Four Cities, 5 Teams, 6 Days
The NBA is alive and well across the Atlantic.
by Matt Ogborn / @mattogborn
The boy craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the giant purple and yellow men down on the court below through the tiniest of door windows. I asked his mother if they were Lakers fans. “Huge,” she gushed. “But we didn’t know they were going to be here at Crystal Palace.” I was tempted to say, “Well, neither does the rest of the country for the most part,” but their wide-eyed smiles kept my cynicism in check.
It’s no secret that basketball takes a back seat to football, cricket and rugby, amongst other sports, in the UK. I’ve grown used to it down the years, one false dawn after the other. But with the 2012 Olympics coming to the English capital, and the Team GB men and women qualifying for EuroBasket in Lithuania and Poland respectively next summer, I’ve felt a slight sea change in the media’s treatment of hoops.
Europe gets it. The New York Knicks traveled to Italy the weekend before last to open up a week of foreign NBA grandstanding against a game, if limited, Olimpia Milano outfit. Amar’e Stoudemire forced the crowd to its feet. The Big Apple’s mooted savior, via a savage spell of discord on and off the floor, spread the gospel according to David Stern with his Stateside charisma. The Italians went nuts, thanks in part to prodigal sons Danilo Gallinari and Mike D’Antoni.
London didn’t have Luol this year, after his Bulls team edged the Jazz at the last in 2009. They didn’t have Pops, grafting away on a non-guaranteed contract at the Hornets training camp. They sure as hell didn’t have Ben, his summer injury problems denying British fans the chance to see Detroit’s go-to enigma for the first time.
We did have John Amaechi, though, the controversial center teaming up with Lakers legend James Worthy at an outside clinic by the River Thames. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was enough to divert the attention of passersby who might have seen enough to stump up money for the two games between the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors in March, the first regular-season games to be played outside the US.
I doubt they will seek out too many BBL games, though, our native league suffering under a cloud of executive squabbling, dubious quality and threadbare crowds. Amaechi was quick to highlight our plight when I sat down with him after. Worthy, on the other hand, was all smiles. The league that named him one of its 50 Greatest Players is in rude health and poised to seize the affections of young Brits who see hoops as the second-most popular sport for kids under 18 years of age.
When I journeyed over to the sprawling 1960s edifice, otherwise known as the National Sports Centre, in Palace the next day I was expecting crowds of fledgling bball fans. Aside from the mother, her son and a sprinkling of lads his own age, the Lakers and Timberwolves practiced in relative peace. And, boy, did they practice.
If anyone wants to know why Phil Jackson rivals Peter Jackson as The Lord of the Rings, they should watch the former Bulls czar put them through their paces. With Kobe resting up on the sideline, knees iced up and banter at the ready for his sweat-soaked teammates; they went five-on-five with impressive gusto. Pau played up to the cameras, while the others got down to business for the assembled media.
Sessions like these are tailor made for two things: 1) to grind out base fitness, and 2) allow the new guys time to work out the system. Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Theo Ratliff showed glimpses of the hardcourt savvy that might help Jackson’s well-oiled outfit to a three-peat come next May/June. Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom know the playbook like the back of their hands, so it was no surprise to see them dictating the play.
As for Ron, well, he’s a law unto himself. When I sneaked time with him at the end, he wasn’t bothered about the other teams this season only what the Lakers can bring to the party. He wasn’t too bothered about the women milling about the court either, when he whipped off his shorts and slid on his jeans for the journey back to the hotel.
The Wolves arrived next and looked jaded. Jetlag jaded. If the Lakers were coiled like cobras, Minnesota were sluggish like sloths. Wayne Ellington backed up my assertion, but promised me the recent underachievers would be up for it at game time the following night. Coach Rambis wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen when his players took to the floor, the intriguing mix of wily veterans, bustling bigs, slick sophomores and promising rooks very much a work in progress.
Thirty-six hours later, there was a satisfied smile on Kurt’s face even given his Lakers legacy. Short of much-hyped point guard Jonny Flynn, his team had taken his old boss’ defending champs to the cleaners. We know Kobe only played 6 minutes and Pau not much more, but the Wolves produced the type of gritty display that bodes well for a Western Conference full to the brim of evenly matched teams.
Maybe the British fans might even be inspired to back them this coming campaign — the complete lack of Minnesota threads all too apparent in a sea of Lakers jerseys at the O2 Arena. I was interested to know what Michael Beasley thought of the win, mere months after the Heat shipped him out to make way for LeBron and Bosh. He admitted that the rotation has something to prove, his own dynamic with Kevin Love a fascinating one based on the all-action forward’s Team USA strides in Turkey.