The United States of America used to represent the international gold standard for pretty much everything.
Not so long ago, we were envied for our economic system, our political system, our technology, our popular culture, and our automobiles. Beyond that, we were respected for our military might. Even in countries where the leaders hated us, the average citizens walked around with Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen T-shirts and watched American TV sitcoms in translation.
For a variety of reasons, much of that admiration has slipped in recent years. So is there anything we developed as a society that is still being embraced elsewhere on the planet?
While most countries around the world are still struggling with differences in language, religion, philosophies of government, and even sports (when is the last time you watched cricket on TV?), that game played with a round ball and a hoop is rapidly becoming universal — even more so, perhaps, than soccer/football.
With the NCAA basketball tournament now on our doorstep, a glance at some of the rosters of American college teams might surprise you. It’s rare, anymore, to find an American team without at least one or two foreign players. Top-ranked Gonzaga has four players from Lithuania, France, Mali, and Russia. Syracuse, the team I follow, is represented by sons of Mali, Slovenia, The Netherlands, and Canada. Even the University of Maine has almost as many “imports” on its squad (Latvia, England, Sweden, Mali, Canada, Ukraine, and Turkey) as it does homegrown recruits.
This has been a relatively recent phenomenon, but perhaps not a surprising one. In many ways, foreign players and American teams have gradually developed a symbiotic relationship.
Almost every country on the globe has embraced basketball on some level. Many have now started professional leagues — a bonanza for American players whose careers once ended at the gates of the National Basketball Association. Jimmer Fredette, the college player of the year at Brigham Young University in 2011, proved a bit too short and a step slow for the NBA, so he went to play first in Greece, then China, becoming a superstar and a millionaire in the process.
The problem for young players in Europe, Africa, and Asia is that they often grow up in places without organized basketball teams, which makes it difficult to develop their ability and gain exposure. Thus, many American high school basketball squads — male and female — now include players from overseas, helping them attract the attention of college scouts long before that might have occurred in their native country. It also allows them to adjust to a new language and culture at an earlier age.
As Joel Samples wrote in the Depaul Journal of Sports Law: “Without the necessary focus and infrastructure, it would be nearly impossible for African basketball players to reach the professional level… Nigerian native and University of Kansas star Udoka Azubuike went from being a player who ‘started playing a little bit in Africa, but it was mainly just dribbling the ball’ and ‘didn’t know much about the game of basketball or the rules,’ to being one of the top professional prospects in the world. The level of coaches and players at the collegiate level could be considered a factor for why athletes come to America at younger and younger ages to attend school and play sports like basketball. ”
Simultaneously, the Internet and ESPN have created American basketball fans in more and more international markets.
Basketball is, however, a game that can be played virtually anywhere — all it requires is a ball and a hoop. For that reason, perhaps, the sport has a history of welcoming individuals who grew up in poverty, whether it was an American inner-city neighborhood or an African village.
Of course, it also helps to be tall. For that reason, there are relatively few high-level college and NBA players from Latin America or parts of Asia, but quite a few (more than 200 currently playing professionally in the U.S.) from Africa, where “tallness” genes are more prevalent.
The four foreign players on the current Syracuse roster, for example, are all over 6-foot-7. Three are close to seven-foot tall. It’s fairly easy for American college coaches to find talented guards and small forwards at home, but the law of averages makes extremely tall individuals a relative rarity. Many of those have “outgrown their bodies” and lack the coordination or physical strength to excel in competitive sports. Expanding a school’s recruiting base overseas deepens the pool of prospects demonstrating what is currently called “length,” and many college recruiters now spend time covering basketball tournaments in Europe.
This influx of overseas players has perhaps been hardest on sports announcers and broadcasters, who often find themselves dealing with virtually unpronounceable (for an America) names.
For their part, the imported players usually adjust rather quickly. Being on a team automatically unites them with peers who are eager to help them become Americanized.
During the first season that Marek Dolezaj of Slovenia played in Syracuse, one of his coaches was asked how the 6-foot-10 player was adjusting.
“Pretty well, I think,” the coach replied. “He’s already dating a cheerleader.”
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."