An International Invasion


Graphic by Andrew Hale

A heat map of international countries represented in U.S. sports.

Andrew Hale, Co-Editor-in-Chief

What do the likes of Shohei Ohtani, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić all have in common? Not only were they all born outside of the United States, but they are also the best players in their respective leagues.

If three foreign born MVPs across two leagues isn’t direct proof that U.S. sports are now presented on a global stage, I don’t know what is.  

Only six foreign born players have ever won an MVP award in the NBA. In these past three years, Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) and Nikola Jokić (Serbia) have displayed how international players are now the poster children of a sport previously dominated by U.S. born players.

Over the past few years more and more foreign players have been drafted and have established themselves as potential stars for years to come. 

The first player that comes to mind is Luka Dončić who in less than three seasons, has already participated in two all star games, won the Rookie of the Year award and has carried the Dallas Mavericks to the playoffs in back to back seasons.

Just this past offseason, Dončić signed a contract extension with the Mavs and has become one of the highest paid players over the next five seasons. Oh, not to mention he’s only 22 years old. 

In the Olympics this summer, numerous players across the NBA represented their national teams. Dončić helped his home country of Slovenia qualify for the Summer games for the first time ever and, better yet, placed fourth, just missing out on a bronze medal.

Basketball is growing at an insanely high rate across the globe, which is fantastic for the sport and the NBA as a whole. 

France is one country where basketball seems to be one of the most competitive in terms of the players that have been drafted in the NBA. Currently, 12 NBA players who were born in France are currently on NBA rosters. 

Most notably, Rudy Gobert is one of the best French players in the NBA. Gobert has already won three Defensive Player of the Year awards since entering the league in 2013.

We have seen how the NBA has been dominated by Europe, but over the past few years a large Asian population has also arrived into the NBA. 

In 2019, Japan was added to the list of countries represented in the NBA draft. Rui Hachimura, who played collegiate basketball in the U.S., became the first Japanese player to ever be selected in the first round of an NBA draft, when the Wizards drafted him with the ninth pick. 

According to the NBA, as of December 22, 2020, 107 international players from 41 countries are represented across the NBA and its teams, implying that U.S. audiences should prepare for a more nationally diverse future for the NBA. 

With this increase in international players throughout the NBA, we may see international competitions and tournaments in the near future, similar to what the MLS has done in the past.

But after all, the NBA isn’t the only major sport in the United States. The MLB has also seen a high increase of international representation across the sport. 

The impact of international players on modern baseball was shown on the brightest of stages during the Midsummer Classic, the 2021 MLB All-Star Game. 

Going into All-Star Weekend the talk of the town was this generation’s Babe Ruth, Shohei Ohtani. In 2018, Ohtani left behind an MVP caliber season in Japan to play with one of the league’s best players in Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels. 

But what’s so different about Shohei Ohtani, because many players have left their home country to play in the MLB? Like Ohtani, Ichiro Suzuki also left Japan to play for the Seattle Mariners in 2001. So how is Ichiro any different from Shohei? 

One massive difference: Shohei is both an exceptional hitter AND pitcher. 

Not only was Shohei Ohtani selected to play in the All-Star game, but the night before he participated in the annual Home Run Derby.

If this wasn’t fascinating enough, Ohtani took the mound and led off in the actual All-Star Game. In the 88 year history of the Midsummer Classic no player had ever pitched and let alone lead off until Ohtani did it in 2021. 

Shohei Ohtani wasn’t the only player who represented a country besides the U.S. in the 2021 All-Star Game. Liam Hendricks, who is from Australia, managed to secure the save while representing his home country and the Chicago White Sox. 

Ohtani ultimately got the win for the American League after beating the National League 5-2.

The final player who displayed the growing international diversity in the MLB was another young superstar in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 

Guerrero Jr. has a very interesting and unique story because he is the son of former MLB player Vladimir Guerrero  Sr. who spent most of his career playing for the Montreal Expos.

Because of this Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was born in Canada but also spent most of his childhood in the Dominican Republic, where his father is originally from. 

In the All-Star Game Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Canada/Dominican Republic), like Hendricks (Australia) and Ohtani (Japan), showed out. After going 1-3 with two RBIs and a homerun, Guerrero became the youngest All-Star game MVP in league history.

With his homerun Guerrero Jr. (22) became the youngest player to homer in an All-Star game since Johnny Bench (21) in 1969.

From Antetokounmpo and Jokić in the NBA, to Ohtani and Hendricks in the MLB, keep an eye out for the next international superstar to dominate U.S. sports.