Sprinter Noah Lyles says NBA Finals winner is 'world champion of what? Not the world'

Noah Lyles holds up three fingers as he celebrates anchoring his team to gold in the Men's 4x100-meters relay
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Noah Lyles isn't wrong.

A team that wins the championship of a league based primarily or entirely in the U.S. is not technically the world champion, despite commonly being referred to as such in this country.

But the U.S. sprinter is taking flak from some NBA players for calling foul on that practice during a news conference at the track and field world championships in Budapest, Hungary. After winning his third straight world title in the 200 meters, to go along with golds in the 100 and 4x100 relay at the same meet, Lyles was asked a question regarding the state of track and field as a sport.

Toward the end of a nuanced answer to that question (more on that later), Lyles said:

"You know what hurts me the most is that I have to watch the NBA Finals and they have ‘world champion’ on their head. World champion of what? The United States? Don't get me wrong. I love the U.S. — at times — but that ain't the world. That is not the world. We are the world. We have almost every country out here fighting, thriving, putting on their flag to show that they are represented. There ain't no flags in the NBA. We gotta do more. We gotta be presented to the world."

Read more: Noah Lyles captures sprint double at world track championships

Many others have made the same point over the years. Sure, the Denver Nuggets could very well be the best team on the planet, but they didn't actually play any international competition (except, of course, the Toronto Raptors in two regular-season games) on their way to the 2023 NBA title.

Still, a number of NBA players — including Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, Bam Adebayo, Devin Booker, Aaron Gordon, Tyus Jones, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Udonis Haslem — responded on social media to an ESPN post featuring Lyles' comments. Needless to say, those players weren't pleased.

"Somebody help this brother," wrote Durant, who won Olympic gold as a member of the 2020 U.S. men's basketball team, as did Lillard, Green, Adebayo and Booker.

"Last time I checked, the NBA was the best competition in the WORLD," Toscano-Anderson posted.

"When being smart goes wrong," wrote Green.

Read more: 'I was freaking scared': How sprinter Noah Lyles shook off doubt in return to record form

Gordon even claimed his own supremacy in Lyles' signature event: "Whatever...I'm smoking buddy in the 200m."

USA Track and Field did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Lyles or the organization.

Lyles has received support from some of his track and field peers.

U.S. hurdler Rai Benjamin, the former UCLA and USC runner who owns the world's second-fastest 400-meter hurdles time and took a bronze in the event at Budapest, tweeted, "NBA triggered dawg."

U.S. sprinter Fred Kerley, who was the 2022 world champion in the 100 meters and won gold with Lyles in the 4x100 at Budapest, used two tweets to contrast the name of the basketball league, which contains the word "national," and that of the track event, which features the word "world."

For context, here's Lyles' full response after being asked what he'd like to see in track and field's future, what can be improved and what he might be able to do to foster growth in the sport:

"I don't think we got three hours to talk about that. Let's just say it's a conversation I have every day with my agent on how we're going to better this sport. But to go back to the beginning of your question, yes, the medals are first because if you don't have the medals, who's going to want to pay attention to you? And then after you get the medals, then you get the times and then, you know, more and more people gain interest. And now you start being able to go out into different directions — of course you can go into nails, you can go into hair, you can go into fashion, you can go into music, you can start collaborating with other people, you can start meeting bigger and bigger athletes. And from athletes you go to artists, and from artists you just go to the world, and now you have connections and everybody's just like, wow, he knows him or her and they all are connected and it's just like you want to keep up with everybody.

"And you know just being in that crowd just boosts the whole idea because right now — the bar is low. It's low. I mean, I — it's low. Come on, guys. As I look around this world championships I don't see [Usain] Bolt, I don't see Asafa [Powell], I don't even see Yohan [Blake], and he's still running. Where are all these great champions? As we look at them as we're walking through the tunnel at all these previous world champions, why are they not here? Why are we not inviting top-level athletes to watch a world championship?"

Read more: Rai Benjamin takes bronze in men's 400-meter hurdles at world championships

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.