One of basketball’s all-time greats Kobe Bryant recently appeared at Nike Town, Oxford Circus to promote the beginning of an eight-year brand partnership between the NBA, the sport’s paramount league, and the shoe company. While there Bryant gave several nods to the increasing wealth of talent entering the league from overseas, in particular from Europe. ‘’Basketball’s truly become an international game’’, he said, himself having spent many of his early years learning the sport’s fundamentals in Italy. ‘’Players in Europe are starting to believe that they can grow up to become some of the greatest basketball players of all time’’.
Bryant’s words reflect a welcome, albeit gradual change in perception surrounding the NBA. No longer are European prospects so readily stereotyped as too soft, too unathletic, or too stiff for the highest level of competition. American fans do not seem to cast their eyes quite as suspiciously as they might once have when their team acquires the latest European ‘project’ player, or any international player for that matter.
Yet the one country that seems to be ignominiously missing from this wholescale growth in basketball is the U.K
Of course, this is not to say that the NBA world has rid itself entirely of all underlying xenophobia. It was only two years ago that Kristaps Porzingis, now very much one of the New York Knicks’ most beloved stars, was subjected to a chorus of boos by the team’s fans upon his selection in the 2015 draft. Thankfully Porzingis, being the industrious, 7ft 3in Latvian that he is, was left unfazed by the hostile reception. In the two seasons that have passed since his arrival he has performed spectacularly, charting high in rebounds and points scored. His success has not only proved the naysayers wrong, but more importantly solidified and accelerated these changes in perception regarding European players. Certainly, Knicks fans will think twice about jeering the next unfamiliar-sounding name to come out of the scouting cauldron.
Porzingis’ story however is just one within a far weightier narrative. On the opening night of the NBA season just commenced there was a record-high 64 European players with their names listed on team roster sheets. A stark contrast to twenty years ago where just 19 from the continent actively competed. Excitingly, a new set of younger, more dynamic players seems to be emerging, ready to eclipse the successes of the generation that came before them.
Within this medley of potential stars are names like Dennis Schröder, Nikola Jokić, and Lauri Markkanen. Not to mention Giannis Antetokounmpo. ‘The Greek Freak’, as he is affectionately known by American audiences, currently sits second on the ‘points per game’ leaderboard for the season so far. With his performances receiving increasing adulation in the press, Antetokounmpo has already cemented himself as a worthy candidate for the 2017/2018 ‘Most Valuable Player’ award. The rise of Antetokounpo, along with many other Europeans, does indicate an increasingly symbiotic relationship between the continent and the NBA.
Kobe Bryant’s words of confidence at Nike’s promotional event in Oxford Circus should only stand to benefit this relationship even further. Yet there is something about Bryant’s speech that nags, something that seems incongruous. He is there in London, projecting himself to the British public, speaking ever so highly of the league’s European contingent, yet the one country that seems to be ignominiously missing from this wholescale growth in basketball is the U.K.
On the opening night of the NBA season just commenced there was a record-high 64 European players with their names listed on team roster sheets
For years Britain have had just one remarkable presence in the NBA, the Los Angeles Laker’s Luol Deng. The Sudanese-born journeyman, now aged 32, has played for four teams in the league. Most notably he endured a lengthy ten-year stint at the Chicago Bulls between 2004 and 2014 where he was twice named an NBA All-Star. Yet beyond Luol Deng there is little for the British basketball fan to shout about. In recent times most prospects have struggled to make any sort of inroad into the NBA – although the British-born Ogugua Aunoby, picked 23rd in the 2017 draft, does offer a small glimmer of hope.
Outside of the NBA, the quality of the Britain’s premier domestic league, the BBL, continues to wane significantly behind some of its European counterparts. It has now been ten years since any British team participated in top level continental competition. The last attempt was made by the Guilford Heat in 2007-2008. Battling it out in the second-tier of the Euroleague, they lost all of their ten games.
So why has British basketball lagged so pitifully? A straightforward way to answer this question would be to point towards the lack of governmental support. Following a strikingly poor performance by team GB at the London Olympics UK Sport unexpectedly decided to withdraw all funding. British Basketball performance chairman Roger Moreland was left ‘aghast’ by what appeared to be a clear bias against underdeveloped sport. London 2012 championed the notion of a widespread legacy. Five years later, it now seems that this legacy was only really supposed to manifest where those at the top wanted it to, only where it was economical enough to invest in.
Of course, recent governmental neglect does not account for decades of underachievement and apathy. Basketball, simply put, has never been that popular in the U.K. Breaking the established triumvirate of British sport, that of football, rugby, and cricket, seems almost an insurmountable task. Many question whether we have space for another major team sport to preoccupy ourselves with. Certainly, participation rates in Basketball remain relatively underwhelming. A 2015 survey found only 367,500 active players. In such circumstances can we really expect huge numbers of British players to be making it into the NBA.
Breaking the established triumvirate of British sport, that of football, rugby, and cricket, seems almost an insurmountable task
Yet all of this is not to say that the situation cannot be remedied. One positive has been the sport’s increasing exposure in the U.K. BT sport now streams several NBA games a week for those willing to combat the late-night kick-off times, while London hosts the occasional NBA match-up as part of the league’s globalisation strategy. If basketball continues to have this kind of exposure then who knows what kind of multiplier effect there could be. I myself am hopeful that in a decade or two’s time Britain will be fully integrated into the wider trend of European growth.