LONDON — The NBA is in old London town again this week, and for the British basketball community that is always a delight. For six years now, the annual New Year treat of seeing two stateside giants duking and dunking amid the razzmatazz that goes hand-in-hand with star-spangled pro ball has become a January sporting rite here at the O2 Arena, and even if it’s a newish tradition, it’s already one to be cherished.
On Thursday at 3 p.m. ET, in the latest of the NBA Global Games series, the Indiana Pacers and the Denver Nuggets will sell out the 20,000-seat stadium. As usual, it will be a night for courtside celebrity-spotting — “Look, it’s Paul McCartney; and oooh, isn’t that Spike Lee?” — as much as watching the basketball. We want the hoops, and we want the hoopla.
For while this may be proper, big-time U.S. sport on our doorstep, the event is the thing, not just the game. Britain has an ambivalent attitude toward U.S. sport; for some, there’s a certain in-built snobbery, a superiority complex about “our” sports — football (not soccer), rugby and cricket — and “their” sports — baseball, American football and basketball. Ne’er the twain shall meet.
On the other hand, British audiences lap up anything that oozes sporting authenticity, as the packed houses at Wembley and Twickenham for the NFL games here regularly demonstrate. Nobody was really bothered about the old London Monarchs in NFL Europe because it was perceived as second-division, castoff fare; if a London NFL franchise materializes, it will be very different. As for any bona fide NBA match — count us all in.
Yet, here’s the thing. There has been precious little hype surrounding Thursday’s game. Actually, there usually never is for the NBA’s annual visit.
No column inches in newspapers, no publicity on the main TV channels and absolutely no fanfare outside the British basketball community. There’s been some encouraging words from Los Angeles Lakers guard Luol Deng, the NBA’s lone Brit, about how he’s excited by the Global Games “because there’s always hope that the U.K. will start taking basketball more seriously,” but the media have been more interested in Deng, the best basketball player Britain has ever produced, explaining how he’d like to buy Premier League soccer club Crystal Palace one day. Naturally, every other sport is viewed largely through the prism of football in England.
The fact is that, as every year, the NBA in London is a lovely one-night stand that exists in its own world and is then just a fond memory for 12 months.
Nobody’s a bigger supporter of British basketball than Sam Neter, who runs the country’s biggest website for the sport (Hoopsfix.com) and puts on an all-star weekend featuring the country’s best youngsters, but even he concedes you have to be realistic.
“The NBA week is a party with the stars,” he said. “It’s exciting, it’s awesome, it’s great to have a bit of attention from the world’s biggest league. But the fact is that if they didn’t come, it wouldn’t change a thing in British basketball.”
He’s not denigrating the NBA’s input into the British game. Far from it. The sort of initiative that saw coaches from the Nuggets and Pacers give a clinic to more than 120 enthused British colleagues here Monday and the support that the NBA has given to backing four youth leagues in three English cities illustrate just how important commissioner Adam Silver still sees the trans-Atlantic relationship as being.
For years, whenever there’s been talk of the NBA’s expansion into Europe — former commissioner David Stern said in 2013 that there will “for sure” be multiple teams based in Europe by 2033 — London has never been far from the conversation. It feels as if it should be a natural basketball hub, with its ready-made talent base in the inner-city communities of a sports-mad area, and yet the capital’s British Basketball League team, the London Lions, barely attracts more than a few hundred spectators per game to the 7,500-seat Copper Box Arena on the 2012 Olympic site.
Because the reality, of course, remains that Planet NBA and Planet BBL operate in completely different galaxies. When the U.S. superstars strut their stuff on Thursday, it will be in a country that, while unquestionably still having the potential to embrace one of the world’s biggest team sports, still seems curiously and stubbornly immune to basketball’s seduction.
Silver has said the goal is to see basketball become Britain’s No. 2 sport. Backed by figures from a 2014 U.K. Sport survey into participation, which showed it to be the second-most popular team sport among the 14-16 age group, this did not sound too outlandish an ambition.
Except when you ask luminaries at the elite end of the game in Britain, this idea is swiftly dismissed as a pipe dream. Drew Sullivan, the former Olympic captain and star of the defending BBL champion team, the Leicester Riders, said: “It’s just not realistic. The thing that still hurts basketball in this country is that even though we have a lot of people who really do enjoy it, it’s still viewed as an American sport.
“And, let’s be honest, you know how patriotic we are. Rugby? That’s English! Cricket? That’s English! It’s steeped in our history and culture and there’s nothing wrong in that; people are always going to be interested in those three sports here first — football, rugby and cricket — and if we work hard and ever get it right, fourth is the best basketball could hope for here.”
And to make that top four, there are still countless obstacles the sport has to overcome. As Neter put it: “We don’t have a strong professional league, there’s no easy access to facilities or to good coaches, we don’t have a hugely wide participation base, we don’t have enough good professional clubs, and we don’t have a clear, predefined pathway for young talent.”
“Potential” has been the word bandied around about British basketball since the 1980s, but it has never been realized amid political infighting among its stakeholders. It’s a sport which has lost its government funding at the elite level and which singularly failed to cash in on the once-in-a-lifetime springboard that Team Great Britain competing at a home Olympics offered in 2012.
Sullivan was the captain of that team, which came within a point of beating eventual silver medalist Spain, but in a way he now stands, at 36, as a symbol of that wasted opportunity. While he may be a towering figure in the sport domestically, he can still walk down the street, even in Leicester, quite unrecognized.
“I think we have stars in British basketball, but it’s a failure of marketing that they just don’t get promoted well enough,” Sullivan said.
This is, of course, an area in which much can be learned from the NBA’s super-slick promotion of its shiny product. If British basketball is to soar, it needs kids to start thinking first of the likes of Jamell Anderson, Conner Washington and Kieron Achara, giants in their own accessible BBL, rather than untouchable, distant NBA gods like Stephen Curry or LeBron James.
Deng has been splendid, a two-time NBA All-Star showing commitment to the British game and putting something back in, even if his GB international days are over. Yet where is the next breed of star British players? Elsewhere. The best talent bounds off to superior, more lucrative European leagues, such as Spanish-based Kareem Queeley and Ovie Soko, CSKA Moscow’s Joel Freeland, once of the Portland Trail Blazers, and Myles Hesson of French Pro A side BCM Gravelines.
Maybe, ponders Neter, the problem is that the BBL is not seen as being cool enough by youngsters and is almost completely ignored by mainstream media.
Indeed, about the only time that the league caused any excitement on the back pages was back in 2006 when a 44-year-old, cigar-smoking Dennis Rodman emerged from the Celebrity Big Brother house and then played three games for the Brighton Bears for £20,000 a shot while seeming to suggest his preparation had involved plenty of serious training at Stringfellows emporium of lap dancing.
Things may be changing, however. The league has made huge strides in recent years and the BBC has now committed to showing 32 BBL and Women’s BBL games online and on the Red Button TV service this season. At the same time, the British Basketball Federation has mapped out a long-term strategy called “Transforming Basketball in Britain Together.” Don’t hold your breath, but after so many false dawns, the next decade, one suspects, will define once and for all if basketball can truly become part of British sport’s DNA.
“The BBL should learn massively from Europe first. That’s where we should be gazing, towards emulating European leagues that we can be on a par with, not the NBA, which is too big a jump to make,” Sullivan said.
Yet, he added, long may America’s best keep coming to these shores, showing us the best of a great sport, entertaining us right royally. “We love the NBA, and the NBA still loves coming here,” he said. “And while it lasts, we’ve got to do our best to capitalize on that.”