The U.S. men’s national basketball team got a reality check on the road to Olympic gold this week, losing two consecutive exhibition games against Nigeria and Australia.
But for Mark Tatum, the deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of the NBA, those defeats marked a victory of sorts, in the league’s decades long quest to internationalize the game of basketball.
“The world is getting better, and I think that makes basketball a much more attractive game for the world to follow,” Tatum said, in an interview on Yahoo Finance Live. “We're happy to see that level of competition continue to grow and grow.”
Tatum has played an instrumental role in expanding the reach of the league in his seven years on the job, helping establish NBA Academies globally to develop home grown talent, and launching international basketball leagues.
The opening-night roster for the 2020-21 NBA season featured 107 international players from 41 countries. Seven of those players, including Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo are playing in the NBA Finals.
“The talent really has been democratized,” said Tatum.
“These international players now are not just playing in the NBA, they are MVPs, the most improved players, defensive players of the year,” he added, alluding to Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic from Serbia and Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert from France.
Members of Team USA have taken note. Following the loss to Australia, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, who led the U.S. in scoring with 22 points, acknowledged the talent level has been elevated globally.
“In the past, when I’ve watched Team USA win, you’d have one guy on a different team that is in the rotation in the NBA. Then, they might have a guy on the bench that’s just on a team,” said Lillard at the post-game press conference. “Now you go out there and the whole starting five is from NBA teams and rotation players.”
The Australian team that beat the U.S. featured Patty Mills from the San Antonio Spurs, Joe Ingles from the Utah Jazz, and Matisse Thybulle from the Philadelphia 76ers.
Nigeria’s roster includes Josh Okogie of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Miye Oni of the Utah Jazz, and Chimezie Metu of the Sacramento Kings. The team's coach, Mike Brown, is an assistant for the Golden State Warriors, and former head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Growing basketball talent outside of America, may not bode well for Team USA in its pursuit of its 16th Olympic gold. While the U.S., with NBA players, has dominated the Olympic games in recent years, the team went 1-4 in its last five games against international competition. That was preceded by an impressive 101-4 record.
The league has continued to seize the opportunity, taking their pre-season games abroad, signing international contracts with networks including China’s Tencent, and expanding its social media presence, where nearly 70% of their followers are outside of the U.S.
“Our business around the world continues to grow, which fuels talent from all those parts of the world into our league, which makes the league that much more attractive to our fans on a global basis,” Tatum said.
Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita