The soccerization of basketball

It’s the next step, spiritually, for the NBA

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.

Carmelo Anthony’s farewell move

It doesn’t have to end badly with his departure from OKC

It is worth seeing again, that night in 2003 when Carmelo Anthony was invited up to the stage:

LeBron James had been introduced 10 minutes earlier. Dwyane Wade would follow Anthony 10 minutes later.

Anthony was in the middle of the most influential draft class of modern times. Fifteen years later, the outcome of his career is still to be determined.

Anthony claimed to be the best player of the 2003 Draft. James, 18, was superior athletically with a diversity of skills that no one could match. But all of his best work had been limited to high school playoffs and AAU tournaments. Anthony, by comparison, had driven Syracuse University to the NCAA championship as the Most Outstanding Player of the 2003 tournament. At age 19 he had led his team with 22.2 points and 10 rebounds per game.

The Nuggets, who chose him with the number 3 pick, would make the playoffs in all seven of his full seasons. But they never were able to pair Anthony with a fellow star. His best teammate, 32 year old Chauncey Billups, helped him reach the 2009 conference finals. One year later, under the influence of James’s move to Miami, Anthony demanded a trade out of Denver that resulted in his 2011 move to the Knicks.

The original idea had been for James, Wade and Anthony to be free agents together in 2010. But Anthony had not wanted to leave money on the table. He had re-signed with Denver for the maximum number of years. Instead of joining James and Wade in Miami as a free agent in 2010, Anthony watched Chris Bosh take his place.

Bosh won two championships with Anthony’s friends. Anthony, coming off the worst season of his career at age 34, has yet to experience an NBA Finals.

He was the NBA’s most talented scorer. Anthony had every reason to believe he could be the best player of that watershed 2003 Draft. He was unguardable in transition. He had 3-point range and a midrange game, but most promising of all was his potential to post-up in the slower, more bruising environment of the playoffs. He was also a skilled passer, which was why, in those early days, he touted his ability to play the point in the mode of LeBron.

He shared the ball happily and accepted every role asked of him while winning three Olympic gold medals with USA Basketball. With the Nuggets and Knicks, however, there were rarely any co-stars in whom he could trust. He played parts of three seasons in Denver with Allen Iverson, who was nearing the end. By the time Anthony came to New York, Amar’e Stoudemire was already breaking down. Anthony led the Knicks to their only postseason series victory of the last 18 years in 2012-13, when his most prolific teammate was J.R. Smith. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

One year ago, at the urging of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the Thunder traded for Anthony. He earned the respect of Oklahoma City for his charity work. Anthony was reliable, consistent and sincere in his aid to the community. On the court, however, he appeared to be left behind by his younger teammates. Anthony shot a career-worst 40.4% and was victimized defensively.

When he was asked about coming off the Thunder bench next season, he insisted, stubbornly, that he had made enough sacrifices. Now OKC has announced that Anthony will not be coming back. The other day his representative was seen in Las Vegas speaking with the Rockets about a short-money deal to come off their bench as a power forward. He may be facing the same role in Los Angeles, if the Lakers are interested in signing him to join LeBron.

Anthony has had remarkable staying power. One by one Anthony’s classmates from the extraordinary 2003 Draft have fallen out of view, like runners in a race without a finish line. Chris Kaman, the number 6 pick whom the Heat nearly drafted instead of Wade, faded away after 13 seasons. T.J. Ford, the speedy number 8 pick, was struck down prematurely by a dangerous spinal cord injury. Bosh was forced into early retirement by blood clots, though there are suggestions that he may attempt a comeback.

David West (the number 18 pick) may be leaving the NBA, as the Warriors have no room to bring him back. Boris Diaw (number 21) is finishing his career in France. Kendrick Perkins (27) has played 15 minutes over the past two seasons, though he continues to make news for yelling at players on opposing teams. Luke Walton (32) is now coaching the Lakers, which means he may be working with Anthony next season.

In addition to Anthony, the four players of relevance from 2003 are Wade (5), who has yet to reveal if he will be returning to Miami in a substitute role next season; Kyle Korver (51), who may be leaving Cleveland now that James is no longer there; Zaza Pachulia (42), who has moved on from the Warriors to the Pistons; and LeBron, the ultimate outlier. While his peers were struggling to hang on, James recently earned his biggest contract from the Lakers after starting every game, leading the league in minutes and playing the best basketball of his career for Cleveland.

Anthony and James were viewed as “rivals” in their early seasons. James was named Rookie of the Year, but the award just as easily could have gone to Anthony, who generated 21 points per game while pushing the Nuggets to a 26-win gain over the previous year. Their “rivalry” never really existed, and talk of it eventually expired as Anthony and James deepened their friendship while teaming together with USA Basketball.

Anthony’s dropoff last season was stunning. His game was never founded in athleticism, and based on his offensive versatility and size, he should be a contributor for several more years. Along the way, however, he will have to transition to a complementary role, much as Wade has done in Miami. For the remainder of Anthony’s career, less will have to be more.

His willingness to fit in will define how he is remembered. If Anthony joins the Rockets, Lakers or another contender, provides the help they need and contributes to a title, then he will be cast for all time as an NBA champion who helped restore USA Basketball to the top of the basketball world.

But if isn’t able to prevail over these final few years? Then his critics, who are many, will claim the last word on him. At age 15, before Anthony experienced the growth spurt that made him attractive to college recruiters, he never could anticipated becoming an All-Star 10 times, making six All-NBA teams and scoring more than 27,000 points. He would not have imagined the expectations that came with his introduction by commissioner David Stern at the 2003 Draft.

There will be so much to celebrate someday. But not now.

Now, as he plots his farewell move, Anthony may feel as if he is running out of time.


NBAnswers is a newsletter from American insider Ian Thomsen for NBA fans everywhere.

Have an NBA question for Ian? Email him at ianthomsennba@gmail.com. He’ll answer your questions each Friday (available for subscribers only).

To buy The Soul of Basketball, the first American book for NBA fans around the world, please click here.

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