Going Global with the NBA

Ben Spicehandler And Mitch Waxman

When David Stern was named commis­sioner of the National Basketball Associa­tion on February 1, 1984, the league was at a crossroads. The 1980 NBA Finals had not been broadcast on live television, a true jolt to a league that depended on televi­sion revenue to keep its operations afloat. The quality of play had diminished as the concept of “team first” had devolved into “me first,” as many players were simply at­tempting to improve their own stat line. And the league was hounded by a horrific drug problem, which revealed itself when the No. 2 pick of the 1986 draft, Len Bias, died from a cocaine overdose two days after being selected by the Boston Celtics. The league needed new direction, and it needed it fast.

Fortunately for the NBA, Stern had a grand plan in mind to completely revamp the face of the association. The commis­sioner understood that basketball existed outside of the United States’s borders, and that those countries were teeming with untapped talent. Stern befriended Boris Stankovic, the Serbian-born head of FIBA, the worldwide governing body of basket­ball. Stern’s relationship with Stankovic proved crucial in terms of his ultimate goal. Previously, international players, es­pecially Europeans, had believed that it wasn’t in their best interest to go over to America. They were the best players in their current leagues, so what incentive did they have to go overseas to a league where they would likely struggle? However, Stern was able to convince Stankovic of the posi­tives that playing in the NBA could bring. With Stankovic on board and advocat­ing for Stern, the prospect of playing in the NBA became far more attractive for international basketball stars.

Although Stern had Stankovic on board, international players needed other reasons to make the trek to America. Luckily, three important factors were working in the NBA’s favor. The 1992 United States Olympic Basketball team, nicknamed the “Dream Team,” showed the world just how dominant U.S. basketball was. The team featured 11 future NBA Hall-of- Famers and was so far superior to their competition that their closest game was a 32-point win. When the international stars saw the show the “Dream Team” put on, they realized that the best competition was in America.

Additionally, the atmosphere at NBA games is significantly more intense than in Europe. Typical attendance for the EuroLeague, Europe’s premier league, is roughly a third of a standard NBA crowd. The third factor, and the most obvious, was the economic positives. Simply put, international players had the opportu­nity to make a lot more money playing in the NBA. The contracts they signed with teams would be for a greater sal­ary and their increased exposure also developed into endorsement deals, which only made the economics more skewed toward the NBA.

This exodus towards the NBA, which Stern set into motion at the beginning of his tenure as commissioner, is in full bloom today. By the end of the 1980s a measly 20 international players held spots on an NBA roster, representing only six percent of the talent in the league. In the 2004-2005 season, 81 international players donned NBA uniforms, a massive jump in just fif­teen years! And these players do not only represent numbers. International stars have left their imprint on the league in many ways. The NBA Most Valuable Player trophy has been won by Dirk Nowitzki, a German. The NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy has been awarded to Tony Parker, from France. The NBA Rookie of the Year title was given to Pau Gasol of Spain. As Donnie Nelson, President of Basketball Operations for the Dallas Mav­ericks says, “You can’t just label them for­eign or international players any longer. They’re just players who can do the same thing that other guys in the league can do.”

Contact Ben Spicehandler at

[email protected]

Contact Mitch Waxman at [email protected]