David Stern deserves the credit for the NBA’s global expansion
When David Stern became NBA Commissioner in 1984, he had one large looming dream, to take the NBA global. It may seem obvious now, but when Stern initially joined the league in 1966 as outside counsel, it was mired in controversy and only had ten franchises. Say what you will about him, and there is a lot that can be said, but there is no denying that David Stern played a major role in the globalization of the NBA. Of the four major sports leagues in the United States today, the NBA is by far the most global. With players from nearly every corner of the world, the leagues’ popularity has soared to unprecedented heights in the last 30 years. In fact, on opening night of the 2015–2016 season, the NBA boasted 100 international players from 37 countries and territories.
While there are many reasons for the NBA’s worldwide popularity, you can rest assured of one thing; it was no accident. Global domination was always Stern’s ultimate mission. Remember when the league decided to allow its superstars to represent the country during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, creating the famed “Dream Team?” Yeah, that was more about calculated marketing than it was about the stars and stripes. David Stern was no fool.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 24 years since that team was assembled and sent out like basketball’s version of The Avengers, to restore order to the roundball universe. It’s safe to say that their mission was a success. Amongst the litany of proofs is the fact that future Hall of Fame players like Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol, both foreign born, cite the 92 Olympics as directly responsible for their love affair with the game.
There’s also the fact that since Barcelona, the NBA’s popularity around the world has continued to grow, without any signs of tapering off. These days, superstars like LeBron James, Steph Curry, and James Harden, with the assistance of their respective sponsors of course, (Nike, Under Armour and Adidas) host summer camps and clinics around the globe. And a few weeks ago, Yao Ming, one of the NBA’s biggest foreign-born stars ever (pun intended), was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame alongside homegrown basketball legends Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal.
Ming’s induction was a milestone in an era of NBA globalism and perhaps also a culmination of the mission that drove Stern three decades before. The game is now truly a global one. There’s international talent on every NBA team; and for the first time since I can recall, a significant amount of the league’s most talented young players were born or grew up on foreign soil. I’m talking about guys like Giannis Antetokoumpo, Andrew Wiggins, and Kristaps Porzingas, all players who posses MVP-caliber potential. There are also guys like Nikola Vucevic, Joel Embild, Rudy Gobert, and Tristan Thompson, who barring injury, should each have long and successful careers.
I’m not exactly sure what basketball’s expansion means for the game long-term, but I do know this; it’s a wonderful time to be a fan of the game both stateside and abroad. Somewhere David Stern is smiling, his dream came true.