Of the four major American sports leagues, the National Basketball Association has done the most to take its game from a domestic powerhouse into an international juggernaut. When the 2015-2016 season began, the league included 100 international players (out of 446 total) from 37 countries. The Association’s popularity is still growing internationally, thanks to a combination of international outreach, technological savvy, and openness—as crystallized by these eight marquee moments that helped the basketball go global.

1992

The Dream Team

In 1989, FIBA, the international governing body of basketball, decided to allow professional players in the NBA could be just like professionals in other leagues around the world, and compete in international tournaments. Despite then-commissioner David Stern’s misgivings, the United States sent the Dream Team to Barcelona for the 1992 Summer Olympics, and finally the best basketball players in the world had the attention of an international audience. The superstar-laden roster is legendary—Jordan, Pippen, Stockton, Malone, Johnson, Bird, Ewing, Mullin, Robinson, Barkley, Drexler (and Laettner, the only non-Hall of Famer)—and utterly dominated the tournament, where they won games by an average of 44 points. The public reception in Spain was ecstatic—coach Chuck Daly likened it to “Elvis and The Beatles put together”—and the team’s effect on the game was immediately felt. Then-IOC chair Juan Antonion Samaranch called the basketball tournament “the most important aspect of the Games.”

In 1989, FIBA, the international governing body of basketball, decided to allow professional players in the NBA could be just like professionals in other leagues around the world, and compete in international tournaments. Despite then-commissioner David Stern’s misgivings, the United States sent the Dream Team to Barcelona for the 1992 Summer Olympics, and finally the best basketball players in the world had the attention of an international audience. The superstar-laden roster is legendary—Jordan, Pippen, Stockton, Malone, Johnson, Bird, Ewing, Mullin, Robinson, Barkley, Drexler (and Laettner, the only non-Hall of Famer)—and utterly dominated the tournament, where they won games by an average of 44 points. The public reception in Spain was ecstatic—coach Chuck Daly likened it to “Elvis and The Beatles put together”—and the team’s effect on the game was immediately felt. Then-IOC chair Juan Antonion Samaranch called the basketball tournament “the most important aspect of the Games.”

1994

Chinese Television Broadcasts the NBA Finals

Last year, the NBA broadcast the Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers to 215 countries in 47 different languages, across televisions, computers, and mobile devices. But the most important step toward mass-audience international broadcasting was getting the league’s games on the air in China. CCTV-China aired every game of the 1994 Finals between Houston and New York, making it the first time the country carried every game of the championship series live. It was a clear sign of rising interest in the sport. The Chinese Basketball Association began playing a year later in 1995, quickly expanded (it currently has 20 teams), and the country remains one of the most vibrant overseas professional leagues for players who don’t quite make the cut in the NBA.

John W. McDonough/Getty Images

Last year, the NBA broadcast the Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers to 215 countries in 47 different languages, across televisions, computers, and mobile devices. But the most important step toward mass-audience international broadcasting was getting the league’s games on the air in China. CCTV-China aired every game of the 1994 Finals between Houston and New York, making it the first time the country carried every game of the championship series live. It was a clear sign of rising interest in the sport. The Chinese Basketball Association began playing a year later in 1995, quickly expanded (it currently has 20 teams), and the country remains one of the most vibrant overseas professional leagues for players who don’t quite make the cut in the NBA.

1995

Expansion Into Canada

Until this year, the only Canadian team in league history was the Toronto Huskies, which existed for the 1946-47 season in the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the NBA. But the league decided to follow Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League and expand to Canada, founding the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors, making the “National” in its name a bit of a misnomer. Unfortunately, the Grizziles didn’t last long in Vancouver before relocating to Memphis, but the Raptors have held on in Toronto, making the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history this season.

Until this year, the only Canadian team in league history was the Toronto Huskies, which existed for the 1946-47 season in the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the NBA. But the league decided to follow Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League and expand to Canada, founding the Vancouver Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors, making the “National” in its name a bit of a misnomer. Unfortunately, the Grizziles didn’t last long in Vancouver before relocating to Memphis, but the Raptors have held on in Toronto, making the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history this season.

1996

Cybercasting

In 2016, it is commonplace to be able to watch or listen to sporting events from almost anywhere. Satellite and cable providers carry league packages for all games, and now each league is waking up to the internet streaming model to make games available to cord-cutters. But the NBA began experimenting with putting its games online 20 years ago, when it started “cybercasting” games worldwide over the internet using ESPNET SportsZone. It took many years for streaming technology to be so widely available and fast that fans would demand access to games via the internet, but broadcasting internet audio in the 1990s shows an impressive amount of foresight, even as an experiment.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In 2016, it is commonplace to be able to watch or listen to sporting events from almost anywhere. Satellite and cable providers carry league packages for all games, and now each league is waking up to the internet streaming model to make games available to cord-cutters. But the NBA began experimenting with putting its games online 20 years ago, when it started “cybercasting” games worldwide over the internet using ESPNET SportsZone. It took many years for streaming technology to be so widely available and fast that fans would demand access to games via the internet, but broadcasting internet audio in the 1990s shows an impressive amount of foresight, even as an experiment.

1998

Kobe Bryant’s First Trip to Asia

The typical cycle of a young superstar player eventually reaches the point where they get old and retire, and are replaced by a new crop of young superstars. But that’s not true for Michael Jordan, whose pioneering shoe endorsements paved the way for almost every significant player since. And it’s also not true of recently-retired Kobe Bryant, who remains one of the most popular players overseas even as his career precipitously declined in the NBA. Much of that popularity can be traced back to the first international trip he took to Australia, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines before the 1998-1999 season. Since then, he’s gone back an additional nine times—his 2015 Asian Summer Tour with Nike hit Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Taipei. Bryant is the model for international basketball stardom, not simply doing his work on the court during the season, but taking the time to develop an iconic persona everywhere in the world people play and watch basketball. Few players have marketed themselves individually to international fans with lucrative and enduring success quite like Bryant.

Getty Images

The typical cycle of a young superstar player eventually reaches the point where they get old and retire, and are replaced by a new crop of young superstars. But that’s not true for Michael Jordan, whose pioneering shoe endorsements paved the way for almost every significant player since. And it’s also not true of recently-retired Kobe Bryant, who remains one of the most popular players overseas even as his career precipitously declined in the NBA. Much of that popularity can be traced back to the first international trip he took to Australia, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines before the 1998-1999 season. Since then, he’s gone back an additional nine times—his 2015 Asian Summer Tour with Nike hit Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Taipei. Bryant is the model for international basketball stardom, not simply doing his work on the court during the season, but taking the time to develop an iconic persona everywhere in the world people play and watch basketball. Few players have marketed themselves individually to international fans with lucrative and enduring success quite like Bryant.

2002

Yao Ming Drafted First Overall

International players were already a part of the NBA before the Dream Team broke open the floodgates. (The essential 30 For 30 installment Once Brothers traces the bond between eastern European stars Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic in the late 1980s and early 1990s.) But the decade after the Dream Tream saw international players emerge on a level previously unseen in the NBA. German wunderkind Dirk Nowitzki, who impressed Charles Barkley during international camps as a teenager, arrived in 1998 and by the early 2000s had begun a streak of 10 consecutive All-Star appearances. And the 2000 draft saw 14 international players selected, with seven in the first round. But seven-foot six-inch Chinese center Yao Ming, taken first overall by the Houston Rockets in 2002, is perhaps the most significant international player in the history of the NBA. While other international players had more success on the court, Yao was an unmissable icon who gave millions of Chinese fans a patriotic reason to follow the NBA. Though he only played eight (injury-shortened) seasons and made the playoffs four times in Houston, his cultural impact was so undeniable that Yao was inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal in 2016.

International players were already a part of the NBA before the Dream Team broke open the floodgates. (The essential 30 For 30 installment Once Brothers traces the bond between eastern European stars Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic in the late 1980s and early 1990s.) But the decade after the Dream Tream saw international players emerge on a level previously unseen in the NBA. German wunderkind Dirk Nowitzki, who impressed Charles Barkley during international camps as a teenager, arrived in 1998 and by the early 2000s had begun a streak of 10 consecutive All-Star appearances. And the 2000 draft saw 14 international players selected, with seven in the first round. But seven-foot six-inch Chinese center Yao Ming, taken first overall by the Houston Rockets in 2002, is perhaps the most significant international player in the history of the NBA. While other international players had more success on the court, Yao was an unmissable icon who gave millions of Chinese fans a patriotic reason to follow the NBA. Though he only played eight (injury-shortened) seasons and made the playoffs four times in Houston, his cultural impact was so undeniable that Yao was inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal in 2016.

2009

The NBA Joins Twitter

Since Twitter helpfully provides a date for whenever an account was created, it’s easy to see that the NBA joined the must-use social media platform for live sports third, after Major League Baseball (December 2008) and the NFL (January 2009), in February 2009. But since joining, the league has been by leaps and bounds the most savvy official league account with regard to engaging with fans and cultivating new ones using wide-reaching social media channels. The league doesn’t just employ a hands-off approach to fans enthusiastically circulating highlights, it actively encourages users to share videos and pictures that help continue conversations about dunks, long threes, incredible passes, or controversial moments. Takedown notices are nowhere to be found. Instead, NBA Twitter is a raucous and celebratory environment where every great play can be looped millions of times, and every tragic loss gets a Crying Jordan within the hour. And that makes it the most fun sport to watch at home while following along with the conversation online.

Twitter

Since Twitter helpfully provides a date for whenever an account was created, it’s easy to see that the NBA joined the must-use social media platform for live sports third, after Major League Baseball (December 2008) and the NFL (January 2009), in February 2009. But since joining, the league has been by leaps and bounds the most savvy official league account with regard to engaging with fans and cultivating new ones using wide-reaching social media channels. The league doesn’t just employ a hands-off approach to fans enthusiastically circulating highlights, it actively encourages users to share videos and pictures that help continue conversations about dunks, long threes, incredible passes, or controversial moments. Takedown notices are nowhere to be found. Instead, NBA Twitter is a raucous and celebratory environment where every great play can be looped millions of times, and every tragic loss gets a Crying Jordan within the hour. And that makes it the most fun sport to watch at home while following along with the conversation online.

2016

Warriors vs. Pelicans in VR

Jumping on board the rising trend of live virtual reality viewing, the opening game of the 2015-2016 season between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans was broadcast in VR. Two cameras—one stationed courtside and another up in the rafters, beamed video to Samsung Gear VR users via the NextVR app. Front-row experiences vary by sport. It’s arguably more fun to be in the stands where it’s possible to catch a foul ball or a home run in baseball instead of behind the plate. And football is best viewed where it’s possible to see the whole field of play. But basketball is exhilarating from up close, and because the court is small enough it’s still possible to see everything going on from that vantage point. VR livestreams have expanded to other big-time sporting events (the U.S. Open) and other limited-access experiences (this year’s Coachella music festival offered 360 video for its main stage), but it’s entirely possible that in the foreseeable future, NBA League Pass will include some kind of provision for courtside VR viewing at a fraction of the cost of an actual ticket. And watching in VR means you’re not part of the problem if your team’s star player goes headfirst into the stands and nobody steps in to catch him.

Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

Jumping on board the rising trend of live virtual reality viewing, the opening game of the 2015-2016 season between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans was broadcast in VR. Two cameras—one stationed courtside and another up in the rafters, beamed video to Samsung Gear VR users via the NextVR app. Front-row experiences vary by sport. It’s arguably more fun to be in the stands where it’s possible to catch a foul ball or a home run in baseball instead of behind the plate. And football is best viewed where it’s possible to see the whole field of play. But basketball is exhilarating from up close, and because the court is small enough it’s still possible to see everything going on from that vantage point. VR livestreams have expanded to other big-time sporting events (the U.S. Open) and other limited-access experiences (this year’s Coachella music festival offered 360 video for its main stage), but it’s entirely possible that in the foreseeable future, NBA League Pass will include some kind of provision for courtside VR viewing at a fraction of the cost of an actual ticket. And watching in VR means you’re not part of the problem if your team’s star player goes headfirst into the stands and nobody steps in to catch him.

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8 Key Moments in the NBA’s Quest For World Domination