The NBA Hall of Fame recently inducted new members, including Portland Trailblazer legend Arvydas Sabonis, the first Lithuanian player to be thus enshrined but one of a growing number of players to blaze the trail (pun sort of intended, but only because it's convenient) from Europe and other parts of the world and make their way in American sport. Ichiro Suzuki from Japan; Yao Ming from China; the list has expanded dramatically in recent years.
[Photo credit: Bruce Ely, The Oregonian]
Meanwhile, the United States is finally entering more fully into the most truly global sport--soccer/football--with the growing success of Major League Soccer. While the level of play still does not approach European leagues like the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Germany's Bundesliga or Italy's Serie A, older players with major stature are beginning to cross the pond. The LA Galaxy's David Beckham (England), of course, is the obvious example, but other players ranging from the New York Red Bulls' Thierry Henry (France) to the Galaxy's newest signing, Robbie Keane (Ireland), will continue to raise the league's international stature. Meanwhile, younger players from around the world are coming to the MLS and increasing our awareness of international sport. My own Portland Timbers boast players from all over the world, from Ghana's Kalif Alhassan to Columbia's Diego Chara and Jorge Perlaza.
The globalization of sport has significant consequences. Competition within the strongest leagues is incredibly intense, bringing with it concerns about the future of the domestic game in these countries. England, for example, is beset with controversy about the success of the Premier League in bringing in foreign talent at the possible expense of young English players. Smaller or less financially robust leagues can suffer. The Scottish Premier League poses one such example.
On the whole, however, and certainly in the context of American sport, I would suggest that the stories of Arvydas Sabonis, other sporting pioneers and the MLS bode well for our understanding of the world around us. Historically, we have exhibited such a strong tendency toward gating ourselves off from the rest of the world. Our domestic sports leagues tend to further our tendencies toward exclusivity--the "World Series" of baseball, for example, much as I love the sport, elides the sport's multinational story. The stories of these athletes from elsewhere can help us more fully understand everything from foreign policy to the commonalities among people from different backgrounds.
The Blazers made Sabonis a first-round draft pick in 1986, the first European to be drafted; he did not arrive in the United States to play until 1995. What kept him from coming? Most notably, international politics. Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union. They didn't want him to go. Sabonis was instrumental in the defeat of the United States national basketball team at the Olympics in 1988. Today, Sabonis is a booster of the sport in a tiny country known in Europe for its basketball prowess. International power dynamics, communist repression, the emergence of a freer labor environment and the global spread of a sport founded in the United States... all in one 7-foot, 3-inch package. That's a pretty amazing history lesson!