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Mar 05 2014

On the Outside Looking In

Dissecting the anatomy of foreign fandom.

It’s an atypically mild winter’s night on a Wednesday in mid-January. There’s a hefty slate of games to be played in the Association, and your team’s division rivals are in town. The pre-game festivities are about to start, which means it’s time to catch your local cable broadcast feed. This involves absorbing the wisdom of a former NBA journeyman who was once an amateur star. You’re not really fond of what he brings to the table, but hey, it’s the home announce team, so… whatever.

This is all pretty standard practice amidst the minutiae of an NBA regular season, right?

Well, not for me. Where I am, it’s not even Wednesday — it’s around 10:30 on a Thursday morning, I’ve just finished my obligatory second intake of caffeine, and I’m settling in at work/school for the day. It’s still mild outside, and perhaps even a little overcast, but the phrases “snow,” and “polar vortex,” aren’t even in my consciousness. It’s summer. There is no “local” feed available and, most likely, there is no cable feed at all. National broadcast schedules aside, there’s apparently little room for small market outfits in the cutthroat climate of overseas interest. These are the all too real conditions of life as an avid international NBA fan.

As a native of Australia — since transported to the Maple Leaf Land — NBA fandom offers an altogether different viewing experience. At the core of all of the problems associated with being a fan located overseas is one thing: exposure. With no local broadcasts, little to no legitimate domestic media coverage and, for the longest time, no luxuries such as International League Pass (Broadband), and no Twitter, access can be hard to come by.

How, then, does one’s following realistically perpetuate, let alone come to pass? It’s simple, if not a little sad.

NBA players as identified by country, in 2006. Image courtesy of NBA.com.

With so many platforms carrying geographic restrictions, the publications that remain readily available hold extra value. Religiously reading SLAM Magazine (albeit three months after the fact), setting HoopsHype as your home page and, perish the thought, trawling across the pages of an official NBA register to build a catalogue of stats knowledge, become near-daily habits. If these practices sound like vestiges of a bygone era, it is because they are.

As for the games, live stat updates are the viewing alternative. The game trackers have left me in a torrid love affair with the “refresh” button, frivolously clicking away as I track Kenny Thomas’s offensive rebounds midway through the second quarter. But reading box score after box score is a vastly different medium. Statistics become blurred, and devoutly sifting through them can lead to confusion as to whether you’re monitoring basketball or binary code.

Much has changed, and progressed, in recent years. The continued influx of foreigners into the league has altered the mindset, whereby an international player occupying a roster spot may now be commonplace, rather than an outlier. Enhancements to the League Pass setup, the proliferation of podcasts and blogs as mainstream media forms, and the sustained emergence of prospects abroad, for example, have handsomely flanked and complemented the traditional fan pastime.

There have been stepping stones along the way – international players being selected at number one overall in the draft – though these developments can only move the needle so far. Sure, progress is made and awareness is heightened when local names and familiar faces become globally recognised figures, but the game’s growth (and the extent to which it can be consumed) aren’t overly affected. As is, international fans like myself are left relishing the chance to get sporadic looks at Jamaal “Big Cat” Magloire and a 37-year-old Toni Kukoc suit up for the 2006 Milwaukee Bucks. To get the full NBA experience, we have to dig deeper, search wider, and ultimately, get creative.

Although it might take landmark occasions — such as three Australian players starting in the same NBA game, or the Sixers’ appointing of a former national team coach – to garner “newsworthy” attention, the league’s image and command are wholeheartedly positive abroad. And yet, even with the NBA having summoned some 147 games away from the shores of North America since 1978, ultimately, one mysterious land remains uncharted: my homeland, Australia. In this alternate universe, though, one thing (sadly) stays the same — the Sixers are still terrible.