International players like Leandro Barbosa represent the future of basketball, which the NBA hopes soon to transform into a global game that will rival soccer in popularity—and profit.
Then came 1992. That’s the year many consider the turning point for international basketball, the year kids all over the world began to practice fadeaway jumpers alongside their bicycle kicks. At the Barcelona Olympics that year, the American team featured active NBA players for the first time: the Dream Team, which Sports Illustrated has called “arguably the most dominant squad ever assembled in any sport.” The team steamrolled the competition on their way to the gold medal, winning games by an average of 43 points and setting a new, ridiculously high standard for the game.
For Barbosa, watching the Dream Team play that fabled year gave shape to his own dream. “We didn’t have a TV to watch,” he says, “but a couple of friends at school had a TV and satellite, and that was where I’d go every day to watch Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. Watching them made me want to play in the NBA.”
He wasn’t alone. In the two decades since the Dream Team took Barcelona by storm, basketball has gone global. At the start of the current season, 84 international players, representing 37 different countries and territories, were on NBA rosters—almost a fourfold increase since 1992. Once unpronounceable names like Nowitzki, Ginóbili, and Türkoğlu now trip off the tongues of American fans almost as easily as Pierce, Bryant, and James.
And it’s no longer just Americans who are die-hard fans of the game. Some 50 percent of the NBA’s Facebook followers are from outside the U.S. When Barbosa played for Brazil in London, at the 2012 Olympics, demand was so high for tickets, and the games sold out so quickly, that he couldn’t even get seats for his family. “Basketball,” he told me, “was the number one ticket at the Games!” Barbosa has participated three times in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, which enlists international stars as ambassadors for the sport, and sends them back to their home continents to do community outreach in education, health, and wellness, while also running clinics to promote the growth of the game.
Emboldened by the surging interest in basketball around the world, the NBA has now decided to mount a direct challenge to soccer’s global dominance. To kick off the 2012 season, the league staged preseason games in Istanbul, Berlin, Milan, Mexico City, Barcelona, Beijing, and Shanghai—and they all sold out. Capitalizing on the spike in interest generated by the Olympics, the NBA even staged a regular-season game in London between the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. Games this year will be televised in 216 nations or territories, in 46 languages. International media rights, licensing, and merchandising are estimated to have netted the league $450 million in 2012. David Stern, the NBA commissioner and architect of the league’s international expansion, said in a recent ESPN Radio interview that in the next 20 years he envisions U.S. teams making long trips to play teams in a European league of the NBA. He himself has decided to resign next year, but he has no doubts about where things are headed. “I think multiple NBA international teams,” he told ESPN. “Twenty years from now? For sure.”
Looking to copy the wild success of soccer’s global love fest, Stern has even flirted with putting the NBA’s money and marketing muscle behind some kind of a basketball World Cup, which they’d sponsor in partnership with FIBA, the sport’s international association. FIBA already holds a world championship every four years, which is popular in some participating countries but barely registers notice in the U.S. compared with the Olympics. But Stern and the NBA team owners dislike the current arrangement of releasing their top players to compete in the Olympics, where they risk injury and fatigue without any financial upside for the league. Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has gone further than Stern, suggesting more than once that the NBA should just run its own World Cup. “If done correctly,” he has said, “it can be NBA-owned and operated and have the potential to be just as large as the World Cup of soccer. That is a product, in my opinion, we want to own, not share.”
Barbosa, for his part, is focusing on making it in the NBA—and looking ahead optimistically to 2016. That’s when Brazil will host the Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, which might just be the coming-out party that Brazilian basketball has been waiting for. “Basketball today is getting really well known,” he says. “We’ve got four NBA players who are recognized in Brazil. The national team is doing really well. It’s never going to be bigger than football [soccer], but it’s finally becoming the second big sport in the country.”
Barbosa appears to be as much in awe of his own journey from the favela to the parquet as anyone—if not more so. “As a kid,” he says, “I used to watch Larry Bird on TV. Then years later I’m playing for the Pacers, and there he is rebounding balls for me.” He looks up at the original Celtics banners that line the rafters of the gym. “And now I’m playing in his house. You never know how life is going to turn out.”