How the NBA is Cultivating Basketball Culture in South-East Asia

Basketball is thriving in traditional territories from the USA to Eastern Europe. But an initiative from the NBA is working to take basketball to new places – and make it part of the daily routine for millions more people. NBA Asia managing director Scott Levy talks to Homecourt about the way basketball is being used to enrich the lives of young kids right across South-East Asia.

By now, we all know the Philippines is a uniquely basketball-crazy country. The flip flop leagues, the rustic courts surrounded by coconut palms and coastal breezes, and the world-famous Tenements. The frenzied fandom isn’t news to any of us but, when Filipino 7-footer Kai Sotto officially signed to the NBA G League, the basketball world was put on alert. South-East Asia was making moves. What’s even more surprising is that it isn’t just the Philippines anymore; the whole region is adopting basketball as a favoured pastime.

Like the English Premier League, the NBA has become richer for its global expansion. Players from all corners of the world have found success in the league, in turn increasing interest, viewership and participation in their home countries. In the 2000s, Australia has become a new breeding ground for NBA and WNBA talent but, Kai Sotto aside, the rest of the Asia-Pacific region still represents a great opportunity for talent development and grass-roots participation.

Australia, home to Ben Simmons, Liz Cambage, Lauren Jackson and more, is a unique case. From a young age, kids have access to facilities and coaching that many other countries in the Asia Pacific region simply don’t have. NBA Asia, based in Hong Kong but active right across the region, are working to change that with the Jr. NBA Program.

NBA Asia Executive Vice President and Managing Director Scott Levy explains that the program isn’t necessarily designed to breed the NBA stars of tomorrow, but to improve and enrich the lives of young kids across Asia through the game of basketball.

“The goal of the program is to engage youth and teach them that sport is an important part of their life, and it can help them, whether they want to achieve at a high level for their local basketball team, or national team, or even the NBA,” Levy explains. “But they can also apply what they learn at home or in school, work and throughout their lives. The end goal is to help to develop young people into strong, active, healthy adults.”

In the space of approximately five years, the Jr. NBA program has put basketballs in the hands of 24 million kids – basically the entire population of Australia – across Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

The first glimpse of success came in Indonesia, where government representatives recognised the value of the program and worked with NBA Asia to incorporate Jr. NBA into the school curriculum across elementary, middle, and high schools. Now, kids experience basketball, run drills, and learn the program’s unique STAR values – Sportsmanship, Teamwork, A positive attitude, Respect – on a regular basis.

“Once Indonesia came on board it was very soon after that that the Thailand Government started to embrace us as well,” says Levy. “Now Vietnam and Malaysia similarly have embraced the program.” NBA Asia has now partnered with 38 government entities around the region. There has been much progress in only five short years. NBA Asia have secured government support and provided equipment to millions, but they recognise the success of the program hinges on the quality of coaching.

“Jr. NBA is developed based on the local needs in each country,” Levy explains. “So, for South-East Asia, there’s limited access to equipment, there’s limited training; how to coach, how to engage kids so that they enjoy sport. One of the first things we’ve had to do was to train the trainers, and make sure that when kids were experiencing sport, they were having fun.”

“The teachers that we’re teaching are history teachers, math teachers, they’re not coaches. They’re the ones that are doing the physical education programs in these schools so we wanna make sure that when we get down there, they have the tools to actually teach basketball as opposed to just throw the kids a ball and say ‘go do this’.

“We’re trying to build an ecosystem by training trainers. We’ve trained more than 72,000 teachers from 53,000 schools across 50 cities. The way that we build that ecosystem is that local coaches train local coaches that train local coaches.”

Kids are also connecting to the program – especially during Covid-induced lockdowns – via social media. In 2019, the Jr. NBA Asia Instagram account spawned the Handshake Challenge, which caught two players from the Asia-Pacific girls team completing a 12-step handshake before each sinking a three-point shot. The video racked up 1.5 million views and sparked a slew of user-generated content across the region as others tried to pull off the same move. The symbolism of two young people going viral for purely enjoying basketball wasn’t lost on Scott Levy.

“They’re just foolin’ around and having a good time around sport,” he says. “Usually when you see basketball content, it’s in a game format, it’s intense, and someone is celebrating a victory. This was just demonstrating they were having fun being around sport, and that’s what we’re trying to communicate.”

Both the teachers and the students are engaged in the program, and NBA Asia is on its way to hitting its target of reaching 40 million kids in ten years. NBA legends and current stars have visited the region to run clinics, and even Dikembe Mutumbo sits on the Jr. NBA Asia Advisory Council, which helps to guide the program as it spreads through the territory.

It’s tempting to look at this all from a competitive, pro-league, perspective. Seeing the growth of the game right across the region and thinking ahead to an NBA competition with consistent Asian representation. And, just as we assess our talent here in Australia and optimistically focus on the next Olympic Games – whenever that might be – and our hopes to finally medal in the men’s event, further development of the game can give our neighbours in Indonesia or the Philippines the same optimism about their own national team.

While we dare to dream of gold medals and Lakers jerseys baring the names of our compatriots, the most exciting thing is happening right now, as the game of basketball has a positive impact on the lives of millions of kids around the region.

“I went to one of our Jr. NBA events in Jakarta,” says Levy. “And our head coach came over to me and goes ‘watch what happens after this young lady finishes her layup’. And she does, she turns around, and she high-fives her coach and he gives her a big smile and she runs to the back of the line. I said ‘that’s great, what am I looking at?’ And he goes ‘the high-five and the smile’. When we started this program, coaches didn’t necessarily view themselves as more than just skills coaches. That’s what they thought they had to do. They didn’t understand that they had to connect with the kids, they had to support the kids, and encourage them in this way. What he was most excited about was the high-five and the smile, not what hand the layup that this young lady did that maybe she couldn’t do before, but the reaction the coach had, and the encouragement that he provided, that’s what’s driving him.”