The NBA is growing faster and wider than anyone expected. Over the last few years experiencing a boom globally. The NBA is raking in more money now than ever before and the worldwide popularity of the league is a major part of that. The league signed a record-breaking TV deal worth $24 billion (Hancock 2013). While the league once employed only American players, more and more international players have joined the league. The NBA has 108 foreign players from 42 different countries (Hancock 2013). Basketball is one of the most popular team sports, played by more than 450 million people worldwide. The NBA embraces the global game as both entertainment and business. Because of this, the NBA has opened offices in 13 markets around the globe. So, the sport invented in Massachusetts has grown dramatically is a relatively short period of time making the once solely Caucasian, American sport a community that includes all races, religions and cultures in one large community. The National Basketball Association once began as a small community for athletes of one race. The NBA is now a leader in the world when it comes to inclusion. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the growth and importance of the National Basketball Association community through an anthropological perspective. This will be done by delving into the diversity, cultural expressions and contemporary challenges within the NBA community. The globalization and effect of cultures due to the growth will also be explored.
As the NBA states on its website, “Basketball is a sport that transcends culture, race, language, gender and socio-economic levels, and one in which anyone, anywhere can learn, enjoy and play”. The diversity in the NBA has been talked about for years. Although the NBA is regarded as one of the most diverse workforces and is a leader among professional and college sports, there is an issue with the league and their management positions. 75% of the league’s players are African American while only one team president and 3 general managers are African American (Schneider-Maye 2010). The make up of ethnicity and race in the NBA has changed dramatically over time. Richard Lapchick, who is a racial equality activist stated that in 2015 the NBA was composed of 74 percent African American players, 23 percent white players and 2 percent Latino players and less than 1 percent of players were Asian (Schneider-Maye 2010). While the league started as all Caucasian, it now possesses the highest percentage of African American players than any other professional sports leagues.
Socio-historical contexts have been prevalent in the NBA since day one. Race has made a major impact in sports and in culture. The NBA was made up of all white teams in the early years. It was not until 1950 when Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted into the NBA. That same year, Harold Hunter signed with the Washington Capitals becoming the first player to sign a contract in NBA history. After many hurdles and battles, the league has moved to 75% African American. In the midst of the civil rights movement, a pioneer joined the NBA community. His name was Bill Russell. It just so happened that the civil rights movement and Bill Russell’s playing career grew at the exact same time. “It is the first time in four centuries that the American Negro can create his own history,” Russell stated. “To be part of this is one of the most significant things that can happen.” In Lexington, KY, in 1961, a restaurant refused to seat Russell and his other black teammates before a game (Littlefield 2013). In the past, black athletes would have just taken this and gone on to the next restaurant. With the lead of Russell, the Celtics boycotted the game. This was a major statement at the time that had not been seen before. Two years later, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. Following the assassination, Russell flew to Mississippi to lead the state’s first integrated basketball camps (Littlefield 2013). There have been many professional basketball players that have followed Russell’s lead. While NBA players compete on the floor, they come together as one in their community to fight for what is right.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant were the latest to do this when journalist Laura Ingraham told them to “shut up and dribble” after their criticism of President Trump (Tatum). In one period of time, the NBA went through what some called the “dark ages”. While some say that this period in time was referred that way because of little fanfare due the lack of televised games and only hardcore fans really kept up with the league, other had a different definition of what some people were referring to. Many Americans were quoted as saying that the NBA had become “too black” so white America stopped watching and going to NBA games (Schneider-Maye 2010). They were turned off by the dwindling of the white player. Because the NBA community is backed by billionaires and controlled very carefully, they can make sure that their global marketing and history leaves out what some refer to as the dark ages. With that being said, players like Russell fought to make the NBA what it is today. Without players like Russell and the fight within the league and outside of the community in the civil rights arena, the NBA would be nowhere near what it is today. Charles Barkley made a point during the 2018 NBA awards that anytime he sees Bill Russell or any other player that played during that timeframe, he says thank you for what you did to pave the way for me to be able to make a career with basketball.
Among all professional sports communities, the NBA has by far and away been in the forefront of cultural expressions (Hancock 2013). The NBA and certain NBA players have made a major impact on certain cultures. Many of today’s clothing choices have come from the world of the NBA. Allen Iverson set the stage for kids to want tattoos. That phenomena expended to other sports and made a big influence on various cultures. The NBA has a program called Basketball Without Borders. This program is designed to implement social change. With this program, many present and former players act as camp coaches and bring people from a variety of economic, national and cultural backgrounds from four different continents together through basketball. The NBA community is slowly but surely reaching its tentacles to countries throughout the world. Five years ago, the NBA traveled to China for preseason scrimmage games. Chinese fans were able to get a glimpse of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors practice in Shanghai. The Chinese social media site Weixin provided a platform, for which the NBA has an account, for fans to get tickets. As the NBA wants to grow their community, they catered to what the Chinese fans would like to see by depicting playoff teams as kingdoms that were feuding (Hancock 2013). They dressed the players in armor and holding weapons in front of Chinese pagodas and pavilions. While doing this, the NBA installed over eight hundred thousand basketball hoops in Chinese villages. It is now estimated that more than three hundred million people now play the sport in China (Hancock 2013).
Contemporary challenges have arisen lately in the NBA. With the major growth and publicity, the NBA has seen an influx of players that feel they are ready to be a part of this thriving community, the major challenge for the NBA at this time is the One and Done Rule. This rule allows college kids to enter the NBA draft after their freshman year. Once they enter the draft, they give up their right to go back to college. This is an issue. It is not right for a student athlete to try to go pro and then not be drafted, then they are out of school and out of their NBA dream. This is a problem that must be corrected immediately. While the NBA can pay players a staggering amount of money, those players who are starring in the NCAA and filling up arenas, are not allowed to make any money at all. The NBA states that the player must attend one year of college prior to entering the NBA draft. Is this fair? If one can get a job anywhere at the age of 18, what prevents them from working as a basketball player at the same age? NBA star Ben Simmons, while in college, stated, “I’m [at LSU] because I have to be here … I can’t get a degree in two semesters, so it’s kind of pointless. I feel like I’m wasting time.” So what you have is a community that will only accept so many people, yet are expanding their fanbase and wanting more to join. At some point, something has to give. They have developed the G League for players who just aren’t quite good enough for the NBA. Professional leagues in many countries have also grown, creating their own communities because of the bottleneck for positions available in the NBA (Brewer 2017).
While the NBA has grown dramatically and reached a worldwide audience, it must be careful at this point in time. The NBA has stayed away from controversy like the NFL has dealt with, but that could change at any time with one bad move. With the growing market, the reach of foreign audience, and the influence the NBA has, it will be a great community to watch grow over the next several years. If you take a look at the list of some of the best NBA players of today, most lists will contain the names of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embid, Karl Anthony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. If you watch ESPN during the NBA season, you will see highlights from all of these players every night. The players are the current league All-Stars. They also have something else in common. All but one of these players were born and raised in a country outside of the United States. I am stating this for reasons that are twofold. First, this shows how influential the NBA has become in countries outside of the United States. These players all watched and looked up to NBA players while playing in their own countries. Second, these players now have the chance to do the same thing as Bill Russell and many others before them. They can make a positive change in their countries because now they have the status and the funds to do so. One of the first international players in the NBA was Dikembe Mutombo. After Mutombo’s playing days, he donated $15 million to the Democratic Republic of Congo to build a hospital which bears his name (Murphy 2006). For many years, avid Stearn, the NBA commissioner and his team, focused on growing the NBA’s brand internationally. He did not want to just build revenue, but he wanted to develop a sport globally. He has done so with a massive audience increase and has brought the best players in the world to the NBA community. Community is defined as a group of people that live in the same place or have a particular characteristic in common. While some people are born into certain communities, others make their way to a community via different routes. The NBA is a community that certainly brings people from all walks of life together.
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