Basketball’s global spread can now be followed around the globe like a diaspora. The sport is becoming exponentially more popular in culture, as seen by its widespread appeal in China, Africa, and Europe. Still, a significant number of young players with genuine NBA potential are coming from Latin America, which is the source of the most recent talent wave entering the NBA. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the game’s global evolution from an anthropological standpoint, I spent six months traveling throughout Central and South America. I went on a mission to find out how the game is translated into different languages and cultures, and how these translations abroad are influencing the version of the game that we play at home.

Read More: play basketball in South America

The Game’s Spread

The basketball terrain is as diversified as the natural topography throughout Latin America, a region with a vastly different climate and topography. In Central and South America, basketball is definitely not yet a way of life, despite the global boom that the sport has seen. But, the game is being played by people everywhere you go. There are basketball courts even among Zapatista settlements in the jungle highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, a group best known for their aggressive political movement founded on indigenous rights. Just like you might in rural Indiana, you can usually find at least one child working on his game in the afternoons, even though during the day the courts are used to dry coffee beans. All it takes to see how deeply ingrained the sport is in the community is to glance up at the backboards. This is the text that outlines their political platform: “Democracy, Liberty, Justice.” Although the quality of play is not very high in Latin American rural regions, the game’s global reach is remarkable.

The expansion of basketball in the area comes as a bit of a surprise. With futból (soccer), the top sports draw on the continent, the sport is constantly in competition for money and public attention. In addition, basketball faces competition from volleyball in South America, particularly from Brazil and Argentina, where the sport is at its peak, and baseball in Central American nations like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Nonetheless, basketball is frequently impacted by futból in nations where it is the dominant sport, but this tends to vary based on the nation’s level of economic development.

Basketball for Latinos

The effect of futból is particularly noticeable on basketball courts in less developed nations where players lack the benefit of having excellent basketball instructors and a deep grasp of the game. Futból players naturally pass the ball as they go onto the basketball floor since it’s the only way to advance play. Players are more likely to take advantage of the defense because they frequently possess a stronger innate awareness of offensive space on the court. This is particularly valid for quick breaks. Of course, there will always be players who enjoy dribbling the ball, but even among young Latino players, passing the ball to advance play is frequently a natural instinct. But in nations like Brazil and Argentina, who have the best basketball infrastructure in the world, these innate tendencies are used to players’ advantage and seem to favor players with better basketball IQs and a general grasp of cooperation. If this seems like a standard description of basketball played in Europe, it makes sense to also consider futból’s level of popularity in that region. This is only one instance of how Latin American basketball has adjusted to cultural variations.

Basketball’s distinctive translation and popularity in these nations are just now starting to have a significant impact on the NBA. Only in 2003, when Argentinean Manu Ginobili and Brazilian Nené both achieved double figures in points per game for the year, establishing themselves as impact players at the highest level of play, did the general basketball audience become aware of the Latino effect on U.S. basketball. However, one might say that the present South American impact started in 2002, the year Nené (as well as the 6’9″ well-known Argentinean power forward Luis Scola) was drafted and Manu Ginobili joined the San Antonio Spurs. In any case, Nené and Ginobili are well-known figures in the US from an area that is quickly altering the game right in front of our eyes.

In order to truly put this worldwide phenomenon into perspective, we must keep in mind that basketball didn’t become a recognized profession in the United States until 1937, 49 years after it was invented in Dr. Naismith’s gym class. The game’s original 13 rules had been translated into 50 languages by the time of Naismith’s death in 1939. Even though the game and the Christian religion were being extensively disseminated by itinerant missionaries, foreign cultures did not embrace it until the NBA made enough progress to fully popularize the game. The NBL, BAA, ABA, and NBA had to put in a lot of work and wait another thirty years to see the level of success and popularity they do now. The NBA’s current reputation for drug-free play and financial stability wasn’t even a pipe dream in the early 1980s. However, NBA basketball was still hardly known in Europe at the time. The first foreign broadcast deal for the NBA was awarded to Italy in 1983, and that is when we have to start tracking the globalization of the sport. Even though the sport has only been around for 20 years, as a social movement, if you were to consider this the turning point for the globalization of sports as we know it today.

Nonetheless, the Caribbean and Central America are where Latin Americans’ impact on the NBA first emerged. Born in Puerto Rico, Alfred “Butch” Lee became the first Latino player to play in the NBA. The Atlanta Hawks selected him in the 1978 NBA Draft, and in his first season, he nearly put up ten points per contest. Due to a career-ending injury, he only played a few more seasons, but before he retired, he won a championship with Magic Johnson and the “showtime” Lakers. Following the conclusion of his playing career, Lee went back to his home country and rose to prominence as a head coach in the National Superior Basketball League, a summer league that has hired legendary coaches like Red Holtzman, Tex Winter, K.C. Jones, and Phil Jackson to man the sidelines.

Two Latin American players that made it to the NBA include center Horacio Llamas, who became the first Mexican player in the NBA in 1996, and Puerto Rican Ramon Rivas, who was a backup forward for Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in 1988. But throughout Latin America, there were a plethora of other trailblazing figures that act as inspirations. Rafael “Piculin” Ortiz of Puerto Rico is regarded as one of the most well-known Latino athletes in the world. The Utah Jazz selected him 16th overall in the 1987 NBA Draft. Before Carlos Arroyo received the honor, he was a strong contender to fly the Puerto Rican flag for the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Ortiz led the historic Puerto Rican national team, which shocked the United States in their opening Olympic game in Athens, Greece, defeating them 92–73, at the youthful age of 39. These players serve as a strong group of role models for the current NBA immigrants as well as for the younger generations who are currently preparing to enter the league. They join a long list of Latin Americans who have achieved success in both their home countries and Europe during the past 30 years.

The most notable influence on our game has come from the younger generation of Latino athletes, particularly during the 2004 Olympics, as teams led by Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson from the United States were defeated by teams from Puerto Rico and Argentina. These devastating defeats marked the first time professional athletes had been permitted to compete in the Olympic Games, a period that started in 1992 with the creation of the Dream Team and its yearly supremacy. This incident demonstrated to Latin America and the rest of the world that the US is vulnerable to defeat in their own backyard. More importantly, though, it offered Latino players the self-assurance they needed to not only compete at the greatest level in the world but also have an influence on NBA games through their own playing styles and game interpretations.

The international players that make up today’s NBA squads carry with them a persona shaped by the attitudes and values of their native nations. Eduardo Najera’s famous hustle on the basketball court, for instance, is a prime illustration of the kind of work ethic that is unique to Mexico, where people there approach even the most basic home chores with the same efficient attention and dedication. Other Latinos are now making an impact on the NBA on a personal and cultural level. Think of the fervor and joyful self-pride prevalent in the dynamic cultures of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as traits of the on-court personas their NBA representatives are proud of. The people of the Caribbean are known for their fiery personalities, which are exemplified by the likes of Felipe Lopez of the Dominican Republic, Francisco Garcia of the Sacramento Kings, Carlos Arroyo of the Orlando Magic, and Felipe Lopez of Puerto Rico, all of whom were former NBA players. As they make their cultural imprint on our NBA courts, they don’t hesitate to show their true colors.

The NBA is becoming more diverse as a result of the influx of Latino players, whose personalities and cultures infuse the league with fresh approaches to the game and new playing styles. The NBA is becoming a melting pot of basketball skill and expertise as a result of America’s growing regard for and education about basketball abroad. However, how do the basketball cultures in the regions these Latin American players are from look like? What distinguishes them from one another? What are their past experiences, and more significantly, what will they contribute going forward?

It is possible to observe a development of basketball infrastructure from Belize to Colombia, Uruguay to the basketball superpowers, Argentina and Brazil. There is a hierarchy among siblings of varying ages and stages of emotional or physical development, much like in a family. There are clear qualitative contrasts between these Latin American countries’ basketball cultures. I will talk about the nations I visited in order of least to most developed since each represents a certain level of basketball growth. I intend to use their disparities in maturity to illustrate the current state of globalization in Latin American basketball.