How the Global Games have helped make the NBA an international sport
Chris Mullin was sitting in a hotel room in Barcelona more than two decades ago with his Dream Team teammates. Jordan. Bird. Magic. Barkley. The greatest basketball team ever assembled -- maybe the greatest in all of sports -- was about to embark on a journey that would yield much more than just a gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics.
With the NBA sending players to the Games for the first time, commissioner David Stern explained to his stars the gravity of what was about to take place.
"You don't realize the impact this is going to have on the game," Stern told them. "Globally, this is going to change everything."
Twenty-two years later, Mullin still can't believe the scope of the sport's rise. Last month Mullin was in Shanghai for the NBA's preseason Global Games, his eighth trip to China and one of many places where he's seen first hand the blossoming of basketball into an international game.
"In the States, playing in the NBA [two decades ago] was a lot of kids' dream because they saw games on TV or in person," Mullin said. "But for kids in Europe and China and all over the world, it wasn't a reality before the Dream Team. They weren't exposed to basketball. Today, we don't have players from all over the world just participating in the NBA. We have international players starring in the NBA. That’s how far we’ve come."
GALLERY: NBA players in front of the Eiffel Tower
If the Dream Team sparked the NBA's international growth, the Global Games have been the propane that's kept it aflame. Going back to 1979, the NBA has hosted games overseas in an effort to expand the game's fan base. This year the NBA played five preseason games in four countries -- Germany, Turkey, Brazil and China. On Wednesday, the Rockets and Timberwolves will play a regular-season game in Mexico City, and the Bucks and Knicks will travel to London for a Jan. 15 game.
"These games are an opportunity for us to take everything from a U.S. arena and give it to the fans in a local market," said Philippe Moggio, NBA Latin America vice president.
In addition to the games, the NBA puts on clinics, participates in charity work and sees its players immerse themselves in the local culture. In October, LeBron James and the Cavaliers were the main attraction for an exhibition against the Heat in Rio de Janeiro.
“It’s just amazing to see these guys come to another country and stir [a huge] response," said Gary Payton, the NBA Hall of Famer who was in Brazil as an ambassador to the NBA.
The Kings and Nets toured several locations during their visit to China last month, including the Great Wall. But Mullin said the highlight might have been a light practice by the teams that turned into a spectacle.
"People in the arena were standing, clapping and snapping photos," Mullin said. "They appreciated even the most basic play. We have this special game and we should never take it for granted."
Mullin and Payton both said it’s the little things that make them understand and appreciate the NBA’s reach. Payton was recognized at a barbershop in Brazil and encountered fans “who would do anything” for a hat with an NBA logo on it. Mullin recalled an earlier trip to Chengdu, China, where he and former NBA forward Robert Horry joined a group of D-League players for an exhibition.
"It wasn’t exactly the most high-profile group of guys," Mullin said. "I figured we’d be playing in a school gym. There were 10,000 fans in the stands. It was incredible.”
The NBA can measure its global gains in a number of ways. This season a record 101 international players, from 37 countries and territories, made opening-night rosters. (In 1992, there were only 21.) The league has expanded to 13 worldwide offices, from Hong Kong to Johannesburg, Mumbai to Seoul. And the NBA's new nine-year, $24 billion television-rights deal will include additional regular-season and playoff telecasts on ESPN International.
On Tuesday, Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki passed Hakeem Olajuwon to become the NBA's all-time international scoring leader, yet another milestone signifying the game's global reach.
"Sometimes you have a dream, but it feels so far away you'll never be able to reach it," Mullin said. "But when you get to touch it, and feel it, and watch it live, it becomes a reality. That's what is happening for the rest of the world with the NBA."