Colm Heaney checks in from London…
So that’s that. The games have been played, the awkward questions to Kris Humphries about his girlfriend have been asked and The O2 Arena is getting ready for its next big event — Irish popsters Boyzone’s “Brother” tour comes to town tomorrow (tickets still available!). So with that in mind, it’s time to look back and take stock and what we learned this weekend.
Despite all the “what have the British done to deserve the Nets and Raptors” jokes, they were actually a decent fit for London: Let’s put aside Friday’s game — a pretty run-of-the-mill game between two Lottery teams in March — and look at Saturday.
If you want somebody seeing basketball for the first time to come back again, you could do a lot worse than a three-overtime thriller that ends 137-136. And given that the crowd seemed evenly split between both teams — except when shooting free throws. Everybody got booed shooting free throws. British people seem to hate free throws the way Germans love David Hasselhoff — every key make and miss was met with a roar. And as the game got tighter the players seemed to grow into the occasion as well. NBA.com’s Sekou Smith tweeted that both teams were “going at it like this is Game 7 of a playoff series.” In fact, it’s probably safe to say if you ask a player on either team their highlight of 2010-2011 season was, Saturday night is bound to be close to the top. And to their credit the crowd, while maybe not the most basketball-savvy in NBA history, could definitely sense it. After the game, Nets coach Avery Johnson said:
“Even though it was only a regular-season game, this was one of the best wins I have been a part of.”
True, Avery was probably “over-egging the pudding” as the Brits like to say, but it was a statement that reflected the genuine excitement in the arena on Saturday night.
Vince Carter Raptor jerseys were the most popular among those in the crowd: Make of that what you will. Although Kobe Bryant was a close second. There were also a handful of LeBron Heat ones and Luol Dengs spotted as well. The most random was the dude wearing a Jayson Williams Nets jersey. I hope it was because he likes rebounding.
As for the souvenirs available for sale, there was one big stand set-up just inside the main entrance hawking a not-all-that inspiring selection of jerseys, headphones, T-shirts and DVDs. I had hoped to snag a pair of All-Star Digi Socks, but that turned out to be a wildly-optimistic on my part. Still, in the spirit of all Andrew Unterberger-inspired TBJ roadtrips I couldn’t walk away empty-handed, so I grabbed an NBA London Games T-shirt for £20 (US$32).
These games were a bigger deal to British basketball than you think: Even though London is hosting the Olympics in 2012, the British men and women haven’t been guaranteed a place in the Games. The final decision on Team GB’s participation is to be made in Lyon, France, on Sunday (two days before Olympic tickets go on sale funnily enough) and FIBA reps were in attendance at the weekend and making optimistic overtures about Britain’s hopes.
If The O2 Arena was in North America it would be the perfect NBA venue: As any basketball fan from Seattle or Sacramento will tell you before punching you in the face for reminding them, the NBA puts a premium on modern arenas. The O2 is certainly that. The arena itself is something of an architectural marvel — the entire arena was constructed within the structure of the dome that covers the complex. In addition to the arena, the building features a multiplex cinema, an auditorium for smaller gigs, a museum dedicated to the history of British music, two other exhibition spaces currently featuring exhibits about dinosaurs and the Titanic, two Starbucks and what seemed like 632 other bars and restaurants. It’s an impressive place.
Everyone has a calling in life: Apparently mine is pointing out minor British celebrities to Canadian journalists.
Only a jet-skiing Russian billionaire could tell this joke in a room full of reporters and get a laugh: “My ex-girlfriend asked me why basketball is better than [soccer]. My reply was, ‘Look, I think basketball is better because my team for sure will have some scores during the match’.”
The games really didn’t register on the radar of the greater British media or public: The Nets dancers, as North American cheerleaders are required to do by international law when on this side of the pond, made an appearance on Soccer AM on Saturday morning, the B.B.C. referred to the Nets as “the New York Nets” and “New Jersey Jets” on consecutive days and the tabloids waxed breathlessly about all things Jay-Z and Kardashian. From The Sun:
“When it comes to WAGs and wonga, the Jersey basketball giants could dish out a slam-dunk on the England football team!”
“A place in the play-offs is out of the question but, while things may not going well on the court, when it comes to the VIP room at Nets home games, they are world beaters.”
But for the most part the NBA’s presence here was pretty understated — when the Denver Broncos played the San Francisco 49ers at Wembley last October, the NFL shut down Trafalgar Square in the center of London for a fan rally. By contrast, this weekend’s NBA Fan Zone was held at a mall in West London.
But to be fair to the League, it was the right place to stage it. When I was there on Saturday afternoon there was a healthy crowd of basketball fans and curious shoppers stopping for a peak on the way out of the Apple Store. And if you were one of the unfortunate few stuck behind the lumbering Irish-Canadian overstaying his welcome at the Pop-A-Shot, I sincerely apologize.
So what does it all mean?: I don’t think there’s a conclusive answer to this yet. Yes, the NBA did sell out two games and shifted a lot of Kobe jerseys while doing so. However, in terms of long-term goals, who knows? NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who called the weekend “incredibly successful,” said:
“I’m not so sure about [games in London] every season, but I think it will be a regular feature.”
And the NBA is serious about Europe. AEG, who worked with the League on the design of The O2, runs similar facilities in Berlin and other European cities and is involved with the plans to renovate the Bercy Arena in Paris. You’d have to imagine they’re doing it for a reason. And while the “E” word was mentioned, European expansion still seems a long way from being something to be taken seriously.
Of course, there’s the matter of the ongoing negotiations surrounding the collective bargaining agreement — which Silver said was the reason David Stern didn’t make the trip — but once that’s settled look for the NBA to try and find its niche in Europe. And as long as it’s profitable, they’ll keep coming.