Tom Hurley is an aspiring sports journalist in Manchester, UK who attended both of the Raptors-Nets games that just took place at London’s O2 Arena. This is his report from yesterday’s ridiculous triple-overtime game which the Nets won 137-136. Tom posts regularly on his Tom Hurley Sports blog and you can follow him on Twitter @TomHurley.
They may have started slow at first, unsure of how to respond during the game – when to cheer, went to boo, when’s the wrong time to do the wave; but by the time Andrea Bargnani had the ball in his hands as the clock ticked down on the last 10 seconds of the third overtime during last night’s Raptors Nets game in London, everyone in the arena was on their feet. They were screaming, roaring, clapping, stomping and going absolutely stern-fire bonkers with excitement as the climax of this never-ending game was finally upon them. As the Italian moved away from Kris Humprhies, flexing his knees before leaping skywards in an attempt to hit the game winner, every single human being in that building had fallen in love with basketball.
Over the course of the two games in London’s O2 Arena, the fans were captivated by Deron Williams’ silky moves, oooh’d and ahhh’d at DeMar DeRozan’s thunderous jams, and became totally enthralled by this bizarre sport from foreign lands in the process. David Stern must have had a Cheshire cat style grin on his face when the ball left Bargnani’s finger tips as the game clock expired at the end of the third overtime, for in that split second, he knew that those at The O2 Arena would be left captivated by the sport; he knew that this week had worked, and he knew that NBA London 2011 had been a resounding success.
As the ball struck the outer rim, signalling a heart-breaking defeat for Toronto, nobody in the building wanted to leave, they wanted a fourth overtime, a fifth, even a sixth. For they knew that less than twelve hours from that moment, the NBA road show would be making its way to the airport and heading for home. They would be leaving behind an entire new fan base, but leaving them where they were best left – wanting for more.
Up until late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s marathon triple overtime thriller, the majority of spectators at The O2 Arena didn’t really appear to understand exactly what was going on down on the hardwood in front of them. Both teams’ players were booed at the free throw line, with a cheer following no matter if the shot was made or missed. Clever passes and effort in the paint went unappreciated, while slow yet intelligent play was greeted by restlessness. In fact, the loudest cheers during Friday night’s series opener were reserved for timeouts, when the Nets dunk squad and Toronto’s team mascot took to the court to throw t-shirts into the stands.
Had this game featured the Lakers or Heat instead of the Raptors and Nets, the NBA wouldn’t have needed to lower ticket prices to avoid the embarrassment of not selling out. It wouldn’t have taken a ridiculously exciting triple-overtime contest to create the atmosphere seen during the game’s final minutes. The fans in seats probably would have been the ones who drum up livewire atmospheres in the home gyms of teams in the British Basketball League, rather than curious Londoners interested in seeing up close why North Americans love this sport so much.
What these games showed was that once people understood what was going on, once they picked up on how to cheer at the right moments, they got it. They got it and they loved it. Every one of us in that arena experienced one of the most exciting finales to an NBA game that there will be all season, and I’m glad I got to experience it with my fellow Brits.
Before this weekend, I was skeptical about whether an NBA franchise could succeed in London. I was unsure if enough locals without basketball backgrounds would “get it”, if there was enough interest in the sport to fill the 18,389-capacity O2 Arena on a nightly basis at the NBA’s extortionate ticket prices. After all, we’re talking about 41 home games per season, which is a heck of a lot more than the eight home games any future London NFL franchise would easily sell out each season. But after seeing the stark contrast between the fan reaction and involvement during the opening two minutes of Friday’s game, to the final 20 minutes of Saturday’s thriller, I think it could work.
Next summer, London will play host to the 2012 Olympic Games, which will once again feature the superstars of the NBA competing for the home nations. If Team Great Britain (featuring ex-Raptor Pops Mansah-Bonsu and current Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng) can manage to qualify for the 2012 Olympic tournament and then go deep into the knockout rounds, basketball could really take off in this country.
Imagine if the UK can get as captivated by Team GB in 2012 as Canadians were by Team Canada hockey during the 2010 winter games in Vancouver. Conversations about crossovers and jump shots would be had on mainstream television and radio networks, stories about rebounding and spectacular dunks would plaster the sports sections of newspapers. The NBA senses the London Olympics is their best chance yet to grab this country by the neck and entice it under its boomshakalaka charm.
During that final play of Saturday’s game; you would have thought you were at Madison Square Garden or Staples Centre, rather than merry old England. London was on fire. Sure, it may have taken a ridiculously tense game for the crowd to spark into life, but spark into life they did. The entire experience of having the NBA come to town was amazing, seeing the players in person and living through the electric ending to the second game are memories which will stay with me for life.
The thirst for NBA basketball is greater than it has ever been before, and I bet everybody in that arena last night would be there again in a shot if the road show came to town again.