[28 January 2003]
by Luke Peterson

Yao Ming

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The Dream Team, they were called, and for good reason. Olympic sport has rarely seen a collection of talent like the 1992 US Basketball Team. Disappointed after defeat by the Russians in the gold medal round of the 1988 games, the United States sought to ensure its own success in the ‘92 games. Instead of sending the country's best college, amateur talent, as had been done in years past, the US Team in 1992 was comprised of the country's top professional players. The inexperienced and youthful players of America's Olympic past were replaced by veteran champions, living legends, and icons of the game. This was a team for the ages, the greatest basketball team ever assembled in the history of the game.

The Dream Team's roster read like a top ten list of the greatest basketball players of all time (Jordan, Bird, Magic, Robinson, Drexler, Barkley -- no full names necessary). They were assembled to bring an end to America's short departure from Olympic basketball dominance. And end it they did. The 1992 Dream Team beat their first opponent, Angola, 116 - 48 and cruised through to the gold medal game unchallenged. They won that game, and the gold, by beating Croatia by 32 points (their closest game of the competition) and finished the tournament a perfect 8 - 0. With elite professionals competing on its national team, US Basketball, it seemed, would remain in a position of dominance well into the foreseeable future.

Fast-forward a decade. It is now 2002 and the US Team is hosting the World Basketball Championships in Indianapolis. Across the country, these games are little more than an afterthought in the mind of the American sports fan. With baseball's pennant race heating up and a new NFL season poised to begin, the country's sports interests were largely elsewhere. The US Team was simply presented with another opportunity to dominate the overmatched European and Asian teams that bothered to make the trip to Indianapolis. With another roster boasting a wealth of NBA talent, the team's success seemed a forgone conclusion.

Inattentive fans quickly took note, however, when the US Team lost to Argentina (a game in which the US team never led). The team followed up this performance with a loss to Yugoslavia (blowing a 10-point lead) and a loss to Spain in the fifth place game, which secured a sixth place finish -- the lowest ever for a US basketball team in international competition. In a sport that was invented in the United States (though by Canadian-born James Naismith), and one in which the US had come to dominate in recent memory, the American team was beaten soundly, on its own turf.

The sixth-place finish for the US team in the 2002 World Championships can be attributed to a number of factors. To begin with, high-profile American players including Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant eschewed the international competition in Indianapolis for personal reasons. Those players who were there lacked focus, shooting a lowly 63 percent from the free throw line during the tournament, while their opponents, collectively, shot 73 percent. The flashy and selfish nature of the American game also seemed partly responsible for the US's poor showing. As one Associated Press article sites, "The American team repeatedly gave up lay-ups and dunks off backdoor plays. On offense, especially in late-game situations, the U.S. players often freelanced themselves into one-on-one situations resulting in missed shots." Selfishness and poor play on the part of the US Team aside, the results of the 2002 World Championships clearly demonstrate one unalterable sports fact: the rest of the world is catching up, and catching up fast.

Increasingly, foreign players are improving their skills, not by playing in leagues in their home countries, but by going up against high-profile American players in the NBA. The knowledge and skills these players acquire in this country transform already talented international youngsters into knowledgeable and savvy veterans of the game. In order to remain competitive, NBA team officials have expanded their scouting operations to include evaluations of these rising international stars (in addition to the numerous college players, and the occasional high school prospect). Due to their efforts, there is scarcely an NBA team left in today's game that is not receiving a significant contribution from a foreign player. Like it or not, the NBA is now, officially, a transnational corporation.

The Sacramento Kings' starting five carries two well-known Yugoslavian players, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic. Both all-stars, Stojakovic is the league's reigning three-point champion. The Kings also receive crucial bench play from Turkish-born Hedo Turkoglu. Point guards Steve Nash (Canadian) and Tony Parker (French) lead Western Conference powers Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, respectively. The Mavericks also feature German superstar Dirk Nowitski, who emerged last season as a legitimate league MVP candidate, and who presently ranks in the top five in the league in six statistical categories. Indeed, Dallas' roster reads as a veritable geography lesson, sporting five international players from three continents.

Close on Nowitski's heels is twenty-year-old Russian phenomenon Andrei Kirilenko, who provides the Utah Jazz with a formidable weapon and ranks in the top ten in the league in four statistical categories. Seattle's Vladimir Radmanovic (Yugoslavia) has been heralded by opponents and analysts alike to be as dangerous an outside threat as there is in today's game. And Spain's Pau Gasol was awarded the coveted Rookie of the Year title last year, playing for the Memphis Grizzlies.

While the 68 international players on NBA rosters are dominated by European representation, South America and Asia have contributed standout athletes to the NBA as well. Argentina's Emanuel Ginobili is an NBA rookie and an important bench player for San Antonio. Ginobili's impact (and physique), however, is dwarfed by this year's shoe-in for Rookie of the Year, Yao Ming. The Houston Rockets spent this past season's number one draft pick on Yao, a seven-foot, five-inch center from Shanghai, China. He has proven to been a marketing goldmine for the profit-driven NBA, appearing in a nationally televised Macintosh Computer commercial (alongside the ubiquitous Verne Troyer, "Mini-Me" from Austin Powers) and being billed alternatively as the "Ming Dynasty" or the "Ming Emperor." Ticket sales and merchandising have increased dramatically for Houston, trends that began before Yao had ever played a minute in the NBA. On the court, as well, he has made a huge contribution to his franchise. The Rockets, who finished last season near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, now contend for a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive west.

Yao's commercial success and basketball skill signal the dawn of a new era in the NBA game. While the league has historically had some international flavor (Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon, Lithuanian Arvydas Sabonis, and Sudanese Manute Bol being members of the old guard of international competitors in the NBA), the American game is now reaching new heights of global exposure and global presence, on and off the court. Truly, these trends are complimentary in nature. As the NBA acquires more international talent, global citizens from regions that nurtured this new NBA talent become ardent fans and supporters of a specific NBA franchise, or simply of the NBA in general. These fans buy merchandise, tickets, and a portion of American culture all at the same time, often going to great lengths to show support to their hometown heroes (witness fans from Chihuahua, Mexico bussing seventeen hours to Dallas to see local Eduardo Najera in game action for the Dallas Mavericks). And, as the NBA reaches new heights of radio, television, and Internet exposure, the next generation of NBA talent is honing its skills on newly constructed courts around the world.

This globalization phenomenon has extended to the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers who now have game commentators who speak Farsi, broadcasting games to homes and shops in Iran. Might we one day see an Arab as Rookie of the Year, garnering million dollar contracts? In the face of the NBA's rapid commercial and economic globalization, that possibility is more probable today than it ever has been in the past.

The NBA is becoming less insular, resembling much more closely the face of international soccer for the ease with which players cross national boundaries to play for "foreign" nations. In soccer, international competition is fierce and hotly contested. The games are evenly matched and rivalries are age-old, as teams take on the burden of national pride when they trot out onto the pitch. For years, global soccer players have known that the best league competition can be found in Europe, which is where the top talent usually ends up (as evidenced by American stand-outs Frank Hejduk, Casey Kellar and Landon Donovan, who spent considerable time in both the English and German leagues).

By way of contrast, European basketball leagues (most European nations have one, although the style of the game tends more towards finesse and less towards physical contact) primarily serve as a de facto farm system for the NBA. Success in a European (or Asian or South American) league now warrants attention from NBA scouts, whose antennae are more globally tuned, and this attention brings predictable results. With the lure of the bright lights and big money of America, international all-stars gravitate more and more toward the NBA, rendering the European leagues increasingly starved for true superstars and meaningful competition--much like professional soccer in America, headed by the floundering MLS.

And, in the same way that international basketball is becoming an even playing field, so too is international soccer. Disappointed US sports fans who witnessed the American team's debacle in Indianapolis last summer might have been cheered by the national soccer team's performance in World Cup 2002. The US Team made it through their group, defeated Mexico, and landed themselves in the quarterfinals where they were beaten 1 – 0 in a hard-fought contest by eventual finalist Germany. The team's success in the tournament warranted a top-10 finish for the United States in recent international rankings. Their 9th place position now puts them ahead of perennial soccer power Italy.

The lesson to be learned in this pattern of growing sports globalization is that turn about is fair play. With national borders becoming increasingly meaningless and domestic leagues across the world competing for the same talent, athletes, as they have done for years, will go where the money is. Even isolated, non-democratic states (China, for example) cannot stop this downhill trend. This means that international competition in all sports will become increasingly tighter, with the best players from all over the world participating in the most competitive, best-known leagues (the NBA and the English Premiership for basketball and soccer, respectively).

The United States becoming a competitive soccer nation goes hand-in-hand with Yugoslavia becoming a competitive basketball nation. A 9th ranked American soccer team is irrevocably tied to a 6th place American basketball team. Perplexing as these trends may seem now, at the dawn of the global era, these patterns will no doubt serve to recreate the NBA in a new, globally marketable image, and will change the way in which we watch and follow sports from now on.

For an update on these events, just ask Shaquille O'Neal, whose struggling Los Angeles Lakers faced Yao Ming and the Rockets on Friday, January 17th. ESPN billed the game as "The Western Empire" (presumably Shaq and his three consecutive NBA championships) versus "The Ming Dynasty" (a reference to rookie sensation Yao Ming). In what might prove to be a telling result, Shaq and the Lakers fell to Yao and the Rockets 108 - 104 in overtime. Soccer anyone?

— 28 January 2003


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