Scandinavian Hoop Dreams
Two thousand and eleven was the first year in NBA history that a European-born player garnered the NBA Finals MVP award. It’s no secret that over the past decade, stars from Europe have had an increasing impact on American basketball. As NBA champions, Dirk, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker lead the pack. Beyond the strong talent pools of Spain and France, ballplayers from Croatia and Serbia have entertained American fans for decades. Players from the emerging powerhouses Russia, Turkey, and Italy have paved inroads into NBA arenas over the last ten years as well. Israel and Greece maintain fantastic pro leagues primed with hoopers ready for export. With the odd exception of the UK, every European territory exudes NBA players. Everywhere, that is, except Scandinavia.
Perhaps NBA expectations are too grandiose for a group of countries whose combined population amounts to twenty five million – equal to that of Texas. How many NBA players could they reasonably produce? But dismissal on account of such demographics does not satisfy. Slovenia, comprised of only two million folks, gave us Sasha Vujacic (perhaps not the greatest example) and Goran Dragic (a better example). Latvia and Lithuania, each with fewer than four million inhabitants, gave us Sarunas Jasikevicius, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Andris Biedrins.
To be fair, Scandinavia does have one player on an NBA roster, Sweden’s Jonas Jerebko, an All-Rookie Second Team selection in 2010 who missed all of last season with an injury. This coming season will determine whether or not Jonas was a one-hit wonder, and prove an accurate barometer of how far Swedish hoops have yet to progress. Regardless, considering how many professional athletes hail from Scandinavia as a whole, those pursuing basketball are few and far between.
Scandinavian nations undoubtedly possess NBA-caliber athletes. From the soccer pitch to the ice rink, from track and field to the ski slopes, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Finnish competitors have historically excelled on the world stage. Especially in today’s NBA, where size and athleticism are privileged above skill, Scandinavians should fit right in. So where are they? I caught up with Swedish National Team coach and fellow American Brad Dean to hear his thoughts on the development of Scandinavian hoops.
“It’s coming,” Dean assures me, as he explains the gradual but unmistakable growth in the crop of Swedish players over the last decade. Dean is well aware of the challenges that persist throughout this process. “Hockey and football (soccer) draw a lot of athletes,” he concedes, and always will in this part of the world. Nevertheless, Dean remains optimistic that “if our national team continues to have success and our players perform well abroad,” the quality of the Swedish game will keep rising.
My three-month excursion in Sweden taught me that access to facilities remains a crucial barrier for increasing basketball’s popularity in the region. There are virtually no public outdoor courts, and the baskets already erected are barely in working order. Lund’s indoor court comprises about half the size of a normal basketball court, which significantly inhibits game play. Still, as my friend and former semi-pro player Ali Shirazi concurs, basketball has come a long way in this country during our lifetimes. “When I was coming up as a kid, not many kids played, says Ali. “The sport has definitely become more popular.” Don’t be surprised if the next generation of NBA first round picks call Scandinavia home.