After more than two decades of slow burn, the National Basketball Association believe next year’s London Olympics could light the blue touchpaper for the sport in Britain. There are many, from an organising committee flogging tickets to a government hoping to boost participation – not to mention the international and domestic federations in charge of the sport – who hope they are right.
As their impeccably marketed circus rolled into London on Friday for the first regular-season NBA games to be played in Europe, two back-to-back ties between the Toronto Raptors and the New Jersey Nets at the O2 Arena, the organisation’s deputy commissioner and chief operating officer insisted next summer’s Games would have a huge impact. “It’s not going to happen overnight. But the Olympics could ignite much broader interest in the game. For people here to see the best in the world play in Olympic competition will, I think, be a life-changing event,” says Adam Silver.
It is easy to become inured to grand pronouncements about global growth, and there are already more than enough legacy hopes pinned on next summer’s Olympics, but the NBA and the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) are convinced the Games will be a pivotal moment. The basketball arena on the Olympic Park is a temporary structure, but British Basketball harbour ambitions of moving into the Handball Arena and making it a permanent home for the sport in east London. Beyond 2012, there are embryonic plans to bid for the EuroBasket tournament in 2015 or 2017.
Ever since London won the right to host the Games, basketball has been flagged up as the sort of sport that will drive a virtuous circle of increased participation and better elite performance. It requires comparatively little space or equipment, is suited to urban areas and is popular with both sexes. But harnessing its potential has proved more difficult, with the past two decades littered with attempts to establish a competitive national league and boost performance on the European and world stage. The latest push could yet be derailed by Fiba, who will meet in Lyon a week today to decide whether to gift Team GB one of 12 places at the Games.
Basketball is unusual in that the host nation is not guaranteed a place but depends on the federation awarding it a wildcard. Fiba’s general secretary, Patrick Baumann, accepts the British teams deserve to be gifted a place in “sporting terms” despite the fact neither would qualify by merit. But there are wider concerns and Fiba need to be convinced over legacy plans beyond the Games.
“We will be looking at the performance of the team on court. The main objective is to be competitive,” Baumann says. “The second aspect is what is going to happen after the Games, how the associations’ efforts will be continued. Will the British team exist after the Games? Will it be resurrected only for 2016? How will this country become a basketball country?”
On Friday, in a match that seemed to make more impression on the sold-out crowd as an experience than a sport, the Nets defeated the Raptors 116-103. Last night the Nets needed three overtimes before winning 137-136 to complete the double. Eleven NBA teams have played nine matches in the UK and Silver insists these games were part of an “evolution” designed to see a “European division” established. While acknowledging there are logistical and commercial hurdles to overcome, he foresees a handful of European teams playing in state of the art arenas within a decade.
“One of the things that held the league back until recently is you didn’t have these American-style arenas and visions that, economically, can allow you now to make sense out of games like this,” says Tim Leiweke, chief executive of AEG, the US sports giant that operates the O2 and has a share in the Los Angeles Lakers. “We have an economic model that can work for the league, but we need six or eight of these in the right markets.”
It is easy to believe a combination of US commercial nous and the Olympic spirit could provide a defining moment for British basketball. Whether that feeling persists once the glitter cannons have been put away, the NBA teams have gone home and the hard slog in building the profile of the game resumes may depend on the decision reached in Lyon.
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