The bright lights, the roar of the crowd, the rapid squeaking of sneakers and the thud of the ball on a gleaming court ? there's no doubt that basketball is an incredibly exciting game. That's true whether it's a game in a professional NBA arena in front of tens of thousands or a match between friends in a neighbourhood park. The sport's global popularity is evident everywhere you look.

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A recent estimate put the number of global players at nearly half a billion. Although members of over two hundred countries tune in to watch major NBA games, American basketball is not the only noteworthy incarnation of the sport. In fact, basketball has travelled a long way since its initial development. Now the second most popular sport the world over, the game is experiencing a growing popularity among European nations and the United Kingdom. When you think about sports in Europe, it's easy to jump straight to the athletic pursuits that enjoy massive popularity across the Continent ? football, cricket and rugby receive wide and well-publicized support from the public. However, basketball not only has long-standing roots in Europe, but the game?s popularity is undoubtedly on the rise in the area as well. Europe sends many players across the pond to play in American professional leagues, and an organised league sustains competitive seasons with teams developed on European soil. Twenty-four teams make up the Euroleague and many thousands of people are proud to call themselves fans. How did basketball make it to Europe, and why does its influence continue to spread? 

A Brief History of Basketball in Europe

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Basketball wasn't always played in Europe, but its history begins not long after the game was first invented. The sport's origin point is across the Atlantic Ocean and the game experienced its genesis in the cold and snowy winters of Massachusetts. Dr. James Naismith, then a thirty-year-old doctor working for YMCA, sought to develop a way for YMCA members to exercise vigorously in the winter without needing to expose themselves to freezing temperatures. In 1891, the game of basketball was born, founded on thirteen key rules and played with rudimentary baskets. The new game was highly dependent on speed, skill with the ball and the ability to make rapid tactical decisions. Its popularity quickly exploded. It was only two years later that the game of basketball crossed the ocean.

YMCA clubs were well established overseas, and it was within them that many new players were introduced to basketball for the first time. The very first game in Europe took place in Paris at a YMCA. From there, many more people learned about and began to play the game. The rules continued to evolve as European players embraced the game?s competitive spirit. After the turn of the century, the game spread eastward towards Russia. In 1924, the Olympics featured basketball in an exhibition context, and just ten years later it became a medal event.

The respective outbreak of World War I and World War II put a temporary halt on the spread of basketball through Europe. With battles raging across the Continent and periods of economic difficulty in the interim, little time was available for sport. However, the game did find some popularity among members of the military. As American and British forces mingled, naturally "pick-up" games of basketball sprang up as a way for soldiers to share a common hobby. Hometown rules and variations of the game were exchanged and shared between these groups.

During World War II in particular, basketball became an excellent way for soldiers to let off steam while improving morale. In the post-war period, basketball experienced renewed growth in European nations. The development of FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball Amateur) established a home for professional and competitive basketball among European countries. By the 60s and 70s, nations like Russia were challenging the Americans for Olympic Gold as European championships spread their roots.

The Current State of Basketball in Europe

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The complex story of the rise of basketball in Europe hasn?t reached its conclusion yet. On the contrary, over the past few decades, basketball has experienced a climb in popularity in the region. The spread of easily-accessible TV coverage of foreign games in the 1980s proved a boon to the game, and its popularity subsequently exploded. Within less than a century, basketball went from being a minor American game to an international sensation. An article from the LA Times written in 1987 captures the moment perfectly: The highly competitive nature of the sport in European leagues attracted so much American attention and involvement that European teams became barred from employing more than two Americans each! Clearly there was fierce competition and spirit in the European leagues as they took their place on the global court. Today, players continue to cross oceans to be able to play at the height of their ability. The NBA alone recently counted 92 international players among its ranks.

European leagues experienced some growing pains as the sport continued to develop into the 90s. But the continent emerged into the new millennium ready for fresh growth and new competition. By 2015, skyrocketing revenues were making the news. Nearly two billion pairs of eyes consumed TV content featuring Euroleague teams like Real Madrid and Maccabi Tel Aviv. That's a lot of basketball fans! From Lithuania to the streets of London, Europeans love the sport, and they love to express their diehard devotion to their home teams. A basketball league exclusively for women is enjoying huge successes in London, showing that the sport is popular across gender lines. In recent years, a few teams have all but dominated the competitive space within the Euroleague. The Maccabi Tel Aviv and Real Madrid teams have fifteen titles between them. CSKA Moscow slots into second place, having earned seven titles of their own. Greece and Italian teams are also in the top ten, showcasing the broad geographic appeal which basketball maintains in Europe.

Basketball in the hands of the people

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To focus solely on the professional leagues of basketball in Europe is to miss a lot of the nuance that makes the sport so beloved by fans. The game isn't being played exclusively by the pros ? young people all over Europe are playing the sport every day. In fact, more than 200,000 people in the United Kingdom pick up a basketball and play the game on a weekly basis. That's a huge number of people, and statistics for other European nations prove that the sport continues to enjoy widespread popularity among the general public. Because basketball is easy to play with a small group of people and can be practised alone, the sport has become an ideal way for hundreds of thousands of Europeans to pass the time.

The sport has grown so influential that it is currently being used as a tool for social change in multiple nations. In inner London, the Reach and Teach program encourages local community games, offers training and opportunities for coaching young people and serves as a mentorship program. The program aims to encourage critical growth within the community's social support structures. In the same vein, the NBA annually puts on a Basketball Without Borders event annually to further encourage the use of the sport as a mentorship and community-building tool.

What does the future have in store?

From its chilly start in 19th century Massachusetts to modern arenas packed full of roaring Euroleague fans, basketball has evolved from a casual concept into a passionate pastime and highly competitive profession. The sport has endured bloody world conflicts and a host of global influences to reach its current level of popularity. The future looks bright for European basketball, especially as professional teams continue to develop their plans for the future. It seems certain that European basketball fans will soon have even more opportunities to watch their favourite teams duking it out on the court. As the sport?s professional potential continues to expand, millions of young players who call an array of different European countries home continue to play and appreciate every incarnation of the game. From back alleys with makeshift baskets to well-kept indoor gymnasiums, someone somewhere is always practising that perfect three-pointer. There's no telling whether basketball will ever be able to unseat football?s European legacy. But with a rich history and growing popularity in Europe and beyond, the game seems poised to continue expanding its reach as it handily defends its position as the second most popular sport on Earth.