There probably aren't many times when the NFL looks at the NBA with envy, but this surely has to be one of them. Dominant as it is domestically, professional football has no equivalent to the global phenomenon that is Jeremy Lin right now. While the NFL still tries to convince international audiences they should pay attention, the NBA enters its All-Star weekend with not just the hottest story -- Lin -- but with an expanding brand, one that has a foothold once again in China.
Twenty years ago, as basketball braced for the debut of the Dream Team, "international" in NBA terms essentially meant Eastern Europe. Yes, there were players from other places in the world, notably Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Manute Bol, all African. But they'd been trained and Americanized, to a great degree, at U.S. colleges before their NBA careers. The truly exotic players (that's the way it seemed at the time) were mostly from Eastern Europe. The list included Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Arvydas Sabonis, Drazen Petrovic and Sarunas Marciulionis.
With rosters in flux, it's difficult to come up with an accurate count on any one day, but it appears that the NBA currently has 89 foreign-born players from 40 countries. That's nearly double the number on NBA rosters on opening night in the fall of 2000. That number, of course, doesn't even include Lin, an American-born-and-raised player whose parents emigrated from Taiwan and who is having at the moment a bigger impact on the sport worldwide than LeBron James.
As one longtime NBA executive with experience scouting in China said this week: "Jeremy Lin may be the impetus that takes a country already gaga over basketball and makes it the next basketball power. You reach a critical point when you have interest, which China does population which equals talent and the financial means. China's expanding economy can support the players, the development of youth programs and new facilities. Remember, more people play basketball in China on a regular basis than there are, total population, in the U.S."
Of course, it isn't just China where interest in professional basketball has exploded. Tony Ronzone, who has worked as a coach, scout and executive for several NBA clubs, talked this week about the "dramatic change" he has seen in the globalization of basketball since the Dream Team took the court at the Barcelona Olympics in the summer of 1992.
"I'll be in, say, Odessa and it's midnight in the Ukraine when I return to my hotel," Ronzone said, "and turn on the TV and there's the Clippers playing the Rockets on NBA TV. The brand has extended to a point people here mostly don't realize. The game now includes practically every nationality and race. There's a pro league everywhere. I coached the Saudi Arabia national team. I was invited to North Korea to bring my videotapes. They invited me as an Italian; nobody wanted to say I was from America. Look, the infrastructure is still challenged in Third World countries. But watching Sabonis years ago, watching Dirk Nowitzki now, has opened their eyes."
Ronzone figures he's visited 71 countries scouting basketball players and conducted coaching clinics in as many as 55. He has spent a ton of time traveling through China and ticks off professional leagues in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Japan. While traveling with the Mavericks' Donnie Nelson in 1998, Ronzone discovered a young Yao Ming playing 3-on-3 in the streets of Shanghai.
"The thing you have to keep in mind as we watch the Jeremy Lin phenomenon," Ronzone said, "is that we're not just talking about China. They're watching this closely and in huge numbers throughout Asia in South Korea where there's a great pro league, the KBL. But the impact in China will be phenomenal. Look, Yao Ming is 7-foot-5 and Lin is 6-foot-3. There are 300 million people regularly playing basketball in China alone; 200 million of them are guards. You have the talent and the billionaires to sustain and grow these leagues. I ran across more than 30 7-footers in China, from Mongolia to Beijing. I think in five to 10 years, now that they're just starting to really adopt weight training, we're going to see a real migration of Chinese players."
That's if China doesn't keep its players in its own leagues, a possibility that has to worry the NBA on some level.
Another scout with experience traveling through China said: "It might take a couple of decades. But as China develops rivalries, aspirations, youth facilities, developmental leagues and recognition of people like Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin, they'll start harvesting. China, [in] 20 years, will be like Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Yugoslavia embraced it in the 1970s and 1980s and developed Vlade Divac, Kukoc, Petrovic . By the time we got to the '90s, Yugoslavian coaches dominated the Euro leagues and FIBA Europe. If FIBA Asia starts to take on the look of Chinese basketball, look out. Their pro leagues are already starting to compete with other pro leagues around the world. We're on the cusp of an explosion of basketball in China."
All that said, when I asked Ronzone what place in the world impresses him the most right now in terms of sheer talent, especially if he projects long-term, he said: "Africa is coming. Trust me, there are 25 Serge Ibakas and Bismack Biyombos in Africa right now. OK, the infrastructure isn't there yet, and there's no real history of playing the game yet. But the best players are transitioning from what I call a soccer mentality. They're very athletic and they use their footwork when trying to come up with the answer, 'How do I get by him?' Think of Steve Nash and footwork. In America, our coaches put young players underneath the basket, and if the kid doesn't grow anymore, he still doesn't have the skill set of a smaller player. [Internationally], they teach everyone to play basketball outside first, so that all the kids regardless of size have certain skills."
Suddenly the world is watching an Asian-American excel in Madison Square Garden -- one who, so far, is being warmly embraced and not resented by the biggest stars in the league, the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Durants. It's a story that, from all indications, plays well in Cameroon, in Iran, in Tanzania, as well as in Norman, Okla., or Tuscaloosa, Ala.
There's an increasing shrinking of the world and a world culture that is developing, and basketball is tapping into it. The night he checked out Lin, one NBA scout wrote, "May be a really good NBA prospect because he has a definable position for which he has the requisite skill knows how to make others on the floor better already."
Now, he notes, "Anybody who bursts the stereotype changes the game."
He could have added "further impacts attitudes and the expansion of the game." Lin is the everyman who through perseverance made himself an NBA player, reminding people worldwide that nothing is unattainable. It is an extraordinary story, the personal part of which has been celebrated appropriately. But the global cultural impact the Lin phenomenon has had on the game of basketball won't be fully told or appreciated for quite a few years.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.