When I was a child in Denmark in the 90’s, there was nothing more exciting than watching the national team play. Whether it was soccer (or more correctly termed, football), basketball or handball.
I would have butterflies in my stomach all day, especially during a tournament, unable to eat dinner out of sheer nerves and excitement. In 1998, when Denmark, a small country of 5 million, made it to the World Cup quarter finals in football (ya, you call it soccer) and almost beat Brazil, I have never been so proud in my life.
The streets were empty during the games, everyone watching, hoping, rooting for the nation’s pride, for the representatives of us all - the players in our national red and white colors - to show that even though we’re a small country, we can still play with the big boys (or girls).
Just four years earlier, Denmark had won the European Championship, a tournament they only got to participate in because they took over the spot of the former Yugoslavia - who was suspended because of the war going on at the time. Speaking of underdogs, it doesn’t get more under than that.
That’s a nice segway to what I really wanted to talk about, because Yugoslavia was divided into smaller countries after the war, Slovenia being one of them.
Slovenia happens to be half the size of my small country. 2,1 million people and still among the best athletes in the world. In basketball, cycling, winter sports, handball and more, they always compete. How do they do it? I don’t know, but I understand their need to and their pride in it.
That Luka Dončić made it to the NBA in itself, coming from a very small part of the world, is staggering. But that he continuously dominates and shows us that he’s a superstar and generational talent, was just not very likely to happen.
But Luka has something, many NBA players don’t. He has a whole nation behind him every single day. He may even have a whole continent in Europe, but that’s a different column.
He grew up watching the national teams of Slovenia too. Just like most kids around the world, he saw it as the ultimate honor to stand in the line before a national team game in the colors of his country, while singing the national anthem.
It doesn’t get any bigger than that, there’s simply nothing that beats it.
At that point, you have the pressure of a whole nation on your shoulders. But you also have the ability to make them proud, to make the whole nation proud. Proud of you, proud of their country, proud of being Slovenian (or Danish, or Serbian, or Greek).
And that’s a big deal for a small country - or even most bigger countries. When it comes to building a national identity, national teams are important, even pivotal. A whole population feeling connected and proud in one thing is powerful. It’s meaningful and it changes people’s outlook. If you feel connected to your neighbor, if you feel like you’re part of a group and you all have the same purpose, loneliness is further away. Kinship creates meaning, and when you feel connected as a nation, its people are more likely to feel happy and content in their lives.
There’s a reason why national sports have been a focal point for nation-building around the world, and for past nations trying to establish connectedness (Hitler’s Germany, Communist Russia to name a few).
And among the international NBA players, many have said that they prioritize their national team. Even top players, like Luka Dončić, have said that winning gold with their country matters more than an NBA title.
Playing for your national team is so much more than how you spend your summer. It might be the reason you play, the reason you started playing and the reason you’re still playing when things get tough.
In this connection, the NBA is the day-to-day job. It’s the dream and the goal for kids all over the world, don’t get me wrong, but it’s at least as important to represent your country for most of these athletes.
This, I think, is especially the case for athletes who are far away from home, for anyone who lives abroad and isn’t close to their culture every day. For them, the need to and sense of belonging and having a national identity gets even bigger.
The need to be Slovenian or Danish or French or German increases the further away you are and the longer you live in another country. I know, because during my five years living in the US, I became more Danish than I’d ever been, much more than my friends and family in Denmark, relishing in the smallest things that were Danish or reminded me of home.
I see a lot of that sentiment in Luka too. Like when he saw Slovenian flags in Miami, I believe it was, recently, and posted a video of them on instagram. He hasn’t lived in Slovenia since he was 13. Slovenia means the world to him, as it should.
National teams are about so much more than a tournament during the summer. It’s about who you are, who you wanted to be as a child, and how you want your country to feel about themselves. It’s about pride, culture and history. It’s not a small side-job - it’s the purpose of your career.
Before Mette L. Robertson started writing about basketball, she played basketball on the highest level in Denmark and got to represent her country on youth national teams. She has degrees in European Studies and International Relations and is co-author of multiple books in Danish, among others “The American Dream”.