Last year, I walked into the PalaLottomattica Roma to watch my hometown Boston Celtics take on the Toronto Raptors in the first exhibition game of the 2007-08 NBA season. Italy the winners of soccer’s most recent World Cup was the last place I ever imagined to be watching the Boston Celtics play basketball. For the Celtics, the trip to Rome marked the first step in an eventual championship run and the first time Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen donned the green and white. However, that was not what 11,000 people had come to see. Sure there were some Americans in the stands, but the majority of the crowd was of Italian descent, and they were there to see one man: Andrea Bargnani. Born in Rome, Bargnani was drafted first overall by the Raptors in 2006 straight out of Italy. That night, I saw more No. 7 Toronto jerseys than I knew existed.
Before the game I was unsure of what the atmosphere would be like a basketball game in Italy? As the game began, I found my answer. If it had not been for the hot dog Panini I was eating (I’m a firm believer of only serving hot dogs in buns) I could have been in any basketball stadium in America. The crowd was going wild and not just for Bargnani. They were completely attuned to the game and cheering as if it were the playoffs. It got me thinking. With the number of European players already playing in the NBA, not to mention the number of NBA players leaving the league for Europe, I thought that maybe there needs to be even more of a crossover. The NBA and its fan base are no longer purely American, as evidenced by the star treatment Kobe, Lebron and co. received at last month’s Beijing Olympics. The world is shrinking; Europe and Asia are not far away lands, but merely long plane flights away. So what am I trying to say? Should the NBA’s Eastern Conference have the Atlantic, the Central and the Europe divisions? That might be extreme (at least for now), but the fact of the matter is the NBA is no longer the only game in what has become a very big town.
This phenomenon is not only true in basketball. This year’s baseball season began when the Boston Red Sox played the Oakland Athletics halfway across the world in Tokyo.
‘Opening our regular season in Japan for the third time is another example of Major League Baseball’s commitment to continue the global growth of the game,” MLB commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.
And perhaps even more meaningful is that the New York Giants played the Miami Dolphins in the middle of the NFL season at London’s Wembley stadium. It is no longer just the players that are crossing continental barriers, but the games themselves, finding new markets around the globe.
‘There is great interest in the NFL around the world,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. ‘Playing a limited number of regular-season games outside the United States is the next step for us in serving that interest.”
For years, the NBA finals were referred to as the NBA World Championship Series, thus making the winner ‘World Champion.” That changed in 1986 when the winning team became the NBA Champion. For many, this was merely a technicality, but it’s hard to argue that in 2004 the NBA’s champion should have been the World Champion when Team USA (an NBA all-star team) won bronze at the Athens Olympics. This year, an exception has been made so that the Celtics banner can read World Champions in order to match the 16 banners it will hang next to, but what does this really mean? In Rome, the Bargnani-loving basketball-crazed fans might not understand why the NBA’s winner should be the World Champion when a player from their own Italian league gets selected first in the NBA draft.
So is it finally time to expand our professional sports? With advances in technology and transportation, the once-implausible road trip through Europe is starting to seem increasingly possible. It’s fair to say that the reason European players come to the NBA is because it is the superior league, but it should not have to be like that. When Lebron and Kobe announced that they would consider going to Europe, many people dismissed it as a joke, but I saw it as a potential first step. Although the names are not as hyped, impact players like Josh Childress left the Atlanta Hawks to play for the Olympiacos in Greece and Argentine Carlos Delfino (a 2004 gold medalist) left the NBA for Khimki BC in Russia.
So I conclude with a question, not an answer: are American sports leagues ready to expand overseas? Maybe yes, maybe no. But regardless, it is a possibility too promising to ignore.
Starr is a member of the class of 2009.