During March Madness, as we carefully fill in our NCAA tournament brackets, we tend to think about basketball as a quintessentially American pastime. But the United States hardly has a monopoly on a love of hoops. The sport has thriving leagues and devoted fans across the globe — in Europe, Asia and South America — as well.
Here are a few countries where basketball’s big:
Israel: Basketball has been bouncing around in Israel for decades. The Israeli Basketball Super League, known in Hebrew as Ligat HaAl, was founded way back in 1954 and has, over the years, exported players to the NBA and pitted its star players against NBA teams in exhibition games. In October 2005, the Maccabi Tel Aviv got a lot of attention when it defeated the Toronto Raptors in an exhibition game in Toronto. It was the first victory for any European or Israeli team over an NBA team on an NBA home court.
China: Hoops is one of China’s most popular sports, with hundreds of millions of people both playing and watching the game. (It actually embraced the sport shortly after it was invented in 1891.) The country’s most prestigious professional basketball league (yes, there’s more than one) is the Chinese Basketball Association, founded in 1995, which has produced NBA players including Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and Sun Yue. The CBA has imported talent as well, with NBA players like Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Gilbert Arenas traveling to play with teams like Beijing Ducks and Shanghai Sharks. Beijing even recently erected a life-size bronze statue of Marbury, who led the Ducks to their first-ever CBA championship win last year.
Spain: Yes, they’re mad for soccer in Spain, but they’re also big into basketball – or “baloncesto,” as it’s called in Spanish. Spain’s Liga ACB is not only the top-tier professional basketball league in Spain, it’s among the best in the world and has turned out NBA superstars like Barcelona-born L.A. Laker Pau Gasol. Last year, Spanish B-ball fans got something new to brag about, when their national team gave Team USA – a new dream team that included NBA superstars like Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryan and LeBron James – a serious run for the gold at the 2012 Olympics before ultimately settling for silver.
With basketball mania raging and rebounding through countries from Argentina to Australia, as well as Italy, Macedonia, Greece, the Philippines and France, basketball has become a big-time global sport, crossing cultures and languages. Turns out the whole world’s mad for hoops – and not only in March.