After soccer and cricket (people around the world love cricket, like a ton), basketball probably has the farthest reach of any other sport in the world. Baseball may have a nice little hold in Japan and in the Caribbean, but basketball is huge on every continent not covered in ice.
David Stern has done an excellent job from the time he took over in 1984 to turn the NBA into an internationally recognized league, peaking in the past decade with European talent pouring into the NBA and Yao Ming driving China basketball-crazy.
Even now that Yao has retired and the first real wave of international basketball superstars have retired or are on their way out, the NBA remains immensely popular around the world, and it's not just because of international players bringing in eyes.
Guys like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are huge draws internationally, and even a few guys you wouldn't expect. But which guys in the NBA are most famous internationally, and which ones have a growing fan base?
Jeremy Lin isn't anywhere near where Yao Ming was at the peak of his popularity. In fact, he probably hasn't even equaled Yi Jianlian's popularity peak internationally quite yet.
Okay, I suppose if you factor in the Harvard contingent, the people in New York and around the U.S. who loved him for a flurry of fast-paced weeks, then he's probably up there with Yi, but he's definitely earned the up-and-coming status on the international scene.
Lin is from the U.S., but as the son of Taiwanese immigrants it's hard to imagine him not becoming popular at least in Taiwan, perhaps bleeding over into China a bit. Plus, it's hard to discount the fact that he had the second-best selling jersey in the NBA as of April 26th.
He may be coming on strong, but with just a fleeting stretch of greatness to speak of it's hard to say that he's any more popular internationally than the guys following him.
Ricky Rubio is starting to go beyond Spanish basketball star turned NBA greenhorn—he's become a pop star. He's John, Paul, George and Ringo combined. He's bigger than Jesus.
Maybe he's not quite The Beatles, but the puppy dog eyes have drawn the longing stares of every basketball fan's young daughters and even caught the eye of their fathers with his flashy style of play.
Rubio is still quite a young pup in terms of basketball experience, but he became so exciting so fast that people flocked to him.
His following has gone beyond just the Spanish contingent, as the U.S. has taken a liking to him, as has a good portion of the rest of the world, presumably with his jersey ranking as the 15th best selling NBA jersey internationally.
As would be expected, the most dominant big man in the NBA is also very popular internationally.
Howard's amiable personality (even if he did just spend the past eight months killing his image) leads to popularity in itself, but his style of play puts him over the top. He dominates the defensive end, which is exciting to see, plus he dunks a lot ,which grabs the attention of even the most indifferent basketball fan.
His jersey was the fifth-most popular NBA jersey on the international market this year, but that placing should go up over the course of the next season.
Howard, now moving from Orlando to Los Angeles, can only see his international popularity gain a boost with the bigger market and more widely-televised games getting pumped all over the world.
It makes sense once you do give it a thought or two. While Boston may not be the most highly visible team in the league, they have been in the postseason ever since Garnett was traded to the Celtics, plus they won a title with him as their fiercest, most dominant player.
He's also been one of the most dominant players ever to play his position, and he's done so in the most entertaining way possible, swatting shots and putting up huge numbers all throughout his career. Plus he's a big and physical dude, which is easy for people to attach to if they don't know anything about him in the first place.
LeBron James is the best player in the NBA, so people everywhere should love to watch him play the game.
Over the course of the next few years his achievements should pile up and his popularity internationally should continue to grow, as is usually the trend with NBA stars. They start off hot in the U.S., but the international scene is slower to accept them. Once they have a trophy shelf full to bursting, however, they become loved all over the planet.
Even now, however, LeBron is popular all over the globe, evidenced by his international jersey sales, which has topped out as the third-highest selling jersey around the world.
There's something about the Chicago Bulls that has made them one of the most popular international basketball teams.
Perhaps it's the fact that they are in such a big market and their games are televised more often; perhaps it's that they were the first real "big" thing on the international scene when Michael Jordan (and Toni Kukoc!) dominated the league; perhaps it's due to the fact that they have one of the most exciting players in the NBA.
Whatever the reason, Chicago's Derrick Rose, being the star of the team and a former MVP Award winner, has landed the third-highest selling NBA jersey on the international scene.
Pau Gasol gets a double-dose of love from the international community.
First, he's beloved by his home country, and with Spain being home to nearly 50 million people, a good portion of them adore Gasol and the other members of the Spanish national basketball team. Beyond that, he's on the Lakers, one of the most visible NBA franchises on the international level.
He's got a fun-loving personality that's easy to like, plus he has a unique game that lends itself to popularity both here and abroad.
Gasol has won championships, he's shimmied and shivered his way around the basketball court and gained a large international following along the way.
As hard a concept it may be to grasp, Steve Nash is an international basketball player, and with that comes a huge international following.
Nash is nearly a folk hero in Canada. One hundred years down the line they'll talk about him like we talk about Paul Bunyan. He could pass around any defender, run the pick-and-roll with a maple tree, shoot a floater over the CN Tower, out-run a galloping moose. You name it, he can do it.
He has been on the scene so long that he's become beloved in the U.S. nearly as much as he has in Canada, and how can the rest of the world help but love the wily fellow?
If it weren't for Hakeem Olajuwon, we would talk about Dirk Nowitzki as the best international basketball player of all time. At the very least he's the best European basketball player ever to play in the NBA (I would say ever, but Arvydas Sabonis had a marvelous international career and deserves some smattering of a conversation).
Dirk's popularity has been slowly growing over his career, and he's had such a solid one, culminating with a title back in 2011 which only increased the fans' love and respect for him.
He's not only admired internationally, but he's beloved in Germany, a country of over 80 million people who are both Dirk Nowitzki and basketball-crazy.
It's easy to see why, what with his constant greatness, his icon status on one of the two most internationally-visible franchises and even his little international connection with Italy, Kobe Bryant is the most popular basketball player in the world.
Kobe was the best player in the NBA when international interest was peaking, growing to a huge level in the late '90s and exploding beyond that with the Chinese market rumbled onto the scene in the early 2000s. It's easy to gravitate to the best player in the NBA.
Bryant not only has the best-selling jersey internationally, but it's the best-selling jersey in each individual region, leading in Europe, Latin America and China, the three biggest international markets the NBA chases.
It seems that people all over the world love Kobe, even if he does get constant scrutiny in the good ol' U-S-of-A.
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