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The highest level of professional play takes place in the United States and Canada, and players from all over the world strive to play in North America. But professional basketball is also played in more than 20 other countries. Brazil, Japan, Germany, France, and Spain are among the nations that support leagues that develop the skills of international players. Some players from the United States and Canada play professional basketball in other countries if they fail to make teams in their own countries.

The National Basketball Association (NBA), with teams from the United States and Canada, is the major professional basketball league in the world. The 29 NBA teams are divided into two conferences, the Eastern and Western, each of which has two divisions. Each NBA team conducts a training camp in October to determine its 12-player roster. Training camp allows each team to evaluate players, especially rookies (first-year players), to assess the team's strengths and weaknesses, and to prepare players for the upcoming season through a series of on-court drills and practice of offensive and defensive strategy. After a series of exhibition games, the NBA begins its 82-game regular season in the first week of November.

In February the NBA interrupts its season to celebrate the annual NBA All-Star Game, featuring the game's best players as selected by the general balloting of fans throughout the United States and Canada. After the NBA season concludes in April, a total of 16 teams qualify for the playoffs (8 teams from each conference). In each conference the two division winners are guaranteed a playoff spot. The remaining playoff spots in each conference are awarded on the basis of win-loss records to the six next-best teams, regardless of division. The playoffs start with the teams with better records playing the teams with worse records in a best-of-five series, in which the winner is the first team to win three games. In subsequent rounds best-of-seven series are played, with the first team to earn four victories winning the round. The playoffs continue in this elimination scheme until a conference champion is crowned. The champions from the Eastern and Western conferences then meet in a best-of-seven series to determine the NBA champion.

Every June the league conducts its amateur draft, in which teams obtain the rights to the best available players in the world. Any player whose high school class has graduated and who is at least 17 years old qualifies for the NBA draft if that player renounces his collegiate eligibility by mid-May. Generally, players attend at least one year of college before turning professional, although beginning in the 1990s a few high school players have entered the draft each year.

To determine the draft order the NBA uses a draft lottery, introduced in 1985. Those teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs the previous season are eligible for the lottery. The lottery determines the first three teams to select in the draft. The remaining teams, including those that qualified for the playoffs the preceding season, draft according to their win-loss record of the previous season, so that teams with poorer records draft earlier than those with better records. Teams may trade draft picks with each other, either for different picks or for players. The NBA draft consists of only two rounds, with a total of 58 players chosen. Those players not selected in the draft can be invited to try out for a team and are sometimes signed as free agents.

Although many players go straight from college or overseas leagues into the NBA, the league also supports developmental leagues that allow players, coaches, executives, and referees to hone their skills. One such minor league was the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), founded in 1946 as the Eastern Professional Basketball League. The CBA was financially unstable, however, and folded in early 2001 after NBA executives decided to start their own minor league. The National Basketball Development League (NBDL) is scheduled to begin its first season in November 2001 and will consist of eight teams based in small cities throughout the southeastern United States.

During the 1990s women’s basketball became increasingly popular in North America, and two professional women’s leagues started play. The now-defunct American Basketball League (ABL) was founded in 1996, and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was founded in 1997. One major reason these leagues were formed was to bring the nation’s top female players back to the United States. With no professional league in the United States, many of the former college stars had been competing in foreign leagues.

The ABL began play in the fall of 1996 with eight teams divided between two conferences. The addition of expansion team franchises in 1997 and 1998 brought the league to a total of ten teams. The ABL played a 44-game regular season from October to February, followed by playoffs and a championship series. The Columbus Quest won the league championship in the first two years of ABL competition (1996-97 and 1997-98). In December 1998, midway through the ABL’s third season, the league filed for bankruptcy, ended its season, and disbanded its franchises. Some ABL players were absorbed into the WNBA through a draft.

The top women’s league in the United States is the WNBA. It was founded by the NBA and is collectively owned by the 29 NBA franchises. All WNBA teams are located in cities that also house NBA teams. In addition, some of the team names are related to the names of NBA teams. For example, the Washington Mystics play in Washington, D.C., home of the NBA’s Washington Wizards; and the Utah Starzz play in Salt Lake City, home of the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

In 2000 the WNBA added four expansion team franchises—the Indiana Fever, the Miami Sol, the Portland Fire, and the Seattle Storm—which brought the league to a total of 16 teams, divided between two conferences. The league plays a 32-game regular season during the summer, and eight teams qualify for the playoffs. The Houston Comets won the first four WNBA championships, in 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000. The league sponsors a yearly All-Star Game and holds an annual player draft in April.

While basketball is extremely popular in the United States, it is also growing in other countries. There are more than 200 national federations that belong to Fédération International de Basketball Association (FIBA; French for “International Basketball Federation”), an independent organization that governs international basketball. FIBA, established in 1932 and headquartered in Munich, Germany, divides the world into five sections, called zone commissions. These commissions—Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Oceania—govern basketball within their regions and conduct their own championships.

In international basketball both men and women compete on club teams in leagues within their national federations. The top professional league in each country is called the first division, and teams in the first division compete for several national and international championship titles. Most international leagues allow two foreign players on their rosters. The international game is similar to American basketball, with some exceptions. For example, the size and shape of the key (the area underneath the basket bordered by the free-throw line and the foul lanes) is in a trapezoidal shape, wider near the baseline. This makes it distinct from the rectangular shape in American basketball.

Several international basketball stars have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, including Sergei Belov of Russia, Uljana Semjonova of Latvia, and Kresimir Cosic of Croatia. Players from anywhere in the world are eligible to play in the NBA, and European players were first drafted by NBA teams in 1989. In the 1990s many foreign players, such as Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc from the former Yugoslavia and Arvydas Sabonis of Lithuania, had success in the NBA.