I don’t know if the recent World Cup was the greatest ever – the imagination and flair set forth by Pelé’s Brazilian teams is said to be unsurpassed – but it surely was the best soccer tournament I’ve seen, and its success affirmed the importance of the sport around the planet. Soccer is known, after all, as the world’s biggest religion.
People of every country are able to connect through soccer in a way that transcends language and culture. As the biggest names were defeated in Russia and 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé rose up to lead France past underdog Croatia, I found myself asking: Will basketball ever be so popular around the world?
Basketball has a lot going for it. As with soccer, you can understand basketball the first time you see it. Apart from the need for an elevated basket, it is inexpensive and accessible for both women and men.
The World Cup had me thinking about the big difference between the two sports. Why is it that soccer is viewed in religious terms – and basketball is not?
One reason is the difference in age. Basketball will celebrate its 127th birthday in December, whereas soccer has evolved over thousands of years. Another reason is that basketball is American, and we Americans tend to view all our inventions in terms of business. How much money are the players making? How many people are watching? The success of winning the NBA championship is validated by sneaker contracts and other commercial deals.
Americans also tend to view basketball in terms of race. You know the joke, white men can’t jump? You don’t hear the differences of white and black players being mentioned so much in American football or baseball. But it’s a big theme in basketball. I brought up the issue of race years ago with David Stern, who at that time was commissioner of the NBA, as detailed in my new book The Soul of Basketball:
“One of the things we always say behind closed doors is, no matter what happens, we are the ‘black sport,’” Stern said. “That’s just a given.”
Stern wasn’t happy with this reality. Basketball is supposed to be color-blind. That’s why the goal of my book is to tell NBA stories that reveal a higher calling for basketball – a point of view that will transcend race.
Now, having been immersed in soccer for the last month, I have experienced an epiphany. For basketball to prosper, it has to become more than a business of money and analytics and entertainment. In the same way that soccer is shared by billions of people around the world as a kind of religion, so too must the spiritual side of basketball be explored.
The first step is to recognize that basketball is NOT religion.
Instead, basketball is American – and not just because it was invented in the United States. The most important rule of basketball is that all players are equal.
In soccer there is a different set of rules for the goalkeeper. In American football the quarterback plays a different game than the left tackle. In baseball every game revolves around the pitcher, just as in cricket it revolves around the bowler.
In basketball no one has special privileges. According to the rules of basketball, every player is the same. All players have equal access to the ball.
The spirit of equality and freedom in basketball is very American.
So is the nature of the NBA. In recent years the NBA has become a melting-pot league. Players from all around the world – young men of all colors, cultures and sizes – are each pursuing their own dreams while having to get along with each other.
Basketball is all about fulfilling your goals while helping your team. It is the sport of the American Dream.
The American Dream is a controversial subject. Some Americans have convinced themselves that the American Dream is about winning at all costs, that in this dog-eat-dog world it’s OK to become rich even if you are doing harm to your neighbors. But most Americans (at least I hope it’s most of us) believe that the American Dream is all about fulfilling yourself while helping others. This was the original ideal as set forth by America’s founding fathers. They believed that the country – the team – would prosper if individuals were free to explore their potential.
Basketball is built on this model. If you are a great player, basketball provides you with the freedom to hog the ball and score all the points for yourself. But your team will never win that way. In basketball, the selfish players are losers.
Over the last month I’ve come to realize that soccer and basketball are two global sports running parallel to each other. One is played with the feet, the other with the hands. Soccer is of the Old World, while basketball is of the New World. Soccer is religion. Basketball is secular, but it’s also spiritual – it’s about life as it could and should be.
When the NBA becomes truly universal, it will happen because the American game is viewed in spiritual terms. The destiny for basketball is to achieve a point of view that cuts through language and culture and unites all peoples, in the same as human beings everywhere aspire to be free, to make the world a better place and to experience their version of the American Dream.
I have convinced myself to change the terms of this newsletter. More to come soon.
NBAnswers is a newsletter from American insider Ian Thomsen.
To buy The Soul of Basketball, the first American book for NBA fans around the world, please click here.