There’s a lot to be said about sport diplomacy, and hoops diplomacy has often gotten short shift. But in many ways, basketball is a sport primed for this prism. It’s popularly played across continents by all parts of society, unlike cricket or rugby. It’s much easier and cheaper to send a basketball team abroad than a (much larger) soccer one. And it’s a sport “born global” in 1891, invented by Canadian James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts (United States) and quickly exported abroad by YMCA educators less than two years later.
Hoops diplomacy takes many forms. The most common is when players, coaches, or teams visit or play professionally overseas and enable diffusion of cultural tenants, not just game tactics and techniques. This sort of people-to-people exchange, where communication, representation, and negotiation occur, is a form of diplomacy, as J Simon Rofe points out. It’s a natural outgrowth of curiosity, travel, and learning that has countless precedents, though there’s still relatively little work published on basketball’s role in this phenomenon.
My chapter, “Barnstorming Frenchman: The impact of Paris Universtié Club’s U.S. tours and the role of the individual,” in the recently published Sport and Diplomacy: Games within games (Manchester University Press) helps buildout the English-language hoops diplomacy narrative, while press accounts, such as Arnaud Lecomte’s recent L’Équipe article on how Americans like Henry Fields impacted French basketball, are also helping to push the needle globally. But more is needed. Media companies and content creators should feature more basketball diplomacy-related stories as natural outgrowths of today’s global basketball world—and more scholars should do work in this field, to highlight the changing nature of hoops’ impact during different phases of our global history.
Another area of hoops diplomacy that’s ripe for great storytelling is that surrounding the locker room. The largest men’s championship, the NBA, is truly global in terms of players (approximately 25% for the 2017-18 season) and staff, as is the WNBA. How are these men and women learning from their “international” teammates and colleagues, what are those conversations like, how do they translate into actual cultural exchange experiences—say, a visit or deciding to play abroad during the off season—and how is this all impacting the basketball world and those around it? What are some of the more humorous misunderstandings that occur and are rectified? And how do players explain more thorny issues in their homelands (and here in the United States) to each other, whether related to politics, government institutions, racism, and beyond?
This leads to the role of individual players. Players like LeBron James, Steph Curry, Joel Embiid, and Tony Parker, have global audiences that learn about U.S./NBA culture as well as of those players’ homelands through the prism of basketball. This is especially the case when players visits different countries, sans their teams, to appear in Jordan-, Under Armour-, or Tissot-sponsored tours to promote brands and brands of basketball. During Summer 2018, more than 90 NBA players past and present traveled across six continents to participate in a range of hoops-related events. What are these experiences and cultural exchanges like?
Then there’s the sort of people-to-people exchanges that occur when fans travel to watch their professional and national teams play in person. Major international tournaments in particular facilitate such interactions, where not just teams but also fans can learn through travel and basketball. That’s why I’m looking forward to the FIBA Women’s World Cup, which kicks off later this week in Tenerife, Spain, and next September’s Men’s World Cup in China…and also following the qualifying rounds. Hang on to your hat for some great basketball storytelling opportunities, especially as more eyes turn towards China, which has its own long, rich hoops tradition.