Few jerseys are as recognizable as the purple-and-black No. 24 (or No. 8, if you go back far enough), donned by a current player who will be elected to the Hall of Fame as soon as he’s eligible. Few players are as respected as the man whose name has become virtually synonymous with a poisonous species of snake from sub-Saharan Africa.
But what led to the Los Angeles Lakers All-Star shooting guard turning into the legend he is today?
For starters, how about everything?
Everyone’s definitions of stars and superstars seems to vary, but you’d find precious few people who would dispute No. 24′s status as a superstar. Though I’m one of them, that’s only because he falls more into the realm of superduperstars, a classification occupied by only a few players throughout the course of NBA history.
Bryant simply transcends the game.
Even now that he’s 36 years old and fighting to come back from two major injuries while carrying a mediocre Lakers squad, there’s still a widespread belief that he won’t skip a beat. No one has ever done what he’s trying to achieve, but there’s still this underlying assumption that Bryant is a superhuman, basketball-playing entity who is somehow beyond the reach of laws that apply to mere mortals.
Isaac Newton may have stood on the shoulders of giants while furthering the pursuits of physics and mathematics, but Bryant somehow looms even larger, unaffected by all those laws Newton helped quantify and explain.
Seriously, go out, and ask a few basketball fans why they believe in Kobe Bryant. Chances are, you’ll hear a few different answers of the same iteration: Because he’s Kobe Bryant. Some might even include an expletive as Bryant’s fake middle name.
It’s a silly argument. Tautological as it gets, it’s supplying no form of rhetoric other than an unsubstantiated opinion.
Yet somehow, it still makes sense.
Again, simply because this is Kobe Bryant we’re talking about.
It was a ridiculous convergence of factors—some controllable and others uncontrollable—that got us to this point, and that’s saying nothing of Bryant’s immense popularity, both domestically and internationally. Just think all the way back to the beginning of his career, when a precocious teenager was drafted out of high school by the Charlotte Hornets and almost immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Whatever involvement Kobe had in that process, it happened. And it allowed him to play for what’s arguably the sport’s No. 1 attraction. Though the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls would all disagree for various reasons, the Lakers are the league’s marquee franchise, enjoying gargantuan levels of support from virtually all areas of the globe.
Anytime you combine a captivating athlete with a franchise that’s always in the global microscope, sparks are going to fly. And Kobe promoted them by being so damn good early in his career, even if his first All-Star appearance was a little bit ridiculous. Plus, the titles flowed in during the afro-bearing, No. 8-wearing portion of his career, setting the stage for a widely viewed prime and twilight to his NBA tenure.
Let’s not overlook how rare it is for a superstar to spend his entire career in one uniform.
There have been negative aspects to Bryant’s life with the Lakers—the time he spent in Colorado early in his career, as well as the summers in which he was no longer satisfied with the direction and success of the organization—but he’s worn purple and gold throughout his entire time as an NBA player. From brash teenager to sage, unfiltered veteran, Kobe has gone through every stage of an NBA life without changing colors.
Nor can Shaquille O’Neal, Ray Allen, LeBron James or virtually any other star of the modern era. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are the exceptions, though neither has risen to the level of worldwide popularity and unmitigated scrutiny that Bryant has both enjoyed and put up with throughout his time playing professional basketball.
How many people truly fit the definition of a household name?
If you walked into the home of a family that had as little interest in the NBA as possible, which players could they name? Due to how much they dominate the news cycle, James and Bryant would likely be mentioned. But beyond that? Even Kevin Durant hasn’t spent enough time making headlines, and the rest of the big guns—O’Neal and Michael Jordan, above all else—are long retired.
If you walked into a sports bar instead, you could gauge how much conversation just saying a name sparked. People always seem interested in arguing about Bryant, whether discussing the strength of his career resume, his ability to excel upon his return from injury or whether he or O’Neal was the leader of those early-2000 L.A. teams that were so successful.
Who else passes the bar-fight test? James again. Maybe Derrick Rose. But beyond that, you’ll be met with some indifference by at least some portion of the otherwise-interested crowd.
Everyone seems to care about Bryant, and that’s not a statement that’s limited to the United States. China, above any other country, has a torrid love affair with the future Hall of Famer, as Chris Ballard carefully detailed for Sports Illustrated in one of the best sports articles of 2014:
As for Kobe, here in China he really is, as the sign reads, “forever young.” Here the local media dotes. The fans not only adore him but arrive with no expectations beyond glimpsing the icon. Hang around a Lakers’ road hotel in the U.S., and you’ll see groupies and autograph hounds awaiting the bus, and if the players don’t acknowledge them, angry 40-year-old men will berate them. In Shanghai, I saw one group of nearly a dozen teenagers outside the Shangri-La hotel at 10 in the morning one day; at 11:30 p.m. they were still there, waiting, hopeful, asking any Westerner who entered if they knew when Kobe might return. They carried a succession of handwritten placards, in English, that, one holding each, read “kobe can we take photo with u [heart sign]?”
This kind of unconditional love is rare. Growing up, Kobe received it, like most kids, from his parents. Now he gets it from 17-year-old Chinese kids.
There’s no telling why exactly this popularity sprang out of nothingness, though Ballard speculates it happened organically, with a hardworking people respecting and admiring the unmatched dedication that Bryant has shown to his craft.
Regardless of the reason, it exists.
In fact, ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell reported during the 2013 offseason that Bryant was the most popular player in the NBA from 2008-09 until last summer, when James surpassed him.
Think about that. It took four MVPs and two titles for the best basketball player in the world to move past a star who should be aging.
A summer later, Rovell wrote that James had become the most popular male athlete in America, but let’s not overlook where Bryant ranked.
Keep in mind that the Lakers superstar was coming off a season in which he’d played only a handful of games, limited by an Achilles injury during the early portion of the ill-fated campaign and a major knee injury after his brief return. Despite being largely out of the public eye for the vast majority of the year, Bryant remained the fifth-most popular male athlete in the country, trailing only James, Jordan, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning.
This isn’t the result of a normal career.
An Abnormal Career
It’s a testimony to everything Bryant has done in his NBA life.
He’s stayed with the same franchise, which again just happens to be the most popular one in the Association, and excelled throughout his career. He’s won titles, consciously—and convincingly—imitated the greatest player of all time and displayed a near-psychopathic ability to avoid distractions and believe in himself unfailingly.
“Armed with unequaled self-confidence and an insatiable desire to prevail over opponents—both literal and figurative—on his own terms, ferrying Los Angeles’ hopes has become Bryant’s preferred way of life,” Dan Favale writes for Bleacher Report. “He wouldn’t have the Lakers entrusting their fate to anyone else. He wouldn’t share the strain of expectations even if he could.”
Bryant has drilled countless game-winning shots, shaking off the misses so vigorously but simultaneously with so much ease, that everyone in the arena believes the ball is finding the bottom of the net when it next leaves his fingertips while the last seconds of a game tick off the clock. He’s posterized what seems like every great big man during his era of NBA history. He’s crossed over myriad opponents, leaving them clutching their ankles as he rises for another successfully converted jumper.
In his prime, he was even a lockdown defender, capable of impacting a game immensely on that end of the floor. Though he’s devolved into a ball-watching, opportunistic defender who thrives on his previously earned reputation, he remains capable of serving as a shut-down one-on-one player to this day.
“It was probably the best defense somebody’s ever played on me since I’ve been in the league,” Brandon Jennings said about the 2-guard, via The Associated Press’ Greg Beacham, after a January contest during the 2012-13 season.
He wasn’t the first to feel the wrath of a jilted Bryant on that end of the court, and he certainly won’t be the last.
Bryant’s game has constantly evolved, as he’s developed some of the best footwork in NBA history to counteract his falling athleticism. When the need arises, he’s served as a de facto point guard, piling up assists and eschewing those volume-shooting outings for the better of his team.
He’s by no means a perfect player, but he’s always going to do his darnedest to ensure he comes as close as possible to that descriptor. Well, as close as possible to his version of that descriptor, as Bryant’s idea of a perfect player doesn’t always show a perfect correlation with everyone else’s.
What he’s done in the NBA is irrelevant here. There will be players who match his number of titles as a key player. There will be stars who put together similar statistical resumes. Someday, another standout will score more points than Bryant has to his credit when he’s done lacing up his sneakers for a final time.
That much feels inevitable, even if it’s hard to fathom in the present.
More important is how Bryant has risen to such prominence. That’s where the tireless work ethic, nonstop improvements and tinkering, willingness to play out his career with a single franchise and knack for handling the spotlight all come into play.
And that’s why there won’t be another Bryant.
No Potential Replacement in the Current Landscape
There are plenty of superstars in the current iteration of the NBA. In fact, James seems awfully close to superduperstar status, if he hasn’t reached that popularity nirvana already, and Kevin Durant won’t be far behind if he keeps improving each and every season of his already impressive career.
But no one has been mythologized like Bryant. Plus, each star has a notable flaw in the resume he’s submitting while trying to walk in the shooting guard’s size-14 footsteps.
James has already changed teams multiple times, alienating the Cleveland Cavaliers fanbase before returning to his hometown team after winning two championships with the Miami Heat. Even though he’s the most popular athlete in the sport now—objectively speaking, based on those earlier popularity reports from Rovell—his career has been filled with too many twists to enjoy the unbridled adoration so many project upon Bryant.
As for Durant, he simply hasn’t been as successful.
Now gearing up for his eighth professional season, he’s ringless and has yet to develop the following that Bryant enjoyed at such a young age. He’s widely viewed—whether it’s fair or not—as the league’s second fiddle, a status that might be different if he’d already three-peated, as Bryant had already done at Durant’s age, young as that may be.
Who else is going to get there?
Anthony Davis is the next big thing, but he’s playing for the small-market New Orleans Pelicans. Ditto for Andrew Wiggins, who’s now set to toil away in relative obscurity for the nondescript Minnesota Timberwolves.
Poking holes in the candidacy of the league’s other young up-and-comers is a similarly easy process.
Plus, the way we view the NBA has changed.
The role of analytics has risen rather dramatically, shaping the way the game is played and viewed by fans. Though some remain stubbornly opposed to the impact of numbers, they’re doing so at their own peril, passing up a chance to glean valuable information and become more intelligent consumers of an incredibly complicated, ever-evolving and often awe-inspiring product.
Bryant had the luxury of playing in the era just before everything was scrutinized. Basketball was quite popular in the early-2000s, but the sport wasn’t a 24/7 entity in which each move was broken down. Allen Iverson was allowed to loft up 25 shots per game while shooting low percentages from the field, and hero ball pervaded late-game situations.
That doesn’t fly anymore. Well, it doesn’t fly to the same extent.
But that offensive freedom—the ability to operate in a one-on-however-many situation—allowed Bryant to start his career in soaring fashion, then continue on his merry way as the game changed around him. It’s hard to fathom any player in this day and age recording an 81-point game, for example, despite this particular 2-guard doing so only eight years ago.
“Still, the thought of anyone so much as scoring 70 points in a single game—in a league that’s gone to great lengths to encourage ball movement and spacing and de-emphasize isolation play—is a fleeting one, at best,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Josh Martin while looking back at what has arguably become the most famous game of Bryant’s incredible carer.
So, regardless of whether anyone touches that 81-point milestone, will the NBA be able to replace Bryant?
Just as Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and the rest of the stars from the post-Jordan era helped the Association move past the absence of the greatest player the sport has ever seen, remaining ever-popular all the while, Davis, Wiggins and the new breed of basketball superstars will help the league fill the void left by this particular shooting guard.
However, that in no way means the Association will replace the man, the myth and the legend named Kobe Bryant.
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Kobe Bryant is back for what could be his penultimate NBA season. But who’s with him?
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Much has changed on the global basketball scene since the original Dream Team stormed its way to Olympic gold some 22 years ago. The sport is now a fixture in most (if not all) of the countries on Earth. Last season, the NBA boasted 92 international players hailing from 39 different countries and should feature more on both counts this fall. Spain, from which five of those aforementioned 92 came, is once again the epicenter of basketball’s biggest event of the summer: the newly rebranded FIBA World Cup of Basketball.
As far as basketball has come in recent decades, it still has a long way to go to catch up to the world’s pre-eminent sport: soccer. While FIFA‘s World Cup is a global phenomenon filled with excitement and drama, with every match beamed into homes across the Seven Seas, FIBA‘s version has yet to garner such broadcast clout (only Team USA games have been broadcast on television domestically thus far).
While FIBA World Cup may never enjoy the same worldwide cachet as the FIFA World Cup, there are a few signs that basketball is closing the gap on soccer’s stronghold as the world’s most popular sport.
Sizing Up the Competition
To be sure, basketball has got its work cut out for it. By just about any measure of popularity—from revenue to viewership to social media—soccer’s lead would seem nigh on insurmountable.
According to the consulting firm A.T. Kearney, basketball, as represented by the NBA, constituted about six percent of the global sports market in terms of revenue generated in 2009, at 2.7 billion Euros. Soccer, on the other hand, swallowed a staggering 43 percent of the market, with a take of 19.5 billion Euros.
Much has changed in the last five years, though, particularly for basketball. According to collective bargaining guru Larry Coon, the NBA’s latest increase in its salary cap points to a projected basketball-related income (BRI) of $4.75 billion for the league in 2014-15. That number could jump considerably in the years to come, thanks in large part to the flood of revenue that’s expected to flow from the NBA’s upcoming renewal of its national television pacts.
For the moment, then, that leaves the NBA slightly behind the English Premier League in total revenue. According to BBC News’ Bill Wilson, the EPL broke the £3 billion mark—which translates to right around $5 billion—for the first time ever in 2013-14.
Unlike the NBA in basketball, the EPL isn’t the only billion-dollar conglomeration in the soccer world. According to Deloitte, Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, Brazil’s Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A and the Russian Premier League all checked in above $1 billion in revenue as of 2012-13.
And that’s not including the 22 other soccer leagues around the world—including MLS and the second-division groups in England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan—that rake in more money than does basketball’s second-biggest association, Spain’s Liga ACB, which brought in just under 107 million Euros (i.e. a shade over $140 million) in 2011-12, per AS.com’s Alfredo Matilla and Juan Jimenez.
Some of Spain’s biggest basketball teams, including Barcelona and Real Madrid, are directly affiliated with their soccer counterparts. The latter, though, easily dwarf the former.
“Clearly, the soccer team is the dominant one,” said Bill Duffy, one of the most prominent agents in basketball. “It’s the most heavily financed. It has the highest sponsorship. They’re much more lucrative, and there’s a much bigger commitment. Basketball is there, but it’s clearly second fiddle, and it’s not even close.”
To its credit, the NBA has a significant leg up on most other major sports leagues in terms of star power. None of the other North American fixtures can boast a roster of global icons that so much as sniffs the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, to name but a few.
But on that scale, even the NBA’s biggest names can’t quite hold a candle to their soccer counterparts. According to Fan Page List, the four most-followed athletes on social media are all international soccer stars. Cristiano Ronaldo, who leads them all with more than 126 million followers between Facebook and Twitter, has a bigger following than Bryant, James, Durant and Michael Jordan combined.
Whichever way you slice it, soccer still owns basketball in just about any battle over humanity’s most popular sport.
Room for Growth
That’s not to say, though, that basketball doesn‘t have plenty going for it or that it won’t be able to loosen soccer’s grip over the global sports scene in the years and decades to come.
For one, basketball’s Rolodex of internationally marketable stars is already strong and grows stronger with each passing year. The absences of James, Durant, Bryant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and a host of other household names from the FIBA World Cup has merely allowed up-and-comers like Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and James Harden to seize the spotlight—and for Derrick Rose to begin to reclaim his rightful share.
Many of the game’s biggest names are already known quantities, if not bona fide rock stars, outside of the U.S. Some, like James and Bryant, regularly visit China, the world’s biggest basketball bastion beyond America’s borders. According to The New York Times‘ Ben Sin, the NBA is nothing short of a force to be reckoned with in the world’s most populous nation:
Now, the N.B.A. is one of the most popular brands in China, and the only American sports league with a significant following throughout Asia. The league has a combined 70 million followers on Sina Weibo and Tencent’s microblog platforms, compared with fewer than 400,000 followers for the National Football League.
Superstars like Bryant have played a pivotal part in basketball’s worldwide expansion. That, in turn, has been the product of a sustained marketing effort overseas by the sport’s most important power players.
The NBA, in particular, has taken up arms in this cause at all levels. Its Basketball Without Borders initiative has brought players, coaches and other team and league officials to cities all over the world to teach the game and touch the lives of those who want to play it.
The league has been sending its teams overseas since 1978, when the champion Washington Bullets lost to long-time Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. It wasn’t until 2013, though, that The Association formalized its foreign exhibitions under the banner of the NBA Global Games. The upcoming preseason will feature contests in Berlin, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Beijing, with regular-season games to be played in Mexico City and London thereafter.
These games aren’t entirely unlike the summer friendlies that Europe’s biggest soccer clubs play in Africa, Asia and North America every year. The biggest difference is in the fervor generated, which is to be expected, given soccer’s continued primacy on the world stage.
The NBA and FIBA are not alone in their attempts to extend basketball’s footprint abroad. The sports apparel industry as a whole, and Nike and Adidas in particular, has a significant stake in seeing hoops become a bigger athletic habit across the map.
“The shoe companies rely heavily on NBA stars to drive their basketball business,” said Marc Isenberg, the author of Money Players: A Guide to Succeed in Sports, Business & Life for Current and Future Pro Athletes. Hence, those stars have long been and continue to be leveraged heavily by Nike, Adidas and the like to grow the game abroad, in large part to sell sneakers.
Whatever the impetus for its spread, basketball has proven to be nothing if not contagious as an activity. “Basketball’s basketball. It knows no limits or borders,” said Mike Peck, who most recently spent two years as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers’ D-League affiliate. “That’s the beauty of the sport.”
It’s already caught on in a big way throughout Asia and Oceania, with strong presences in China and Australia and a burgeoning initiative in India. None of those countries, though, can compete with the per-capita basketball fervor of the Philippines.
“Any neighborhood you go to, there’s always a hoop on the street,” said Leo Balayon, an associate head coach at Bethesda University in Los Angeles. Balayon grew up in the Philippines before playing and coaching basketball around the world, with stops in China and Australia along the way.
“When you talk on a non-personal level, it’s usually either politics or basketball,” Balayon added. “It’s everything in the Philippines.”
It helps that the game has been in the Philippines for over a century. Then again, the YMCA did what it could to spread basketball all over the globe in the late 1800s, with exhibitions in France, Japan, India, China and what was then known as Persia.
The game was, has been and continues to be a solid fit in Canada, the birthplace of basketball’s progenitor, Dr. James Naismith. As is the case with soccer in so many countries, hockey holds a strong sway over the sports scene north of the border, but basketball has made significant inroads over the last two decades or so. Vince Carter’s meteoric rise to slam-dunk stardom with the Toronto Raptors touched off a grassroots revolution across Canada whose fruits (i.e. Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Nik Stauskas, Tyler Ennis, Kelly Olynyk) are just now being brought to bear in the NBA.
“I think when [the Toronto Raptors] came in, we had an NBA team to watch every night,” Stauskas told Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel. ”I used to watch every game growing up. And I went to some games. Having the Raptors around was definitely a positive.”
And it’s not as though basketball has been blacked out entirely in soccer’s most devoted strongholds, particularly in Europe. Spain, Germany, Greece and Italy are among those that are home to solid domestic basketball leagues on the continent. The best club teams on the continent—including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Maccabi Tel Aviv (i.e. Cavs coach David Blatt’s old haunt) and Olympiacos—regularly participate in the annual Euroleague. “I think that many of those teams could compete in the NBA,” said Graham Boone, the director of basketball operations at Tandem Sports and Entertainment.
The Grassroots of the Game
That may be so, but competing for the attention that their soccer counterparts soak up is another story. Any attempt by basketball to loosen soccer’s sports hegemony would require a long-range approach, one that must begin at the grassroots level and could take generations to truly blossom.
The powers-that-be in the basketball world have been hard at work for some time developing the game’s infrastructure overseas, though there’s still plenty to be done. Even in Australia, an affluent country that also happens to be a burgeoning hoops hotbed, quality courts are few and far between.
“When you’re in the States, you’ll find a nice high school gym pretty much anywhere. [Australia] doesn’t have that,” said David Nurse, a professional shooting coach who’s played and run clinics all over the world. “The best gym that they had in the city of Adelaide, where I was playing, was equivalent to an average high school gym, and that was for a professional team down there.”
Nurse also noted that the quality of coaching in other parts of the world isn’t exactly up to snuff—even in China, where the NBA has had offices since 1990. “There’s a lot of talent over there,” Nurse said, “but they’re just brought down by their coaches and their skills are never developed at a high level like you see in the states.”
Without the proper resources available, much of that foreign talent is left to lie fallow. The good thing is, according to Peck, who spent three weeks in China with Nike this summer, “there’s no shortage of enthusiasm for the game abroad.”
“There’s just not a solid grassroots infrastructure and I think they’re just scratching the surface on it now,” he said of the situation in China. “There’s definitely a level of passion and interest for that.”
Another explosion in the game’s popularity, then, may well require a more effective and efficient means of tapping into the latent enthusiasm that exists for basketball, in addition to stirring up further fervor.
Part of that comes down to unearthing stars who can serve as tentpoles for basketball in other countries. Former MVPs like Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash have done wonders to drum up interest in the game in Germany and Canada, respectively.
But neither can quite hold a candle to what Yao Ming was able to do in China. ”It changed the game completely, singlehandedly,” said Duffy, who’s long represented Yao. “If it weren’t for Yao Ming, basketball would be much lower on the totem pole.
“Typically what happens when you have a star player in a country emerge, like Yao Ming in China in basketball, there’s more eyeballs on it and there’s more people participating.”
Added Balayon, who was in China during Yao’s heyday with the Houston Rockets: “I saw the rise of basketball in the span of three years.”
If Yao’s impact on China is any example to go by, basketball could see an international boom in short order amidst the right confluence of professional star power and grassroots energy.
American ex-pats have done their part to sew seeds in this regard. Kobe Bryant grew up learning the game in Italy, where his father, former Philadelphia 76ers big man Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played for four different teams. Tony Parker’s father, Tony Sr., played collegiately at Loyola University in Chicago before hopping across the pond, where he competed professionally while raising a family with Dutch model Pamela Firestone.
Fast-forward to today, and we find two international progeny of American basketball products (i.e. Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum) among the most promising members of the NBA’s incoming rookie class. Any success enjoyed by Wiggins and Exum in the years to come would occasion ripple effects on basketball’s popularity in their home countries of Canada and Australia, respectively.
The NBA can only hope that another rookie, undrafted center Sim Bhullar, will help to open up what could be a massively important and largely untapped market in India. Bhullar, a Toronto native who went undrafted out of New Mexico State, became the first player of Indian descent to sign an NBA contract when he inked a deal with the Sacramento Kings earlier this summer.
“Most of the people didn’t really know [who I was],” Bhullar said of his most recent visit to India four years ago. “I’m pretty sure that if I go back now, it’ll be the complete opposite.”
The NBA certainly hopes so. A strong foothold in India, with a population north of 1.2 billion (and counting), could be the key to basketball so much as approaching soccer on the global stage, along with China and Africa. “Over the next 50 years, the NBA’s going to be as popular in those countries as it is here in America,” Duffy added. ”I firmly believe that.”
That may not be as strong an endorsement as it may seem. Basketball may be the world’s second-biggest sport, but in America, the NBA’s revenues still lag well behind those of the NFL and MLB and may continue to do so even after the league renews national television contracts.
Meanwhile, soccer is gaining a stronger foothold in the States with each passing day. According to the Boston Herald‘s Rick Kissell, this year’s World Cup final between Argentina and Germany drew more eyeballs (26.5 million) than the highest-rated game of the 2014 NBA Finals (18.0 million).
MLS has certainly benefited from this shift, and could eventually find itself going toe-to-toe with America’s biggest sports leagues, the NBA included. “I really believe, in the next 10-20 years, you may very well see major soccer clubs here in the US, on the level of NFL teams,” said Duffy.
As far as developing international stars is concerned, grooming them in the American collegiate system, as Bhullar was, may not be the best bet. Consider, for example, Hakeem Olajuwon, whose success at the University of Houston and in the NBA didn‘t exactly translate to a basketball explosion in his native Nigeria.
It’s somewhat instructive, too, that some of the best foreign-born prospects had to be plucked off of soccer fields. That was the case for Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, in his home country of Cameroon. The same goes for Thon Maker, the 17-year-old Sudanese phenom who didn‘t start playing basketball seriously until 2010 in Australia.
A Changing of the Guard?
By and large, then, basketball is still scrambling after soccer’s proverbial table scraps. Until (or unless) that changes, it’s tough to imagine the former catching up the latter, much less surpassing it in the big picture.
Soccer’s status as a pseudo-religious obsession in so many parts of the world is and will be difficult for basketball to contend with, but world football’s popularity is drawn from more than just its earlier roots.
At its base, basketball requires more dedicated resources than does soccer. “Having a playable basketball court is much more difficult in other countries than getting a soccer ball and playing in a field,” Boone noted.
Moreover, soccer, in addition to its flexibility across playing surfaces, is also more inclusive when it comes to the shapes and sizes of its participants. You don’t have to be a behemoth to dominate on the pitch; just ask Lionel Messi (5’7), Neymar (5’9) and Cristiano Ronaldo (6’1). In some respects, being abnormally tall can actually be a disadvantage in soccer, where speed and coordination easily outstrip height and leaping ability in physical importance.
Demographically speaking, then, there are far more people in the world with the requisite tools to play—and, in turn, succeed at—soccer. In basketball, players who are comparable in height to Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo rarely rise to the top, with the likes of Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas serving as exceptions that prove the rule. The average NBA player may be 6’7, but that doesn‘t mean people of that stature grow on trees, so to speak.
In short, basketball has a steep hill to climb, and soccer’s own continued global growth has practically rendered hoops’ ability to scale it a Sisyphean (if not a Herculean) task.
But that doesn‘t mean basketball is necessarily doomed in any way. More kids are playing it every year. More stars are making their way to North America with each passing season. Domestic leagues will continue to grow in number and strength around the world. And with the game’s grassroots efforts in China, India and Africa, the count of humans playing hoops could eventually number in the billions.
At present, though, basketball might have to get comfortable as the world’s No. 2 sport, albeit a strong one with tremendous upside. As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Bloomberg News’ Scott Soshnick at the recent Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York, ”With all due respect to the other US-based sports, there are really two global sports: There’s soccer and there’s basketball. And we’re really just beginning to scratch the surface.”
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The 76ers have dismantled their roster at an arguably unprecedented rate.
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The 76ers have dismantled their roster at an arguably unprecedented rate.
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There is always talk about who is the best to ever play in the NBA, and the answer is always Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Well if there was ever any doubt, LeBron James is on his way to being the king of the land.
There have been many factors making James the best, but the way he has evolved and grown as a player since first coming into the NBA back in 2003 is what really sets him apart. Here are the six reasons:
1. He’s in his prime. James will be 30 years old this upcoming season and still has at least 10-12 years left in him if he stays healthy. That is scary to think that the best player on the planet has that much time left in the NBA to put up even more elite stats. The way his career has been going, it will only go up from here.
Last season he averaged 27.1 points per game. Kobe Bryant’s career points average does not even reach that number as his is 25.5 points per game. James is getting better at picking apart defenses and scoring when he needs too, which sets him apart.
2. He is
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Russell Westbrook is the first and last of his kind, and I’m good with that.
He is the best point guard in the league while being its most overrated. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard is a physical specimen unlike any I have ever seen, and he blends in those attributes with a mental toughness that probably rivals Kobe Bryant’s.
Westbrook is the most athletic point guard the sport has ever seen, and I’m talking about a league that’s housed the likes of Steve Francis and Baron Davis. Russell will jump over and through you if he deems it necessary.
What’s more, his speed and quickness are simply breathtaking. There isn’t a person alive who can stop, contain, slow down or catch Westbrook. He’s the NBA’s version of the Road Runner, except he dunks on you when you finally think you’ve trapped him.
Call me selfish, but I’d like for things to remain as is.
Westbrook’s natural gifts are impressive in their own right, and they only stand out more because he comports himself like the best player alive.
Westbrook will pull up for a trey early in the shot clock, make one bad decision after another and occasionally freeze out his teammates. He just wants it so bad that at times he takes his entire team out of sync.
And yet, he’s the guy who gives the Thunder everything.
He gives OKC scoring, playmaking, passion, intimidation and heart. The Thunder play with an edge whenever Westbrook is on the floor, and it makes the team better.
Still, I can’t merely gloss over his warts because, much like Westbrook, they show up in spectacular fashion.
Russ plays at a speed that’s vastly different to everyone else’s on the floor, which in turn makes him often seem out of control. To be fair, sometimes he is.
Westbrook will run up the court before his teammates are set and throw himself into a wall of defenders inside the paint and live with the results, no matter how porous they might be. One could argue he’s just a bad decision waiting to happen.
“It’s not just that he’s selfish or that his shot selection is borderline psychotic or that his fight-or-flight instinct keeps screaming ‘four-point play!’,” wrote Brian Phillips for Grantland in May. “It’s that he can do anything, so he tries to do everything.”
It’s worth noting that his superstar teammate (KD) has collected four scoring titles during his career and is a career 47.9 percent shooter.
Forgetting about your comrades during the regular season is somewhat of a forgivable offense, but such issues become magnified during the postseason in late-game situations. But Russell being Russell, it matters not.
My source had told me Westbrook actually was Batman to Durant’s Robin — that the point guard built like (and who often played like) a strong safety was the one with the killer instinct, the assassin’s clutch guts. Westbrook, my source had insisted, was mentally tougher than Durant and more feared by opponents late in games.
He has very little regard for time and score, which can be infuriating but also prevents him from shrinking in big moments.
Westbrook takes huge risks and lives with the consequences. He’ll repeatedly call his own number down the stretch of games and ignore open teammates, which, you know, isn’t what point guards are supposed to do.
What’s more, he won’t make any apologies about it, either.
“Obviously you want your teammates to be great and make shots,” Westbrook said in late April, per NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner. “But when the game is close and on the line, you’ve got to make decisions.”
The expectation from the position is steadiness, leadership, getting teammates involved and only calling your own number when open or if the situation demands it.
The perfect Westbrook sequence occurred in Game 5 of that series, with the Thunder trailing by seven points with 49 seconds left.
After blowing two layups, Westbrook registered six points, a steal, an assist and a rebound to close out the contest. Trailing by two, he stole the ball from Paul and drew a foul on a three-point shot. Russ nailed all of his free throws and won the game for the Thunder.
One might consider that a great display of intestinal fortitude given how he bounced back, but that’s just Russ being Russ.
I’m not sure there’s another player in the league who can match both his ceiling and floor. He’s capable of outshining Durant or demonstrating the worst point guard play in a championship game, according to Magic Johnson back in 2012.
And yet, I hope Westbrook never changes.
Sure, he might look like an oncoming train wreck every now and then, but he also lights up the tracks. Nothing is ever dull or even average with Westbrook. All of his plays are executed at 120 miles per hour, and that makes him susceptible to sensational highlights and spectacular blunders.
Westbrook is a nerve-wracking experience all by himself, and I certainly enjoy it.
As someone who once enjoyed watching wrestling, I see parallels between Westbrook and wrestling superstars.
Russell has his own signature move (six-shooter holsters), a swagger that borders on arrogance and the ability to recover from whatever pitfalls he suffers during play (this dude had three knee surgeries and it’s impossible to tell based on the way he flies around the court).
Why would anyone want any of that to evolve? A more conventional Westbrook would be a less entertaining one.
The fact that he always looks like he’s battling for control of a team that is effectively his is a joy to watch. Russ being Russ, he’s always looking to prove that he belongs and that “I got this.”
Westbrook possesses the traits of every (yes, every) great or borderline-great point guard who came before him, and it makes him an easy target for criticism. There are times when I feel like there’s an expectation for him to play better simply because Westbrook was built with seemingly every skill needed.
There’s no reason for anyone to want any of that to go away. Remember, Westbrook came out of UCLA as a 2-guard and was asked to become a point guard. All he did was go with the flow and become an All-NBA guard while playing out of position. To top it all off, he is often the No. 1 target whenever Oklahoma City loses.
With that in mind, why would I or anyone want him to allow others to dictate his fate? If my words can’t convince you, perhaps Durant’s will.
“A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player, and I’m the first to have your back through it all,” said Durant in his brilliant MVP reception speech. “Just stay the person you are. Everybody loves you here. I love you.”
Get yours Russ, because really, doing so gives me one of the greatest joys possible while watching basketball.
I can only hope he takes this advice: Borrow a chapter from Kobe and never conform. Instead, make others adjust to you.
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Maybe it’s just the pervasive optimism of the NBA offseason talking, but it sure seems like the 2014-15 championship chase features more worthy contenders than ever.
But that’s not really the case. Not exactly, anyway.
The summer brings rebuilt teams, wiped memories and fresh hopes, so we should be clear right up front that this is probably not the best time to take a detached, objective look at the NBA title landscape. After all, without seeing any would-be contenders take the court yet, we can’t say for sure if their potential flaws will reveal them to be something less than title-ready.
And anyway, it’s tricky to measure how wide-open a championship race truly is.
Are we supposed to trust the opening odds provided by Vegas? If there’s an inordinate number of clubs with a statistical shot, does that tell us anything?
For whatever it’s worth, when Bovada sent out its first set of odds after Kevin Love officially joined LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he and his new team had the best ones: 5-2, according to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times.
Pincus also noted that the defending champion San Antonio Spurs came in second with a 4-1 shot. After that, the Chicago Bulls sat at 11-2, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a 6-1 chance, and the Los Angeles Clippers rounded out the top five with a 12-1 mark.
That’s a quintet of teams with relatively rosy championship outlooks.
We don’t have to go back very far (though we do have to do some digging through the Internet’s deeper, darker crevices) to find a season in which more teams had at least as good of a title shot as the 12-1 Clips do this year.
Ahead of the 2006-07 season, seven teams were listed as having championship chances of 11-1 or better, according to Pinnacle Sports (via TheSpread.com): the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons.
For the record, the Spurs downed the Cavs that year, giving rise to this delightful picture:
Ready your grains of salt on that point, though. Fluctuating odds are a given in the gambling community. Depending on where you get them, you’re liable to find vastly different numbers. Still, that eight-year-old data is enough to prove that we’re not heading into some kind of unprecedented title free-for-all—at least not as far as the oddsmakers are concerned.
Anecdotally, though, this year does feel a little different than the past few seasons.
For starters, we didn’t have to do much deep thinking to determine which club was the top preseason title threat in any year between 2010 and 2013; the Heat held that distinction easily. Before that, the Los Angeles Lakers and Celtics held dual primacy for three years, with the Spurs always lurking on the fringes.
What’s changed now, and what feels fresh about the upcoming 2014-15 season, is that it’s easy to make a credible championship case for a huge number of teams, and then just as quickly point to a potentially fatal flaw for each of them.
This is the summer of mental whiplash.
Think the Cavs deserve unquestioned favorite status? Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com (subscription required) has a SCHOENE projection system that thinks they’ll win a league-high 68 games.
But even he’s not so sure a defense that features Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the Sieve Brothers, can rightly be called title-worthy: ”There is evidence that good defenses tend to beat good offenses in the NBA Finals, and only one team has won the title with a below-average regular-season defense since the merger. (That team, the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, was a major fluke; those Lakers had the league’s best defense in the playoffs.)”
Besides, James himself encouraged everyone to pump the brakes on championship talk in his return announcement with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins: “I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic.”
James said that before Love joined him. But the addition of yet another new piece to a team with preexisting chemistry problems, one with loads of young players who still need to come together, doesn’t exactly ease the concerns surrounding the Cavs.
The point is, it’s just as easy to talk yourself into the Cavaliers winning a title as it is to talk yourself out of it.
The same is true for the handful of other teams with at least semi-realistic ring-related dreams.
The Spurs are battle-tested and historically underrated, and they just finished one of the most dominant runs in memory. They’re sure to repeat!
Then again, they’re all a year older, lack the motivating sting of falling short that galvanized them last season and simply have nothing left to prove. They’ve also never repeated.
The Chicago Bulls are bigger and badder than before, and Derrick Rose is back in MVP form! Let’s all rush to hand them the Eastern Conference crown they won in 2010-11 and 2011-12!
As always, Tom Thibodeau’s boys are an injury away from the fourth seed and a second-round out.
Surely the Oklahoma City Thunder will break through this season! Kevin Durant has usurped King James’ throne, and the growth of role players like Steven Adams and Reggie Jackson means KD, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will no longer be a three-man show. Let’s size up OKC for its rings right now!
Oh wait, Scott Brooks is still coaching the Thunder.
The list goes on. We haven’t even mentioned other excellent yet still flawed teams like the Clips, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards or Miami Heat. Would it be a complete and utter shock if one of those squads caught some breaks and won it all?
Not really. But every one of those teams has at least one serious question mark.
You get the idea: There are no seemingly indestructible juggernauts. Instead, we’ve got enough deeply flawed would-be kings to make George R.R. Martin do a double-take.
It’s hard to say why things have shaken out this way. Maybe it’s just chance. Maybe we’re just living in a golden age of parity. Who knows?
One potential explanation that should probably concern the NBA: When you have a handful of teams that are actively trying not to be competitive, you sometimes see talent that should have been dispersed across a 30-team league consolidated among a powerful few.
Think about it: There’s a finite amount of talent in the league. If the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and other alleged tanking enthusiasts don’t want any of it, it still has to go somewhere. Even if it’s just a player here or there, if useful rotation guys (or even stars) wind up joining the teams at the top of the food chain, it changes the power balance drastically.
In days past, Shawn Marion might have been overpaid by some desperate lottery team. Now, those teams have no interest in vets who could impart some respectability to a rebuilding effort. They want dirt-cheap assets and picks.
So Marion is playing for Cleveland on a minimum deal.
That’s just one example, but it illustrates the polarization of the NBA that could be responsible for a dying middle class. And when the league is increasingly made up of teams that are either really good or really bad, you get more contenders than you’d normally expect.
It’s great for fans to see more teams be a part of the title conversation but only if they’re fans of one of those teams. For supporters of squads with no chance (or desire) for a ring, it’s not so fun.
Ultimately, there might be as many as 10 teams with legitimate championship chances—even if each one has a major question mark or two. So in some sense, we really might see a wide-open season. But it’s more interesting (and perhaps more concerning) to note that there’s an even larger number of teams that, by design, have no shot whatsoever.
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When people think of the best shooters in NBA history, J.R. Smith’s name probably doesn’t come up very often. However, he believes that he is on track to be “one of the best shooters the game had ever seen.”
Smith took to Instagram to send a message to all of his haters.
In case you had a hard time reading it, here’s a better look at how Smith captioned the photo: “They said I wouldn’t make it! I did! They said I wouldn’t stay! This is my 11th yr! They said you can’t shoot like that in the league! I’m on pace to be one of the best shooters the game had ever seen! Bottom line what yall say don’t me sh@$ What I do says everything! #Gone.”
One of the best shooters ever? That may seem like a stretch, but the guard is using numbers to back up his claim.
He took a screenshot of the list of the NBA’s all-time three-point shooters to help support his claim. The 28-year-old ranks 30th in NBA history with 1,312 three-pointers made.
Smith has made 37.1 percent of his three-point attempts in his career, which puts him 29th out of the top 50 three-point shooters in NBA history. He made 39.4 percent of his three-point attempts last season, which was one of the best percentages of his career.
Smith is certainly on pace to move even higher up the list, so his claim will only look better as he continues to move up.
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Ok, let me present a scenario for you …. you’re at the beach and a guy comes walking by covered in Chinese tattoos – but has a hot chick with him…. two things immediately happen.
#1. You probably mumble something along the lines of “nice tattoos dude” (sarcasm)
#2. You wonder, what the hell does that even say?
Most people just trust the experts at the tattoo shop … the most common Chinese symbol tattoos are “love” , “strength” , “honor” , etc.
How many people actually look these up themselves and verify? Next to none.
Enter this guy.
Poor chap. Somebody gave him a “Bluls” jersey and didn’t even have the decency to tell him (we are assuming) that the team name is mis-spelled.
This tourist, presumably American and presumably a tourist, couldn’t contain himself and had to snap a pic. Well done sir.
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