I had the privilege to be in Brazil for the first two weeks of the World Cup. It was unforgettable, as the sounds of soccer emanated from every bar and restaurant, and even every garage and pharmacy. Fighting for attention amidst the cheers, gasps and groans were the protests over World Cup spending that periodically hit the streets. It seems that spending billions on stadiums while people suffer from inadequate healthcare, wages and schools wasn’t sitting quite right among the Brazilian masses. This led to some rather dramatic street confrontations with the military police to rival anything seen on the pitch.
And yet, despite the occasional blast of tear gas, I was still hoop-curious. The NBA Finals were just coming to an end, and in the packed streets of Rio, I kept my head up to comb the crowds to see what NBA jerseys were in favor. Who were the ballers that Brazil was vibing during soccer’s spotlight dance? I was frankly less shocked by what I saw than what I did not see.
First and foremost, despite the presence of the World Cup, NBA jerseys were ubiquitous on the streets of Brazil. Adam Silver and his ex-boss David Stern would have been very pleased.
The most popular jersey on display was that of Kevin Durant. It was certainly a sign of both KD’s appeal and the power of NBA branding to see the words OKLAHOMA CITY on the front of a jersey being worn in South America. You can understand why people in OKC are already nervous at the mere thought of KD not re-signing, given how the power of his game has elevated one of the League’s smallest markets.
Another jersey that I saw across Rio in particular was that of Derrick Rose. Despite not playing meaningful ball since Obama’s first term, Rose has not been forgotten and is clearly missed in quarters beyond Chicago.
Then there were two regional stars being shown a lot of love. Nene, a native son of Brazil, was seen on a lot of backs, although, much to my personal chagrin, in the form of his old Nuggets blue rather than in the colors of my beloved Wizards.
Then there was the jersey that was everywhere, an obvious result of tens of thousands of Argentineans invading Brazil to cheer on their national team and the great Lionel Messi. This was, of course, the jersey of San Antonio Spur Manu Ginobili. After the Spurs won the Finals, this jersey was in even more plentiful supply. (Given Manu’s footwork, ability to spin the ball and mastery of the flop, he may as well be an honorary member of Argentina’s World Cup team.)
Other than the pleasant revelation that DRose still resided in people’s hearts, I was more surprised by what jerseys I did not see. Most stunningly, I did not see any LeBron. This eye survey is not exactly scientific so take that as you will, but it did make me wonder how much of The King’s power/point/forward game inspires an international audience that has always been more head over heels for flair and grace than merciless efficiency (see Rose, Derrick).
The other jersey I was somewhat taken aback to not see was a person from Brazil who just happened to be starting for the just-crowned NBA Champs: Tiago Splitter. Brazil, the nation of Capoeira, Samba and Carnival was not showing any love for the ploddingly effective role player who calls their country home. This in many ways can serve as a metaphor for me in terms of how we regard the Spurs’ reign of steady excellence under Coach Pop and Tim Duncan, or at least a far more evocative metaphor than the whirling dervish that is Manu.
Many NBA fans, even Spurs fans, take them for granted because they believe this perennial 50-game winner will always be there. Tiago Splitter may not inspire grand passions in his own country, but he is a part of something that, like soccer, deserves acknowledgment as a beautiful game. Not everyone can be Messi or Manu. But without the Splitters of this world, those guys would never get the space to shine.