Why the Toronto Raptors' title is a victory for the NBA, Canada ... and the US
Folklore tells us that if you can see your initials in a spider’s web, you have good fortune ahead. Maybe the NBA saw their initials in the hoop net last Thursday because the Toronto Raptors’ championship victory that night could be an early prognosticator of a brighter future for professional basketball worldwide. At the very least, it could encourage the expansion of NBA teams to include other countries from south of the border and elsewhere, leading to the league evolving into a more international competition.
As the Borg would say, “Resistance is futile.” The winds of change are already upon us. Despite California’s Golden State Warriors being the “hometown” favorites, it was Canada’s “visitor” team that most Americans were rooting for in the finals. According to a recent poll, the majority of Americans in every state except California, Nevada, and Hawaii were cheering for the Raptors to win. This is not a slight against the excellent Warriors, who may just be victims of their own deserved success in that people prefer rooting for the underdog. When it comes to sports, Americans don’t seem to share the xenophobia and nationalist fervor of the current White House administration.
If that welcoming spirit continues to spread we may see changes beyond sports that extends to cultural and diplomatic areas. In 1996, economist Thomas Friedman proposed the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict,” which suggested that no two countries with a McDonald’s franchise would go to war with each other because “countries with middle classes large enough to sustain a McDonald’s have reached a level of prosperity and global integration that makes warmongering risky and unpalatable to its people.” Of course, that didn’t hold up in reality for a few countries, but a similar basic ideal applies here: countries sharing an NBA franchise are more likely to also share cultural awareness – and that can lead to us focusing on our similarities without fearing our differences.
Sports has often been a trailblazer for an enlightened social agenda. Ibtihaj Muhammad won a fencing bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics – and also became the first woman to represent the United States at the Games while wearing a hijab. The so-called “ping-pong diplomacy” of the early 1970s, in which the US and China exchanged ping-pong players, is credited with easing tensions between the countries and making President Richard Nixon’s visit to China possible. The dozens of professional athletes who have taken stands against social injustice in the US, regardless of the cost to their careers, shows us that we have many athletes prepared to be international ambassadors.
We already have ambassadors from other nations in the NBA. The 2018-19 season hosted 108 international players from 42 countries and territories, representing 24.5% of players in the league. Every one of the 30 teams had at least one international player. The influx of these exceptional players from other countries has resulted in a higher level of competition, forcing American-born aspirants to step up their games. There is no entitlement in the NBA, it is the ultimate meritocracy: your value is measured by performance alone. And if we increase the pool of competitors, the entire game will be elevated even higher. This is evident from examining the Raptors’ roster which includes Serge Ibaka (Congo and Spain), Pascal Siakam (Cameroon), Marc Gasol (Spain), and OG Anunoby (born in London to Nigerian parents). One of the assistant coaches, Patrick Mutombo, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The team president, Masai Ujiri, was born in the UK and grew up in Nigeria. Nick Nurse, the head coach, developed his coaching career in Europe.
One of the obstacles to growing the game’s popularity has been that not all countries have a pipeline of educating young talent in the fundamentals of basketball. Americans have many opportunities to play organized basketball almost as soon as they can walk. For some other countries, the catch-22 is that a sport has to be popular to get the resources to develop children’s skills, but it can’t become popular without raising children with those skills. The NBA has been on a fervent mission to expand the league internationally through a variety of promising programs. Since 2001, they have conducted basketball camps in 27 countries on six continents. In February, they announced that they had established a 12-team Basketball African League that would begin in 2020. I participated in the Basketball Without Borders Africa 2018 camp in Johannesburg and saw first-hand the level of enthusiasm for the sport.
Closer to home, who thought that Canadians would prefer the NBA finals over hockey’s Stanley Cup? Yet, an Angus Reid poll released the week the Raptors defeated the Warriors showed that 45% of Canadian men aged 18 to 35 preferred to watch the NBA finals over the Stanley Cup (39%). Women in that same age group also preferred the NBA finals 35% to 32%. Canadian men and women over 55 preferred the Stanley Cup. This difference in preference by age may highlight a shift in the younger generations to embrace basketball in countries where other sports have been dominant.
In March 1939, the first World Championship of Professional Basketball was held in Chicago. The tournament was invitation-only and was created by a sports editor at the Chicago Herald-American. At the time, there were only about 20 professional teams, all declaring themselves the world champions. This would settle the issue. Of course, this was not a “world” championship, since it only had American teams. But in another way it was a “world” championship because playing among the all-white teams were two all-black teams, the Harlem Globetrotters (from Chicago, not Harlem) and the New York Renaissance (aka the Harlem Rens), the only team with a black owner. These two teams, despite their amazing records, faced such harsh discrimination during their tours they might as well have come from a different country than the white players. Just to make sure there wouldn’t be a final with both black teams, they were put in the same playoff bracket. Eventually, the Harlem Rens won the tournament to become world champions and make palpable to white fans the necessity of black players to elevate the competitive level of the game.
This same spirit of inclusiveness can energize basketball even more. Distance keeps a global NBA from being practical right now, but certainly Mexico City and Monterrey franchises are possible. The NBA is already testing the viability by establishing a new G-League development franchise in Mexico City. This kind of expansion will make the sport more exciting while at the same time countering the kind of negative characterization of other cultures and people that has been on the rise recently, in America and beyond.