by Glen Hamilton
Apparently American basketball players are staying on a cruise ship, separate from the Olympic Village. USA Basketball cited several reasons, including security concerns. Another of the rationales for separating the American players was how tired the players may get from the constant and abundant attention they would receive in the Athletes’ Village. That may be true, but the decision also speaks to where the American basketball establishment, dominated by the NBA, sees itself in the world. Unfortunately, they sometimes try too hard to present basketball as having a massive presence worldwide. While the NBA’s formidable PR machinery can project the league to the far corners of the Earth, that is not quite the same as growing the game.
Look, I love the NBA and I love that the NBA is supportive of the Olympic Movement. But USA Basketball’s posture on their lodgings echoes the aspirations of American basketball leadership rather than its reality. One common excuse used to justify the separate location is that the players would get tired of the constant attention in the Olympic Village, much like track star Usain Bolt. But that just doesn’t ring true. It’s not that USA Basketball is being disingenuous. It is merely operating in the “augmented reality” of the NBA’s marketing world. I am not diminishing how taxing living in the Olympic Village can be over time for high profile athletes. While the American Men’s basketball line up is full of tremendous basketball players, as a group their international profile isn’t all that high. Obviously Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving are pretty recognizable. Most of this group will sell jerseys overseas in the coming years, but they are not going to be mobbed like the Beatles.
I am also not entirely convinced that basketball’s global footprint is quite as big as the NBA would have us believe. The sport has a significant toehold pretty much everywhere, but its popularity varies wildly. The NBA’s promotional style, with the constant optimistic drumbeat heralding the sport’s global presence, has created an echo chamber that lies far away from the grunt work on the ground. Alas, growing a sport globally is a slog in bits of the world that many people don’t think about often. Good work is going to be hidden for years, if it appears at all.
Having players from a league with the high caliber of the NBA participating in the most important sporting event in the world is a huge asset that puts wind in the sails of the game internationally. Additionally, this is one of the better uses of American soft power. No league participating in the Olympics has the same stature as the NBA and people who follow sport realize that. Perhaps it’s not the slam dunk (no pun intended) that the DOJ pulled off in their arrests of much of FIFA’s crooked leadership last year, but it is streets ahead of a begrudging NHL and clueless MLB.
Despite my quibbles, I think I’ll just defer to the judgement of USA Basketball on where the team should stay. Their global tournament record over the last ten years is incredible. So, whatever they are doing, it’s working great.