With US in town, British basketball gets attention
The question would be almost unimaginable in the United
”Who’s No. 6?” a reporter asked a U.S. official.
Yes, even LeBron James isn’t recognized everywhere in Britain,
where soccer is king and basketball is hardly an afterthought.
That will change at least briefly Thursday, with James and the
U.S. Olympic team bringing it some rare attention with a game
It’s only an exhibition, so the result doesn’t matter. But the
event does, to those who want to see basketball gain a place in
Britain’s sports culture.
”This is a massive opportunity for British basketball to get
some oxygen, to breathe life into the sport in this country,” said
Chris Mitchell, who calls Britain’s games for BBC Radio. ”Team USA
being here is arguably the biggest-ever game this country has
hosted. It’s arguably bigger than any game they’ll play at the
Olympics, because they’ll only face USA if they get through their
group and perhaps meet them in the quarterfinals. So this, this
week, it’s almost the climax to the history of British basketball.
Manchester Arena is expected to be full, many fans familiar with
Kobe Bryant but with no clue how to pronounce the name of U.S.
coach Mike Krzyzewski. It probably won’t be very competitive, but
it will give the Americans the opportunity to play in front of the
opponent’s fans for the first time during their preparations for
the London Olympics.
”They will represent their country, they will cheer on their
team and hopefully we can just play well in front of them,” James
The Americans met the media Wednesday before practicing at the
arena, getting occasional questions about the Xs and Os of
basketball and the people who play it: James asked about injured
teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; Carmelo Anthony and Tyson
Chandler about departed one Jeremy Lin.
And this being soccer country, of course there was that. Bryant
is the most popular NBA player outside the U.S., but far from the
most famous athlete in Los Angeles for the British.
So what about David Beckham not making the host’s Olympic soccer
”I would love to have seen him have some type role on the
team,” said Bryant, a soccer fan who lived outside the U.S. as a
child. ”Just his leadership and his intelligence could have helped
the team out.”
Basketball has such little presence in Britain that FIBA, the
sport’s governing body, didn’t immediately award the hosts the
traditional automatic bid into the Olympic tournament. It wanted to
be certain that there would be a legacy beyond the London Games,
that support for the home team’s program would spark interest in
watching, playing and following the sport.
FIBA was eventually convinced, helped by the British performing
respectably last year at the European Championship. NBA All-Star
Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls is the team’s leader and Joel
Freeland has signed with the Portland Trail Blazers. (Charlotte’s
Ben Gordon, born in England before moving to New York, was expected
to be on the roster but passed on playing).
That’s probably not enough to challenge the U.S., which will be
looking for a strong performance after having a tough time with
Brazil in an 80-69 victory Monday night in Washington.
”I think this will be tougher than most people expect because
it’s their country. They’re playing here,” Krzyzewski said.
”Luol, I know Luol, I coached him. They’ll play real hard. They
can shoot the ball and they play a little bit unconventional in
that actually their two bigs I think are their best shooters, and
so they’ll spread you out. So it’ll be a different type of game for
us to defend, different type of team.”
The Americans don’t garner the same attention here as they did
four years ago in China, where basketball is massively popular. But
their visit gives a sorely needed boost to the Brits who want to
see the sport matter at home. Mitchell has been covering basketball
for more than a decade, calling it a ”niche” sport which
sometimes draws only a few hundred fans and no press to its
domestic league games.
”Basketball is an unknown quantity in this country,” he said.
”People don’t understand it. They don’t know the rules. They don’t
read about it in the newspapers because it’s not in the newspapers,
it’s not on the news. It’s not part of our social fabric if you’d
like, like it is in the States.”
The Americans are glad to do their part. They’ll see a more
traditional basketball atmosphere in a few days, when they face
Argentina and Spain in Barcelona.
For now, they’re trying to help create one.
”We’re happy to be in England, in Great Britain, and you start
even getting even more of a flavor for the Olympics,” Krzyzewski
said, ”and we’re anxious to play Great Britain tomorrow
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