans will be cheering for Head Coach Erik Spoelstra—the first Filipino-American head coach of any North American professional sports franchise—to guide the Miami Heat to the title. While international players are seemingly de rigueur on NBA rosters these days, coaches are not. The NBA coaching fraternity is still exclusively American and made up mostly of ex-NBA players. By naming Spoelstra as Head Coach, the Heat has taken the first step in globalizing the coaching ranks of the NBA.

On the collegiate level, we can see the globalization of the sport locally with UK Head Coach John Calipari taking the head coaching position with the Dominican Republic national team. Before recently stepping down, UofL Head Coach Rick Pitino had taken the same position with the Puerto Rican national team. This past season saw Gorgui Dieng (Senegal) suit up for UofL and Eloy Vargas (Dominican Republic) suit up for UK; due to an NCAA eligibility ruling, fans never got to see Enes Kanter (Turkey) suit up for UK. With these international coaching stints and the recruitment of foreign players, Calipari and Pitino—both ex-NBA coaches—are stretching the brands of UK and UofL well beyond U.S. borders.  In a rapidly globalizing world, this is a good thing.

Basketball, led by the NBA, is quickly transforming itself into the world’s second most popular team sport behind soccer. The mega-clubs of the European soccer leagues have morphed into global franchises with devoted fan bases in all corners of the world. It is safe to assume that in the absence of their English Premier League clubs, neither Manchester nor Liverpool would be household names in global sports. With the continued infusion of foreign talent, the NBA is poised to develop similar global mega-franchises.

So when the NBA Finals tip off on Tuesday night, the audience will stretch far beyond Dallas and Miami with fans tuning in from all corners of the globe. It sure would be nice if Louisville had a Horse in this race.