Monday, August 18, 2008

An Inappropriate Response

As an increasing number of NBA players set sail for Europe, fans of professional basketball in the United States have grown anxious. The future of the NBA has never seemed more uncertain. While some commentators deride the league as an increasingly "niche" interest, the quality of the game is threatened by a potential flood of mid-level talent overseas in pursuit of more lucrative contracts than the NBA salary structure allows for. Now that major stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have spoken openly about their willingness to play abroad for the right price, the worst fears of many American basketball fans seem to be only a few short years from coming to fruition.

Although the situation may not be as dire as some make it out to be, the anxiety is nevertheless justified. Never in my life (never in the history of professional basketball, really) has a foreign league legitimately challenged the NBA. Although the NBA will almost certainly remain the preeminent professional basketball organization for years to come, the landscape of the game is changing, and changing irreversibly.

Although anxiety is justified, it is often coupled with an arrogant nationalism that I find unjustifiable. Many are ready to accuse NBA players of not merely acting in their self-interest but also of treason, as if playing in the NBA was some sort of sacrificial testament to national pride.

The idea that an individual must practice his profession in his place of origin is laughable, and a standard to which Americans in no way hold foreign players. The more deceptively fallacious criticism is that if the players were true "competitors" they would remain in the higher quality NBA rather than chase lucrative contracts overseas.

As far as the level of play exists currently, the NBA is the finest league in the world, and as I said a moment ago it is sure to remain so for some time. But if James and Bryant choose to go to Europe? Could you legitimately claim that the European leagues would be so much less competitive than the United States if the most talented players in the world played in Europe? Obviously, even if the biggest superstars went abroad, the depth of the talent in Europe would be unlikely to equal that of the NBA for sometime. But the idea that NBA players should not be able to to play abroad because they don't already play abroad (which is fundamentally the argument) is absurdly tautological.

I'll be honest: I would like for the NBA to remain the finest basketball league in the world, not because it is here in the United States, but because it is the only league to which I consistently have access. If the Euro leagues were given greater airtime on American cable (something I wish would happen, NBA migration or no NBA migration), I would only casually mourn the passing of the NBA dominance.*

Many Americans also underestimate the upside of current NBA superstars abroad. We may loose a generation of the highest caliber talent, plucked from our midst by Russian oil barons and Greek media moguls, but we have a world of talent to win. Currently the finest athletes the world over dedicate their efforts toward soccer. If we were able to present them with a consistently exciting and high quality product, we have the potential to attract a whole new generation of top quality athletes from across the globe. The potential of such a development may seem distant, but only a few months ago the idea that we would all be so threatened by the success of professional basketball in Europe would have seemed laughable. Never underestimate the speed with which things may change.

Much of this is pure speculation. The NBA could easily make certain adjustments to its salary cap system, subsequently halting the movement of professional players abroad. It's also more than possible that neither LeBron or Kobe are as interested in playing abroad as they claim to be. But the growth of the game globally is not something to fear. We should rejoice in the increasing international success of the game we love, instead of allowing our arrogance to trap us in the muddy waters of mindless nationalism.

*The one unavoidable drawback of professional basketball's looming global expansion is the increasing infrequency with which we would see specific players live.

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