March 8, 2011

NBA + London = Winning

When was the last time you saw the entire basketball world excited about a Raptors-Nets game? No seriously, when? Back in the Vince Carter/Jason Kidd era, probably. I admit, I've always had a soft spot for the Raptors before my favourite player from 10 years ago, Carter, turned a little too soft himself.

But last week, the two teams fighting each other for the battle of the worst team in the Eastern Conference became part of history. On back-to-back games over the weekend, the Nets and the Raptors made NBA history, as the first ever NBA regular-season games were held in Europe, at the fantastic O2 Arena in London. The venue had previously played host to a few pre-season games, including a Lakers-Timberwolves match-up before this season, but a regular season game, where players play hard because it matters, is a wholly different issue.

So what if the two teams had a combined all star - Deron Williams, recently brought to New Jersey from Utah - to boast? The rest of the 'big' names in the match-up included former number one pick and Italian Andrea Bargnani, slam-dunk participant DeMar DeRozan, underrated but dominating big man Brook Lopez, and Kris Humphries who is famous because he has a famous girlfriend, who in turn is famous for being famous. At least the two teams had similar (awful) records coming into the game - Nets at 17-43, Raptors at 17-44. Of course the games were going to be competitive.

Anyways, the two games benefited many different parties:

1) The two teams, underrated back in North America, got a little international exposure and experience.
2) NBA fans in England, who may otherwise be too busy watching football, rugby, or cricket, finally got a chance to see a meaningful game in their own backyard.
3) England's 2012 Olympic campaign got a major boost, as the organising committee got the chance to hold two high-quality (relatively), close games, and thus create more hype for the Olympic basketball tournament featuring the best international teams in the world that will be held at the same venue next year.
4) Me, and other NBA fans in India, got the opportunity to watch the extra two games broadcast live on TV, taking last week's toll of live games to SEVEN. Awesome.
5) Famous people, and people who live famous people: Like any NBA game, the celebrities game out to support the London NBA Games, and as we all know, whatever celebrities like, the rest of the world follows. In the audience for the two games were football players from two of London's biggest clubs - Peter Cech, Didier Drogba, David Luiz (Chelsea) and Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, and Gael Clichy (Arsenal). A couple of famous Non-Resident-Indian Punjabis - Monty Panesar of the English Cricket team and Canadian Nav Bhatia, the Raptors' Super Fan and entrepreneur - completed the mix.
6) The NBA

Yes, the NBA were clearly the biggest winners. For a long time, David Stern has been mulling over the possibility of expanding the NBA to Europe. What that means hasn't really been exactly clear: Does he mean to have NBA franchises in Europe? Does he mean to play more regular season games there? Or will he be able to launch his pet project - a five-team European division within the league? All of the ideas above have various drawbacks, including the crazy travelling involved between the two continents, the finances involved in launching any kind of ambitious project between the NBA and Europe, and the organisational difficulties in managing it.

Yet, if this was the first major test for Stern to see if the NBA could work in Europe, it has succeeded. Many fans in London may not be completely well-versed in basketball yet (Check this out from the CNN report: in order to make sure anyone new to basketball understood what was going on, an announcer explained who the players, teams and coaches were and gave a commentary to explain the scoring to the crowd.) But at least they showed up and a majority enjoyed the action. I mean - its NBA basketball - who cares if it's just Raptors vs Nets - it's gonna be fun, right?

The two teams played hard, too. The Nets became the most successful NBA team ever, in London, as they won both high-scoring games. In the first contest, Brook Lopez dropped 25 points to lead the Nets to a 116-103 win. The second was a classic, as the teams battled way into triple-overtime, showcasing to London every emotion and piece of action that involves amazing NBA games. Lopez was again the star 34 points and 14 rebounds, while Europe's sweetheart Bargnani had 35 points for the losing side. Travis Outlaw stepped up in the end to seal the win, scoring the last 8 points for the Nets.

Now looking ahead, I'm not sure I approve or disapprove of what the future of the NBA holds in store across the Atlantic - it is hard to say since it is still early days and no one is sure exactly how things are going to develop. But it was a successful exhibition for the NBA and for basketball in England.

The NBA's now held regular season games in England and tonnes of pre-season games in other parts of Europe, South America, and South-East Asia. But what about us? About 11 months ago, I wondered if the NBA could ever hold a pre-season game in India. As a great open market, it would make sense. But we are far, far, faaaaaar behind in our infrastructure and organisation. Does anyone remember the Commonwealth Games? Yea - I don't think Suresh Kalmadi and David Stern would be a compatible partnership.

But, the NBA will send us something one day. The Cavs, maybe. An NBDL side? A WNBA side? Something. It's going to happen though. I know it...

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