Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure

Image of Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure
Release Date: 
October 21, 2022
Duke University Press Books
Reviewed by: 

First published in 1998, this excellent book on the growth of basketball as an international game is now being presented as a 20th anniversary edition. Alexander Wolff, whose resume includes Senior Editor at Sports Illustrated, has updated and expanded this highly praised account with a new and “must-read” preface. Included is material on basketball in Australia and an examination of the rise of the activist athlete, both in the United States and around the globe.

The Preface for the new edition offers a new context in which to understand and measure the significance of basketball within cultures as varied as that of contemporary Poland, Bosnia, and Bhutan. Wolff analyzes the Netflix production, The Last Dance, and pairs it with the end of American dominance of basketball internationally, as well as the ways in which basketball is understood and played across the world.

In his summary, Wolff calls attention to the fact that by the 2020–21 season each team in the NBA had at least one “import” player, and six teams suited up five or more internationals. At the end of the 2021 draft, there were 80 countries with one player on an NBA roster, including such unlikely places as Belize, Cape Verde, Iran, Scotland, and South Korea. Three of the five members of the All-NBA first team were international players. The days in which NBA general managers were vocally skeptical of international players is long gone.

The fan base of the NBA has accordingly changed as the league has skillfully marketed the games on television and through the internet. Wolff notes that a fan can watch a game in prime time in Europe, while in Japan the same game is available to fans on their morning commute, and in Australia that game is watched by fans on their lunch hour. Seventy percent of NBA fans live outside the United States, and 75 percent of social media followers live outside the United States.

Wolff’s new preface is full of these nuggets, but perhaps more important is his examination of the relationship between the NBA and the issues included in the broad scope of Black Lives Matter. Wolfe analyzes the reaction of players, including those from the international pool, as well as, NBA team reactions to this social and racial crisis. Individual international players found what was happening in the United States relevant to their own experiences in their home countries. It is here that Wolff’s new material on Australia is most striking.

Also new is Wolff’s inclusion of the maturation of basketball at the Olympics. This section includes interesting insights in his analysis of the 3X3 game, which has spread across the globe and is now an Olympic sport.

The overall organization and body of Big Game, Small World follows this introduction and is essentially faithful to the original publication. There are four sections, each named for the four natural seasons, and each of these addresses some aspect of the history and contemporary state of the game. Each of the essays within has a coda offering updates on the subject.  

The first section, “Fall,” deals with what Wolff terms founding myths and conflicting cultures. Starting with James Naismith’s creation of the game, it dashes back and forth across the planet from Ontario to Eastern Europe to Florida with stops in Western Europe. Each of these eight sub-sections deals with some aspect of basketball in each location and offers interesting portraits of individuals vital to basketball in each location.

“Winter” surveys the game across America and the places Wolff considers direct “offspring” from the American game, e.g., Ireland, the Philippines, China, and Israel. Each of these examples examines some striking innovations to the game and the styles of play that have affected the state of basketball in these locales.

In “Spring,” subtitled “The Game Within,” five essays move from Philadelphia and Des Moines, to Japan, Brazil, and Bhutan. Perhaps, the most striking of all the essays in this book is “Japan,” dealing with Sister Rose Marie of the Poor Clare community of cloistered nuns. The power of this story alone makes this book a must-read for those interested in basketball well beyond the court.

The fourth section, “Summer,” subtitled “Fast Break to the Future,” ends the journey with stops in the United States, France, and Angola. Again, each essay adds new elements to the story of basketball. In the final section, using the Princeton style of basketball authored by Pete Carril, Wolff offers a summation of his thoughts on the game as he has seen it around the world and some philosophical views on the nature of the game as it revealed itself to him during his remarkable basketball journey.

After finishing a reading of Big Game, Small World it would be a good idea to return to the “Preface” of this edition to reenforce the power of the whole. This may seem odd, but, in this case, reading the Preface both before and after reading the book drives home and clarifies Wolff’s general thesis and enriches the various levels of Wolff’s writing.