That’s a bit of a provocative question, but one that lent itself well to a workshop I co-directed with Dr. J Simon Rofe last week at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London.
History is peppered with the intersections of sport and diplomacy, but gained new traction during the twentieth century. This nexus was mined by governments around the globe, and basketball was no exception, although at times it is not as fulsomely remembered in popular memory as ping-pong diplomacy, tennis diplomacy, or that of the world’s main sport, football (soccer). Yet the orange ball has helped people communicate, represent, and negotiate different divides officially (think of the Harlem Globetrotters’ tours) and unofficially through the informal people-to-people cultural exchanges that naturally occur in and around the court. Those of you who follow my work are aware how basketball was used by China and France once official diplomatic relations were reestablished in the mid-1960s, as well as the role of individual players like Martin Feinberg and the first French hoops teams to visit the United States (1956, 1962). But what about the ways that basketball and diplomacy combine in and around the NBA?
Our morning session was centered on the evolution of this question. Terry Lyons, NBA International’s former SVP, recalled how the league’s first overseas tours (China, Soviet Union) in the mid-1980s squared in what we today call sports diplomacy. “Sports diplomacy was part of our lives,” he said. “It was ingrained in everything we did. We felt that it was a very important part of basketball.”
Dr. Bob Edelman, a Soviet and Russian specialist, was with Lyons and the Atlanta Blackhawks on that famous 1988 tour of the USSR, and noted the various ways that basketball provided windows of opportunity to learn. He also reminded us that even in the 1980s, basketball was seen as the global sport of the future…something we’re still claiming today.
But such early groundwork helped set the scene for today. Chris Dial, founding president of The Basketball Embassy, shared how that 1988 trip still influences and inspires players in the former Soviet republics, such as in Belarus. Tim Masih from Special Olympics Great Britain closed out the morning with an examination of how hoops diplomacy fits into their work at home and abroad.
The afternoon focused on the ways that basketball diplomacy impacts the game today, and its implications for Africa. Former Team Britain player Pops Mensah-Bonsu, whose professional career spanned the globe from the NBA to Europe, and who daily communicated, represented, and negotiated with international teammates, staff, coaches, and fans, spoke of the player’s perspective. The informal people-to-people exchanges he had through basketball helped him build important bridges.
He noted the importance of the forthcoming NBA-FIBA Basketball Africa League (BAL), launching January 2020, in helping to bring people together, especially across the African diaspora (although born and raised in Britain, his parents are from Ghana).
“What makes basketball diplomacy so appealing is that it shows the differing cultures that exist amongst the team,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “Having that kind of diversity can prove beneficial for the team’s chemistry, but it can also be a detriment if not utilized the right way.”
And what of the BAL? NBA Africa’s John Manyo-Plange helped shed light on the BAL, and noted the larger import of communicating and representing what Africa has to offer (and it’s a lot). Can the BAL help basketball takeover Africa in the twenty-first century?
For Syra Sylla, there’s nothing but promise and excitement in this question. The journalist and communications professional shared her work with SEED Academy in Senegal, and how teaching village girls basketball helped open up new ideas and attitudes. Moreover, there’s a strong connection between Africa, France, and the global game through events like Quai 54, the world’s largest streetball tournament. At their recent competition in Paris on the courts at Bir Hakim, in the shadows of the Tour Eiffel, several African countries were represented, in addition to those of France, Brazil, and others.
Youcef Ouldyassia, who hosts an NBA show on television broadcaster Canal + and produces documentary films, relayed how he’s witnessed basketball’s growth and impact. “People are playing the game all over the 54 African countries,” he said. “It’s really common to see kids or adults with a ball under their arm. Every playground is full.” It helps that there’s now basketball heroes to set examples and get kids to dream big.
But what about the BAL’s ability to further ignite and enhance a pan-African identity in its representation of the continent? For Mensah-Bonsu, there’s a lot of optimism in basketball and the BAL’s potentials. “I feel that basketball diplomacy in Africa will further bridge the gap between Africa and the rest of the world,” he said. “Africa is a continent that is rich in culture, resources, and talent; with the new BAL it will allow for the cultivation of everything that Africa has to offer.”
Our SOAS colleague Jose Gigante helped distill some of the workshop’s main themes (thank you Jose!), which included the opportunities that basketball diplomacy in Africa can offer, sport’s larger role in international relations and in individuals’ lives (the power to make an impact), and notably, that players have a role in all of this, too, not just as role models, but as active sports diplomats.
Thank you to all of our attendees for your time, valuable insights, and helpful contributions—especially those of you who came in from overseas to share the day with us. A huge round of thanks to my co-host Simon Rofe for having us all descend in the midst of baseball warm-up (too bad my Boston Red Sox lost!), and none of this would have been possible without our SOAS colleague Fadil Elobeid—thank you, thank you, thank you.
You can keep up with our sports diplomacy work on the SOAS Sport Diplomacy & Governance Hub here.