Basketball without Borders: The NBA's journey to international acclaim

Chicago Bulls v Detroit Pistons
Chicago Bulls v Detroit Pistons / Dean Mouhtaropoulos/GettyImages

Basketball is a global game.

The NBA is the greatest basketball league in the world but if you notice, it is full of international stars. The last five MVP awards were won by three international superstars. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and Joel Embiid (Cameroon) are all faces of the league.

Another international superstar, Luka Doncic (Slovenia), is looking to take that mantle soon as a constant contender for the coveted MVP trophy. As the NBA grows globally, its greatest stars are bringing a new mix of basketball talent, culture and experience to the league.

As the Cleveland Cavaliers gear up to face the Brooklyn Nets in Paris, France, how exactly did the game become so global? The Dream Team? Yes, but the NBA had broadened its horizons way before 1992.

The impact of the ‘Dream Team’

A rule change in 1989 lifted the restriction on professional basketball players participating in the Olympic Games. Thus, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics gave us the historic “Dream Team”. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird headlined what has become known as the best collection of American basketball talent ever. This team demolished the competition en route to a gold medal victory over Croatia and restored America’s global dominance over the sport. 

More importantly, this "Dream Team" was a cultural phenomenon that impacted the game on and off the court. The US team were celebrities in the Olympic Village, and the coverage of the team was wall-to-wall.

Because of this notoriety, the world had a chance to see NBA excellence on a global scale. The success of the ‘golden generations’ of Spain, Argentina and Australia have been attributed to the ‘92 US National Team, but the roots of NBA influence on the world go back before the Barcelona Olympics.

Growing the NBA across the world

Before the 1992 Olympics, the NBA was attempting to bring the game to a global audience. The first game played overseas involving an NBA team was in September 1978. This game was an exhibition between the Washington Bullets and Maccabi Tel Aviv. The reigning NBA Champion Bullets fell to the Israeli club 98-97. These Bullets would play more exhibition games against local basketball teams in 1979 in China and the Philippines. 

After a 5 year break, the NBA would continue to travel overseas to Germany, Italy, Israel and Switzerland to play exhibition matches against local clubs. Then, in 1987, the McDonald's Championship was introduced. The McDonald’s Championship was an international tournament that featured Champion teams from North America, Europe, Oceania and South America. The first games were held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but the following tournaments were held in Spain, Italy, France and England. The final tournament was held in 1999, and won by the San Antonio Spurs.

Until 1990, the NBA only played in friendly preseason games overseas. Exhibition matches are nice, but they are not regular-season games. Nothing really on the line, just a chance to get back in shape before the real season starts.  Then, in November of 1990, the NBA decided to have the Suns and the Jazz play in 2 regular season games in Tokyo, Japan. The Jazz and Suns would split the two-game series at the Tokyo Metro Gymnasium. This would be the first major American sports league to host a regular season game overseas.

Another first came in 1997 when the NBA sent the Rockets and Mavericks to play in Mexico City, Mexico. A crowd of 20,635 came to see Charles Barkley and the Rockets hold off the Mavs 108-106. After Mexico, the NBA would continue to send two teams to play regular season games in Japan until 2003. 

After an eight-year break, the NBA decided to send the Raptors and NJ Nets to London, England in 2011. From 2011 to 2019, NBA teams would regularly play in Mexico and London, and in 2020, the first NBA Paris game was played. Right before the COVID-19 global lockdown, the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Charlotte Hornets 116-103.

Overall, the NBA Paris game was a success and that could be aided by the success of past French players putting French basketball on the map. The third edition of the NBA Paris game will be played this week between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets most recently played a regular season game in December 2017 against the Miami Heat in London.

This game will be the Cavaliers’ first-ever regular season game abroad, marking a momentous moment in Cleveland basketball history. Let’s hope based on the success of the NBA global games, that the Cavs playing overseas becomes a more regular thing.

Next. Le Magnifique: The 5 best French players in NBA history. Le Magnifique: The 5 best French players in NBA history. dark