Last week, American sprinter Noah Lyles made headlines after winning both the 100-metre and the 200-metre title (his third consecutive sweep) at the World Athletics Championship in Budapest. But the news cycle wasn’t so much concerned about his accomplishment as it was with what he said at the press conference.
The 26-year-old athlete aimed his verbal crosshairs at the NBA and expressed a sentiment that much of the world beyond the US had been thinking for some time now:
“The thing that hurts me the most is that I have to watch the NBA Finals and they have ‘World Champion’ on their heads. World champion of what? Of the United States?”
“Don’t get me wrong, I love the US — at times — but that ain’t the world. That is not the world. We are the world. We have almost every country out here fighting, thriving, putting on their flag to show that they are representative. There ain’t no flags in the NBA.”
“We’ve got to do more. We’ve got to be presented to the world. I love the track community, but we can only do so much within our own bubble. There’s a whole world out there.”
Naturally, these remarks invited criticism from countless NBA players and fans alike, who defended the “World Champion” status on the grounds that the league hosted the athletes from all across the globe. The jersey of the 2023 champs, for example, might suggest it was solely a win for Denver, Colorado, but many also view it as a win for Serbia through Nikola Jokic.
The week following Noah Lyles’ comments, the US men’s national basketball team lost 104-110 in a match against Lithuania at the 2023 FIBA World Cup. It isn’t the greatest USA basketball roster they could have fielded, sure, but maybe that’s exactly the point. They can no longer expect to steamroll other countries anymore.
By no means are we implying the US has lost its status as the country with the highest concentration of native court talent. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry — along with a majority of the NBA’s players — on a single team would still be ridiculously unfair. Although it’s safe to say the rest of the world is catching up, and Team USA’s basketball dominance isn’t as guaranteed as it used to be.
An increasingly popular idea for the NBA is to once again change the All-Star Game structure to reflect this. It used to be Western Conference vs Eastern Conference, then it was the two players with the highest votes as team captains picking their players… how about Team World vs Team USA?
Yes, the top-fight US team would beat any other country’s top-flight team. But what about every other country’s best — sort of like the Ryder Cup? Think of it now: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the starting five? The US would certainly have their work cut out for them against this hypothetical alliance of nations with Antetokounmpo and Doncic themselves both believing that Team World would dominate.
International players aren’t just designated role players that people accuse of being soft and unable to play defence anymore. The UA hasn’t had a player win MVP since 2018. Plus the #1 pick in this year’s draft was a 7’5″ kid from France.
This was always the plan for the late former NBA commissioner David Stern. He always envisioned the globalisation of the NBA; and that exciting talents would emerge from every corner of the globe. Along with FIBA secretary-general Boris Stankovic, Stern petitioned for NBA exhibition games to be played overseas and forced the NBA’s biggest names to play in the 1992 Olympics — Michael Jordan and the Dream Team’s contributions having famously caused the sport to explode in popularity.
“When I got into the league, right off the bat, you could see there was a prejudice,” explained San Antonio Spurs coach and basketball legend Gregg Popovich.
“A little hesitancy to sign a foreign player because either they wouldn’t play defence; that was the tone that would be used. Or they won’t assimilate. They won’t like it here. It’s not gonna work out.”
“And nothing could’ve been further from the truth, and I knew that because I’d travelled to so many places, whether it was Europe, Eastern Europe, Northern Europe, Russia, South America, all those places. And we’d played against some of these guys, and they were awesome every place we went. So, I knew they were out there. They were everywhere.”
“Well, long story short, now they are everywhere in the NBA.”