As I sit on a stationary bicycle at the gym watching Netherlands play Uruguay in the World Cup, I am reminded of one thought: Man, do I miss basketball!
Don’t get me wrong. I love the World Cup. I actually attended a match in 1994 in Pasadena between Sweden and Cameroon, and later I went to the finals of two Women’s World Cups (including the famous Brandi Chastain “sports bra” game at the Rose Bowl). Each time I went I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and was impressed by the skill level of the players and the passion of the fans.
But soccer just ain’t basketball.
But neither is baseball, or rugby, or cricket, or any other sport for that matter. I believe that only basketball, of all the team sports, has the best chance to supplant soccer as the world’s favorite game one day. Here are seven reasons why:
Basketball is cheap to play – For a game to be a true world sport it must be affordable for all, not only for those in rich nations. That’s why my second favorite sport, hockey, will never be a major attraction outside of the wealthy cold northern nations that can easily afford rinks and expensive equipment. A major reason for soccer’s worldwide success is because of how inexpensive it is to play. Basketball has the same advantage as only a ball and a hoop are needed to keep a dozen players occupied for an afternoon. Shoes are also nice, but not crucial, as was proven to me by a group of barefoot hoopsters I watched play in Tanzania one day. This one’s a tie. Score: Basketball 1, Soccer 1
Basketball can be played anywhere – Basketball is truly a game for all seasons as it can be played indoors or outdoors on dirt, concrete, wood, or cement. Soccer is played on all surfaces recreationally, but requires a national park-sized field for a regulation match. As the world’s population rises, open land becomes harder to find. Conversely, the urbanization of the world actually helps basketball’s popularity as more concrete means more paved playing surfaces. Score: Basketball 2, Soccer 1
Basketball has lots of scoring – When you hear, “Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh,” coming from your television, you either have an adult channel on the tube, or you are hearing the final scores for the last three World Cup matches. There just aren’t enough goals scored in soccer. A typical NBA game features about 100 baskets scored between the two teams. This is in sharp contrast to soccer, where the five goals scored in the 3-2 Netherlands victory over Uruguay that just concluded would be considered a high-scoring game. (American football has the same problem, but has disguised its lack of scoring by giving a touchdown six points, cleverly making us feel like there is more scoring than there actually is.) This one’s easy. Score: Basketball 3, Soccer 1
Every basketball skill is required for every player – A fundamental flaw of most sports is that not all players perform all aspects of their game. Take baseball for example. Only one guy on the field pitches. The same is true for soccer where one player out of eleven is allowed to use his hands. Basketball is different, and perhaps unique among team sports, in that every player who steps on to a court will be called on at one time or another to perform his sport’s four main tasks: to dribble, pass, shoot, and rebound. It’s not a game where only one guy out of five is allowed to shoot. (Now, as to whether some players should be allowed to shoot is another story. “Stay inside the 3-point line, Artest.”) Score: Basketball 4, Soccer 1.
Basketball adapts – Like the catchy Gatorade song says, “If you want a revolution, the only solution’s evolve, gotta evolve.” Throughout its history, basketball has readily adopted ideas to make the game faster (the 24-second clock) and more exciting (the 3-point line). It has also employed instant replay, which is largely barred by tradition from the nineteenth century games of soccer and baseball (you can read my recent rant about baseball and instant replay here: When Baseball Lost Me). This World Cup has been marred by a host of questionable game-influencing calls that could easily have been corrected by instant replay, which FIFA shuns. Basketball doesn’t have those hangups and uses technology wisely. Score: Basketball 5, Soccer 1.
Basketball has a time clock – This might be basketball’s biggest advantage over soccer. In basketball, when there is no time left on the clock, the game is over. It’s that simple. Not so in soccer. A game is 90 minutes long, more or less. A referee on the field keeps the actual time, and can choose to add more time at the end at his or her own discretion. Can you imagine basketball without the last-second shot? What a drama killer. Score: Basketball 6, Soccer 1.
Basketball already is a world game – Have you seen the NBA rosters lately? At the start of the last season, 13.6% of the NBA was foreign born, including some of the best players in the league, like Steve Nash (Canada), Dirk Nowitzi (Germany), Yao Ming (China), and Tony Parker (France). Players don’t just come out of American colleges these days, but from places like Turkey, Russia, and the Sudan. Even the NBA Champion Lakers have players on their squad from Spain, Slovenia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Soccer has a few Americans playing in Europe, but not like the tons of American guys who play in overseas basketball leagues. And speaking of those leagues, have you noticed how much they have improved over the past few years? I thought I was watching an NBA game recently in a restaurant, but it turned out to be two teams from Israel. They could have given some of the lower-tiered teams in the Association a good game. Another score for B-Ball.
Even with soccer’s anemic scoring system basketball wins in a blow-out. Final Score: Basketball 7, Soccer 1.
Maybe someday I will get my wish, and there will be a basketball World Cup. Then the Finals could be between the Western Division Champs (meaning the champions of the Western Hemisphere), and the rest of the world. I could even foresee a day when all other sports fall by the wayside, and only soccer and basketball are played. Then the future would be a sports equivalent to the science-fiction television series Firefly where the only languages in the future are English and Chinese.
And if it turns out that we only have these two sports in a distant age, I ask a favor in advance from both of their governing bodies: Please give us a future with no flopping!