May 8, 2014

Any city, one game

This feature was first published as 'The Opening Tip' in the 129th edition (2014 - No. 8) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.

For international fans of the NBA, the league didn’t just teach us how to play the game, it also taught us North American geography. Even without visiting the locations, we knew the locations of American cities purely based on the division or conference they play in.

But the one fact that most global fans couldn’t ever fully appreciate – residing thousands of miles away from the NBA’s home teams – is how much the profile of a city has mattered to match its basketball output in the past. In the previous 67 years of its history, the NBA has featured franchises from various cities around the US and Canada, but some cities resonated with basketball culture much more than others.

Since the league’s inception in 1946-47 as the Basketball Association of America (BAA), three marquee franchises – the Knicks, the Lakers, and the Celtics – have survived the majority of its history while several others folded or moved. Two of these three teams – the Celtics and the Knicks – have represented major American cities with a historically serious basketball fanbases in Boston and New York from 1946. A year later, the third – Lakers – came into existence and have had a major stronghold on professional basketball; initially in Minneapolis, and famously from 1960 onwards, in Los Angeles.

Boston, New York, and Los Angeles not only represented the largest basketball markets for the NBA but were also responsible for most of the league’s success. Since 1947, at least one of these three teams made it into the NBA playoffs. 67 years in a row.
Until now.

For the first time in NBA history, we are witnessing a post-season without the Celtics, Lakers or the Knicks. What would’ve been unthinkable in the days of a young NBA is now passé. Because of its global presence and the power of the internet and social media, there is now very little correlation to a city and its team’s global popularity. The most internationally popular and/or talented teams in the league currently play in Miami (where basketball isn’t a favourite sport) and Oklahoma City (a tiny city where the Thunder are the only pro sport team). Teams from relatively ‘smaller’ markets like San Antonio, Memphis, Indiana are catching the imaginations of fans worldwide, fans who barely care about the name on the front of the jersey instead of the one on the back. A player like Kevin Durant (OKC), LeBron James (back in Cleveland), or even Kevin Love (Minnesota) can turn any city into an NBA city. The borders are widened far beyond New York, Boston, and LA.

The franchises we ignore today could be the world’s top selling jerseys a year from now. And even teams from Milwaukee or Utah could get their hands on Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker and continue the trend. For the 21st century NBA, it’s barely about the city anymore, as long as it’s the one game above all.

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