Two recent events gave us ample pause to reflect on the ways that basketball has impacted our world in the 127 years of it’s existence: the start of the 2018-19 NBA season and the centennial of the Great War’s armistice on November 11. While soccer (football) claims the mantle of the world’s most beloved and popular sport, it has several decades advance play on basketball. But as these two fall pegs illustrate, the orange ball has made great bounds.
Both sports had their modern watershed moments during the Great War, which contrary to popular misconceptions of being musty and dusty, is still a part of our everyday reality. As I reminded former collageues at the U.S. Department of State during my recent talk, “Sport Diplomacy: From World War One to Today,” the 1914-1918 era enabled many of our everyday references and actions—from wearing wristwatches to plastic surgery, medical advances (including news chemicals with which athletes could enhance performances post-1920!), and more.
Even within the sports terrain, the war casts a long shadow, responsible for popularizing and democratizing many sports, especially team sports. Here, basketball and soccer are the two key stories. As explained in my recent Sporting News piece, the war was a watershed for basketball globally, accelerating its popularity in places as disparate as France, the United States, and China, while sowing the seeds for it’s 1920s implementation in the Balkans, Central Europe, and elsewhere. Moreover, as my conversation with the Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic highlighted, then as today, basektball serves as a bridge across cultures, bringing people together through shared love of the game and helping to tear down barriers. You can read the full piece plus the secrets behind Shaq O’Nealovic here :)
If basketball began as a sport to help build healthy bodies, minds, and morals, then today it has also become a prime ground for diplomacy via cultural exchanges and the everyday people-to-people exchanges that occur in the locker room, stadium, court, and more. I’ve previously written on this angle vis-a-vis Martin Feinberg, Michel Rat, and the Paris Université Club team of the 1950s—as well as the 1966 France national team visit to China, a goodwill gesture to help cement ties following Paris’ reestablishment of official diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1964.
But what do these exchanges look like today, both formally via national teams and informally via the international players who are tearing up NBA courts? That’s the question that my recent piece, “The Superpower of International Basketball Diplomacy” tackles. Read more at The Athletic or full pdf access here.