Non basketball fans can just skim until the last two paragraphs.
Once the Malcom Gladwell’s idea of an all-Nigerian team came up, minds like mine want to develop such things. I thought there could be lots of regional all-time teams it would be fun to invent. The initial entertainment exists purely in the mind, as I try to remember what players came from Australia or South America, and how good they were. I count them off on my fingers to see if we can get to at least 8 very good ones – then I put it aside because I know other names occur to me after. Eventually my memory can’t uncover more and I make combinations and splits. If a region cannot get to 8 on its own, I look to combine it with something else. If I have so many that I have to start leaving off exceptional players, I go looking for ways to split the group into two. This happened with Europe, which I expected to be able to field only one exceptional All-World All Time Team for my imaginary league. Yet there were so many players from former Yugoslavia plus some Lithuanians, Latvians, Russians, etc that I thought I could make both an All-Slav team and an All-RestofEurope team.
The background is that one could make team after team of American blacks. One can make up All-Caribbean, All-African, or All-American White teams that might beat anyone. Yet once you have all those teams set up – I think I’m going with 5 teams – you can find five teams to match those, and then I think five more after that, all of American black players. At the level of skill we are talking about, I don’t think one could safely say that a distilled single team of American blacks could “of course” beat everyone else. It starts to get tricky at that point, and styles matter, playing together matters. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Karl Malone, and Wilt Chamberlain would certainly have the highest possible upside. But how are those going to fit? There might be other teams which could consistently beat them.
Once I get to that point, I go to reference materials to see who I forgot and add those to my mental lists. This is where these sorts of exercises get embarrassing, when you start going “I can’t believe I forgot Patrick Ewing was born in Jamaica.” Then the whole thing starts to fall apart, and I realise I’m going to have to write all this down, as it has become too large. And now I’m in real trouble, because once I start writing it down, my OCD starts to kick in, as there are hard distinctions to make and I want to be consistent. Dominique Wilkins was born in France to American parents, but there is nothing else French about him. Europe doesn’t get him. Yet what about Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria? He never played for that country, he became naturaised and played for the US. Yet in an All-World league, shouldn’t he be playing for the African team? And what about JJ Barea from Puerto Rico? Does he play for the Americans or for the Caribbeans? I tended to make similar decisions to the calculations the athletes make around the Olympics. JJ is not making any American team. But the Caribbean team is going to need guards badly, and he might make the final cut of ten or fifteen players. Yet I’m getting into the weeds at this point, and it’s not fun anymore because of obsessively trying to decide what my cutoffs are and sticking to them.
So South America hasn’t got a team of its own. Manu Ginobilli is mostly Italian by descent, so he’s going to the all-Europe team. Unless I decide Africa can't quite make a team of its own and I'm going for an All- Southern Hemisphere team, in which case he goes there.
I am not going to formally list the players on those teams, because of the above. Once I start, I will be obsessively checking basketball reference stats and Wikipedia pages of one Australian versus another for the third center, working at a level of expertise I do not possess. But I will talk about them, because of something I suspected at the outset – the players from outside the US are disproportionately centers and big men. The All-Caribbean team has Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan, Mychal Thompson, Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns, and now DeAndre Ayton. They might be able to hang with anyone up front, both in older style and new stretch styles. But for guards and smaller forwards the pickings are slimmer. The same is true for the All-Africa team, with Hakeem Olajuwon, Joel Embiid, Dikembe Motumbo, Manute Bol. Other big men are newer players Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka. But that team is also hurting for guards. If a country has only a few players represented in the history of the sport, those are going to be huge. Gheorghe Muresa at 7’6”, Yao Ming at 7’6”, Manute Bol at 7'7".
Basketball is not that important in other places. If you are an athlete, no one thinks of putting a basketball in your hands until it’s clear that “hey this kid is going to be really big! Too big for even a soccer goalie or tennis player, even. We’d better see if there is a basketball court around here somewhere. Maybe he could go to America (Or Spain) and make some money.” If you are 6’3” and a great athlete, you are still in goal, or water-polo, or volleyball, or tennis. No one moves you to see if you might be even better at basketball. That’s partly true in America as well, but every athlete at least has the rudiments of basketball here, and people are happy to have 6’6” baseball pitchers, swimmers, or tight ends. When you read the biographies of most of these foreign players, they didn’t even start playing basketball until they were 12 or 16 or even 20.
The All-World League teams would be All-Slav, All-RestofEurope, All Caribbean, All North American White guys, All-Southern Hemishere, then ten teams of American blacks. Maybe the Canadians could field a team of their own, but not likely. If it seems that a lot of these teams are drawn from only two ethnic groups, you should know that its even truer than you thought. Kevin McHale and George Mikan are of Croatian decent and Pete Maravich was a Serb. John Havlicek is Czech and Croatian. Looks like Larry Bird and Bill Walton would have to carry a lot of weight without the Slavic additions. Nowitzki isn't a particularly German-sounding name; Tony Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, not very typically French and Greek.
Yeah, it's apparently two tribes that can play this game. White men can’t jump, apparently, except Slavs.