THE GLOBALIZED ASSOCIATION
[28 January 2003]
by Luke Peterson
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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
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
28 January 2003