The NBA’s global reach has brought in its best players

The NBA’s global reach has brought in its best players

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports



The NBA’s global reach has brought in its best players

By Luke Mauro  |  Last updated 5/10/24

With Nikola Jokic being named NBA MVP this week, that runs the streak to six straight MVP awards being won by an international player.

In fact, the top four vote-getters for the award this year were all from different countries. Rookie of the Year Victor Wembanyama and Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert are from France.

If Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saved the NBA, Michael Jordan and “The Dream Team,” certainly made the league international. 

At the time of “The Dream Team,” Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) was 14 years old, Pau Gasol (Spain) was 12 and Tony Parker (France) was 11.

These three players went on to combine for 20 All-Star appearances and seven NBA championships. All three were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

It was a big deal when Toni Kukoc came from Croatia to play for the Chicago Bulls in 1993. But 30 years later, the NBA started this season with a record 125 international players from 40 different countries. 

The top three scorers in the NBA this year also hailed from those international countries.

Prior to Steve Nash in 2006, there had only been one international player to ever win NBA MVP (Hakeem Olajuwon, 1994). Now it’s happened for six straight years.

These are all great things for the NBA and it’s global popularity. But what about the impact on the United States?

It’s not nationalistic to ponder the question. Some of the most popular sports in this country are the ones that were invented in the U.S.

Meanwhile, hockey and soccer are two sports filled with international stars that have struggled to catch on in the U.S.

Only 29% of this year’s NHL players were born in the U.S, which is actually an all-time high. Coinciding with that is also an all-time high in viewership this year. Is that correlation? Or causation?

Ask your friends which version of the TV show “The Office” they prefer to watch. What about the various versions of the competition show, “[insert country] got talent?”

The face of the NBA has always been an American-born player: Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

And now, despite the best players not necessarily being from this country, the one getting the most attention might be Anthony Edwards. 

Since the start of the NBA playoffs, the two NBA players with the most media views online? James and Edwards. Edwards has also gained the most Instagram followers of any NBA player this postseason.

All of this despite the three other remaining Western Conference teams being led by international stars.

It’s also Edwards who is being compared to Jordan, who many still consider to be the greatest basketball player of all time. 

The last few NBA seasons have featured some of the lowest ratings, right on par with that awkward phase between Jordan and James in the early 2000s, despite the league currently having so much star power. 

The NBA has never been more global and inclusive, and the talent has never been better, but will the attention still be the same?

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