Over the last 25 years, playing basketball has been my primary avenue of making connections with people. Now, as I travel the world, working and living remotely, it’s become more important than ever.
I grew up playing basketball in England, where the sport was considerably less popular than football (soccer), cricket and rugby. I won a three-on-three tournament in Germany when I was 14, took second in MVP voting at camp when I was 17 and played for London’s biggest club team aged 18. As my 9-5 career took off, I found a home with a club team in the UK playing semi-professionally, spending weekends travelling up and down the country for games.
After moving to Australia, I played for nearly a season at the ABA level before leaving to travel and work full-time with my girlfriend, Lou, who played Division I college basketball in the US and joins me when I play in different places.
Every country offers differences in the way basketball is adopted, played, coached and enjoyed. Here’s what we've learned…
Australia produces some great athletes, and I think that if the AFL wasn’t around, more Australians would be spread around the globe as professionals in a variety of sports. The ABA league was a fast and physical game that had me in fantastic physical condition.
Sydney afforded me the opportunity to frequently play against a variety of competition and the access to the game here is fantastic. Many indoor courts offer availability to shoot or get involved in open runs, and the city, with its cosmopolitan setup, offered competition against a range of players and skill levels from around the world.
Filipinos love basketball. In a country with over 7000 islands and hundreds of dialects, basketball has become a uniting force. Sadly, the main pro-league only operates around Manila, but that doesn’t seem to have fazed many – I’ve seen basketball courts in some of the most remote locations you can imagine, with children running around barefoot throwing up shots.
I managed to coach at a local school in the city of Davao, where the current President Duterte was originally mayor. What the kids there lacked in proper equipment and skill development, they more than made up for in passion for the game.
The NBA is readily available on TV, which would explain why so many local players mimic American stars. To a point, of course. As a generally shorter nation of people, Filipinos’ games tend to be more below the rim, featuring flashy moves and dribbling displays.
Basketball is not a big game in Vietnam – football, tennis and ping-pong tend to rule the roost there. Unlike the Philippines, you won’t see makeshift hoops and courts all over the cities. I had to travel down to a large expat community on the outskirts of Ho-Chi Minh city to get an opportunity to play.
Some of the local pro-players would turn up to our open sessions, so it was a good opportunity to test my skills against these players. Like many countries in Southeast Asia, the pro-level is made up of a mixture of import, naturalised citizens and homegrown players. The game remains mainly below the rim and is less physical than the higher levels in Australia.
One of the highlights was watching Lou jump across two guys to grab a rebound and make a put back – it’s always fun to see guys’ reactions when that happens.
Sadly, England cut the majority of funding to basketball after the 2012 Olympics, so development of the game will continue at a snail’s pace. Basketball has always appeared to have a somewhat underground culture in the UK and the pro league follows similar rules regarding import players to many of the leagues around the world (a maximum of two per team).
The game itself is not as physical as it is in the US and Australia, focusing more on skill development. But without a thriving network of its own, talented players are usually encouraged to leave at the earliest opportunity, either for high school opportunities in the States or academies in Europe.
Hong Kong is obsessed with basketball sneaker culture like nowhere else I’ve been. Every corner has a Nike store and you can’t go a few streets without running into a sign for a collector's shoe store.
Passion for for the sport is also evident on the streets, with many outdoor courts dotted around the city. During the evenings, floodlights go on and people play. The love for street ball is represented in players’ flashy dribble sequences and elaborate moves. To an old-timer like me, that kind of showmanship defeats the purpose of actually scoring the basketball efficiently, but the energy of the city is unique. And being able to shoot baskets on a court nestled in among the vast high-rises was an experience I’ll never forget.
I consider Spain to be the number two nation behind America. It might not produce the number of incredible athletes, but the youth development leagues are strong, and the teaching of fundamentals and team play is fantastic.
Lou and I spent three months in Barcelona, which has a number of courts and plenty of opportunities to play. Spanish players tend to be friendly but also very passionate about the game. We played once or twice a week with a mixture of locals, Europeans and Americans in what were very competitive games. Most of the players were of a decent level, so we had to limit our mistakes.
The home of basketball. Everyone who grows up playing basketball reveres the US and ultimately wants the chance to test themselves against Americans.
The style of play is what you’d expect – very fast, physical and aggressive. It’s built around speed and attacking the basket. Sometimes the game at lower levels is criticised because of the lack of fundamental play, with leagues like the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) prioritising money over player development.
From what I can tell, the US still produces the best athletes in the world. In Asia, and even Sydney, it’s unlikely to see someone executing a drop step and dunking on you or flying past you for an alley-oop. Once you get to the upper high school levels and beyond, that becomes standard there. Defending that type of athleticism becomes a different job entirely.
I was fortunate to play pickup in Washington DC (that went well) and Detroit (didn’t go so well), and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
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