With US in town, British basketball gets attention

The question would be almost unimaginable in the United

States.

”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

against Britain.

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.

It’s huge.”

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

said.

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

roster, Kobe?

”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

night.”

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