TORONTO — It was only fitting that talk of international basketball and opportunities globally dominated NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s annual pre-Finals news conference Thursday.
Game 1 between the Warriors and the Raptors, after all, marked the first Finals game ever played outside the United States.
Silver talked at length about the NBA’s history in and connections to Canada — Dr. James Naismith hailed from Ontario before inventing the game back in 1891, and what’s considered the first NBA game was played in 1946 between the Knicks and the Huskies in Toronto. Then he fielded a series of questions about basketball’s growth across borders, from Europe to China to Africa and beyond.
“I think symbolically,” Silver said, “having our first Finals outside the United States maybe has a big impact on countries that follow the NBA but don’t have teams, whether that be in Asia or whether that be in Latin America. So I think as we look back in time at the NBA calendar, I mean, this clearly is a marker of sorts.”
Within the maple-leaf context of Games 1 and 2 of these Finals, there is an international flavor to the teams involved. The Warrrios have Andrew Bogut (Australia) and Jonas Jerebko (Sweden) while the Raptors feature Pascal Siakam (Cameroon), Serge Ibaka (Republic of Congo), OG Anunoby (UK), Marc Gasol (Spain) and Chris Boucher (Canada). Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s president of basketball operations, is a native of Nigeria.
Of Africa specifically, Silver said: “I think it absolutely speaks to the opportunity across [its] roughly 55 countries. I think it’s one of the places we’re looking in the world where we see enormous opportunity. Certainly China as well. We’re opening with games in Mumbai, India for the first time next season, but in Africa we have elected to launch a league.”
The Basketball Africa League, with 12 teams operating in collaboration with global governing body FIBA, is scheduled to begin play in January. Qualification tournaments will be held to determine those clubs, with teams from Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia expected to take part.
Silver cited digital media as propelling the sport in Africa, “a continent of over a billion people, where there are something like 700 million cell phones. It’s been revolutionary in terms of the people of Africa’s ability to watch our games in real time on handheld devices.”
But wait, there’s more …
Silver spoke of China, where the current political issue of trade tariffs could have implications for the NBA’s business. The commissioner has had multiple conversations with former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, now chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association.
“This is something Yao and I have discussed, where we can use basketball maybe in the way ping-pong was used in the days of Richard Nixon,” Silver said, “that there could be something called ‘basketball diplomacy.’
“And it is an area where our two countries have excellent history of cooperation, where we work closely with the Chinese Basketball Association on player development, referee development.
The World Cup of Basketball will be staged in China in September, and before that, the Chinese national team will compete in the Las Vegas Summer League in July. Those and other initiatives presumably will spur the game’s continued growth there.
“Also, we are in the process of building academies in China to help develop the young players,” Silver said. “Because of Yao’s experience in the NBA, he sees how it’s done, not just in the United States but in other places in the world. I think he understands that given the enormous number of young people, boys and girls, playing basketball, there’s more that we can be doing to develop elite players.”
There’s plenty of room, too, to grow the game in Canada. Silver didn’t offer any false hope that expansion would deliver the nation’s second franchise to Vancouver or Montreal anytime soon. But it wasn’t lost on him that his league’s Finals have taken over Toronto — while the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals (Boston-St. Louis) are being played.
“I’m a fan,” Silver said. “[NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman worked at the NBA years ago when I first started, and so we’re generally supportive of other sports. And the way we look at sort of NBA or our programming is that we’re competing against everything else on every other channel, every other form of entertainment. So we don’t necessarily focus on where hockey stands vis-a-vis the NBA.
“So I’m paying attention to the Stanley Cup. … It’s a big country, Canada. There’s plenty of opportunity.”
Among other topics:
• Silver offered up well wishes for Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, still hospitalized after suffering a reported stroke Sunday in Detroit.
• A question about Drake was inevitable, and Silver spoke of balancing the musical artist’s unofficial status as a Raptors’ “ambassador” with the very real issue of player and coach safety on NBA courts. Drake was caught giving Toronto coach Nick Nurse a quick and unexpected neck rub during a recent game. The league office did look into the incident.
“We understood that in this case, given Drake’s relationship to the team, it’s not the same as just any fan who happened to be courtside touching a coach,” Silver said. “But I think that’s an absolute bright line that we have to draw.”
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