Why It’s Good That Americans Don’t Dominate Basketball

The U.S.’s most successful sporting export has achieved its greatest success.

Illustration of a basketball hoop whose net is in the shape of unraveling state borders
The Atlantic

During the 1996 NBA All-Star Game, the commentators on the television broadcast began discussing the chances that Jason Kidd, then a second-year guard for the Dallas Mavericks, would make that year’s U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team.

Kidd was a prodigious young talent, the commentators agreed, but his outside shooting remained a problem. “It might be the one thing that could keep him off,” Matt Guokas, one of the commentators and a former NBA head coach, said on the broadcast. Guokas’s broadcasting partner, Steve Jones, laughed. “They’re winning by 40-something points,” he said, referring to the typically lopsided victories of the “Dream Team,” “and we gotta worry about outside shooting?”

So dominant was the U.S. men’s basketball team in the 1990s that player selection mattered little, strategy and tactics were irrelevant, and rule changes made no difference—the Americans would win anyway. More than that, winning alone was insufficient. They were expected to destroy their opponents.

But in those destructions, the seeds had been planted, working with a confluence of other factors—the proliferation of the internet, more televised broadcasts globally, and the NBA sending its players around the world to increase their profile—to raise the standard of international play.

And in the process, America’s most successful sporting export has achieved its greatest success: Americans are no longer the best at it. The U.S. has long cultivated the narrative that it is a place for immigrants, the best and the brightest, to create amazing things and generate extraordinary wealth, and that the example the country sets can inspire people the world over. The story is not entirely true, nor is it so simple. Yet it is a narrative the country seeks to promote nevertheless, and the standard by which I’m suggesting we judge the changes in basketball.

Multiple outlets have reported, citing anonymous sources, that the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a second successive year was Nikola Jokić. Jokić is Serbian. The other two finalists for the award were Joel Embiid, who is from Cameroon, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was born in Greece. The top three players in a sport America has dominated since its creation are from abroad. In fact, the last time an American won the MVP award was in 2018. Kidd, that young talent who couldn’t shoot from the outside, is now a head coach for the Mavericks, and his best player, Luka Doncic, is from Slovenia.

Basketball debuted as a medal sport in the Olympics in 1936 for men and 1976 for women, and for the first several decades, it was played in the Olympic spirit—by amateurs. American teams in particular were populated by collegiate athletes even as rival nations were allowed to include professionals who played in overseas leagues. Still, the U.S. men’s team was able to win nine of the first 11 Olympic basketball tournaments.

For the 1992 Olympics, FIBA—basketball’s international governing body—agreed to allow NBA players to participate for the first time. The Americans’ narrowest margin of victory was 32 points, in the gold-medal game. Most of their opponents were in total awe; some even asked to pose for photos alongside the Americans who’d just routed them. And for a time, that gulf remained (albeit without the photo-taking): In the 1994 Basketball World Championships and the 1996 Olympics, their closest win was by 15 points.

But around the world, young athletes captivated by American excellence were practicing, and getting better. Dirk Nowitzki, for example, was a 14-year-old tennis and handball player in the Bavarian town of Wurzburg who had just begun playing basketball when the Dream Team won gold in Barcelona. After those Olympics, he focused on basketball, and joined the Mavericks (there are other teams in the league, I promise); he won the MVP award himself, and later an NBA championship.

The NBA made other efforts to expand its reach, signing television deals and promoting the game abroad. In 1989, David Stern, then the NBA’s commissioner, visited China to offer free games for the state broadcaster to air. The trip went poorly, but Stern was undeterred and continued to press for greater access to the country. He may have been inspired by a visit to the Great Wall, where his tour guide told him she was a big fan of the “Red Oxen.” It took a while for Stern to realize that she meant Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

Stories such as Nowitzki’s—of young players who grow up overseas and then make their way to the NBA—are no longer remarkable. Over the years, more and more non-American players have entered the league, and more and more of them have been truly elite. Whereas the 1996 All-Star Game that Kidd played in featured three players born outside the U.S. (two of whom eventually played for the U.S. national team), the latest edition featured six. During the most recent NBA season, 109 players hailed from outside the United States, equivalent to about a fifth of the available roster spots. The NBA’s efforts in China resulted in Yao Ming being chosen as the top overall prospect in the 2002 NBA draft.

Most NBA players are still American. In fact, most top-tier NBA players are American (of the 15 best players, as measured by last year’s All-NBA Teams, nine were born in the U.S.). But the success of Jokić, Embiid, and Antetokounmpo illustrates something else: professional basketball’s success at projecting outward, from America.

In that, the sport has achieved something its domestic professional rivals have not. Basketball is the most popular American sport outside the United States by a long way. (I grew up in Hong Kong and would feign illness on the days of Bulls games to skip school and watch Jordan at 9 a.m., because of the time difference. My parents humored me.) That has helped it attract and develop the most talented athletes from abroad, which in turn helps it win still more fans overseas, and on and on.

This has transformed not just the NBA, but Olympic hoops too. The U.S. men’s team went through a lull in the early 2000s, when most of the best American players declined to participate in international competition and the U.S. had to settle for bronze at the 2004 Athens Games. Even once they were jolted to attention by their losses, subsequent gold medals were won by narrower margins: In 2008 and 2012, the U.S. faced tough tests from Spain in the gold-medal game, and though it handily beat Serbia in 2016, it had to survive multiple close outings along the way. At the Tokyo Games, the Americans lost their opening game, to France, before running the table to win gold, but only by barely beating France again.

Basketball is by no means unique when it comes to its international reach, and the positive feedback loop that creates. Football (of the international variety) is far more global at its highest levels, with multiple elite teams in multiple elite leagues competing for talent, almost regardless of nationality, and winning fans worldwide in the process.

But among its domestic competition, basketball stands out. Football (of the American variety) may be the U.S.’s most popular sport, and baseball may be its storied pastime, but basketball is in some ways the most American of sports.