With apologies to their combined 34-87 record, the Toronto Raptors and the New Jersey Nets had not played an interesting game all season heading into last weekend. It was known in advance that the two teams would struggle this season, and any optimism to the contrary has been roundly denounced. Both teams are building for the future, and rightly so. But it comes at the expense of the present.
Right now, they suck.
At this point in any season, there are many meaningless doldrums games. With the trade deadline passed, almost all player movement cemented, and the title contenders obvious, most teams now know who they are. Many of the games in March and April are frankly rather boring – if the teams concerned are not putting forth their best effort to win, you’re invariably going to reciprocate with a half arsed level of interest. In light of everything that has transpired this season, the Raptors and Nets can both equate to this.
However, these particular doldrums games had a resonance and magnitude not afforded to their counterparts. These games were played in London, England, at the O2 Arena. And that single caveat brought a hitherto unprecedented level of excitement to what would otherwise be two of the most arbitrary games of the season.
(The ambitious accompanying television ad campaign pitched this games as “crucial games leading up to the NBA playoffs,” bringing “all the fun and excitement of the NBA.” It was a slightly generous pitch, but as we’ll see later, not entirely fictional. Apart from the bit about “crucial”.)
If nothing else, half of it was faintly true. Entertaining if not especially high standard of game could have happened; after all, the half-game difference between their respective records showed the two teams to be evenly matched. Furthermore, the arrival of Deron Williams brought some star recognition to a game that badly needed it. And when the NBA’s tenth worst defense met its second worst, offense was sure to follow.
More importantly, this is the first NBA game that mattered, however faintly, in the history of Europe. This game presented an opportunity for people from Europe to go to their first ever NBA game. And as a person from Europe, that’s exactly what I did.
The bit where I talk about me for a bit
I bought six tickets for the first game as early as possible. This was not going to be the first game I have ever attended; this one was. But it was to be my second, and the first regular season game I have been to. It was the first one that, up to a point, mattered. And it was the first one that wouldn’t feature crunch time minutes for Lindsey Hunter and Ronald Dupree.
Although it was only two high lottery teams in March, I was excited. It was something, and something’s enough.
There was one slight problem to overcome. Accustomed as I am to watching basketball games as a neutral, I can’t help but feel that if you’re at the race, you should have a dog in it. However, as a Bulls fan until such time as someone pays me to switch allegiance, thus with no defined allegiance to either team, I had to fabricate an allegiance via whatever tenous means I had to hand.
My gut instinct was to support the Raptors, purely on account of their recent trade for ex-Bulls forward, James Johnson. Since I was rooting for Johnson a mere fortnight ago, it would have been a simple segway to use for these games, especially given that the Raptors have immediately thrust Johnson into their starting lineup. However, Johnson wasn’t exactly a key component of the Bulls lineup at any point during his time there; in fact, he didn’t even play as many minutes for them as Eric Piatkowski did. So with that argument suitably weakened, and with no other obvious affinity to either team lined up, I settled for a coin flip while waiting in the queue for a burger at Liverpool Street McDonald’s (which, incidentally, now has greeters. Tough gig.)
The coin decreed that I was to support the Nets. So, that’s what I did. And as it turned out, the pound coin that I had gone and turned into a strawberry sundae proved dutifully prophetic.
Burger in stomach and business in hand, we were off.
The First Game
Outside the entrance to the O2 Arena, a group of men in matching t-shirts stood in a line, high-fiving people as they walked in, and yelling vowel sounds at them. Whether they were there in an official capacity or not is unclear; whether they succeeded or not is in the eye of the beholder. It certainly worked for me, though. A few hand slaps and incomprehensible AAAARGH type sounds were exchanged, and I felt amped. Amped enough to tolerate standing next to an oversized cardboard cut-out of Jarvis Cocker for over an hour and a half, waiting for the friends whose tickets I had to arrive.
Our group eventually came together, and we headed to our seats. It took a while to get through the no-readmission, slightly sexually assaulty security gate, but eventually we made it through, and began the long ascent to the top of the O2verest. They weren’t the cheapest seats in the building; nevertheless, despite their relative expense, these second-cheapest seats were so steep that they were basically vertical:
Somehow, there were cheaper seats than this.
Presumably, the cheaper seats were in the car park.
(Do not let the shot of the empty seats fool you, however. The place was full, and there wasn’t a seat to be found in the upper tier. There were, unfortunately, some empty lower bowl seats still, not because the seats had not been sold, but because the rich city boys who bought them decided not to show up. We have the same problem during international football games at Wembley. It’s an alienating inevitability of holding a one-off major sporting event in a city with sports in its blood and a need for corporate tax write-offs. The tickets still get sold, so it’s all income. But it doesn’t look good, and it alienates those of us who would dearly bloody love to sit there. Alas, this is the corporate world, and the NBA deals in it. We must oblige it.)
Sitting on the opposite side of the court to the television cameras meant that the replays on the screen were mirror images to what we saw on the court. That, combined with the fact that we were sitting so high there were snowmen forming on our heads, did not make for the best view of the game action. It also didn’t make for good celebrity spotting opportunities, although the cameramen were on hand to help us out there. Spotted in the crowd on this night; Darryl Dawkins (cheered, and wearing a surprisingly tame jacket for someone normally so sartorially inept), Robert Horry (really cheered), Les Ferdinand (really really REALLY cheered), Monty Panesar (legend), JLS (booed), Didier Drogba (really booed) and Adrian Chiles (really, really, REALLY booed). Why was Adrian Chiles booed? Couldn’t say. But the way this always-bemused looking man looked extra bemused at his vitriolic reception kind of made it worthwhile.
Because these games were both technically Nets home games – which seems strange, but is the price you pay for years of terrible attendance – the Nets brought all the entertainment. This meant the Nets dancers were here, this meant Nets announcer Gary Sussman was here, and this meant Marv Albert was here, bringing his New lighter hairpiece to a different continent. [Iron Eagle didn’t make the trip.] The only people who weren’t here were those recently traded for Deron Williams, namely Devin Harris and Derrick Favors. This probably suits both of them – Favors wouldn’t have to spend a week having his name spelled with a U, and Harris wouldn’t have to have a rematch versus Stuart Tanner.
The awkwardness of the player intros is something that must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Tucked in one barely lit corner of the big open expanse of the court, players mill about awkwardly, waiting for somebody to shout their name to a room full of people who already know it. All the while, head coaches are also flitting about, waiting for their names to be called in a similarly overzealous fashion. This awkwardness was particularly true in the case of the night’s head coaches, Avery Johnson (who, from a distance, is so black he looks like a silhouette) and Jay Triano (who, from a distance, looks a bit like John Christie).
It quickly became apparent that just because the Nets were technically at home, it didn’t mean they had the most crowd support.
Upon their introductions, Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon drew big cheers from the crowd, proof if ever it were needed that this was an event not just for England, but for the whole of Europe (more on this later). Perhaps inevitably, the biggest cheer went up for Deron Williams, who, quite blatantly, has the most star power here. These intros are followed by obligatory speeches to the crowd by one member of each team, something of a custom now at NBA Europe events. Calderon and Kris Humphries stepped up to the plate on this occasion – both grounded out softly to second.
Sitting behind us were a group of drunken young twenty-somethings, familiar with the basic concepts of the sport, but not exactly with the nuances. On every possession, they clamoured for players to take jumpshots early in the shot clock, remarked that “some of them guys is tall”, and at one point campaigned for a “handball.” Sitting in front of us was the most bored woman to have ever walked the earth, who was quite clearly the disinterested mother of the young child to her right. Like a pensioner with their Giro on the way back from the pension office, this woman clung so tightly to her disposable Coke bottle that her handskin transcended white into a strange purpley colour. Her mixture of rage and apathy, combined with the enthusiasm yet ignorance of the people behind us, rather set the tone for the crowd. It is perhaps no wonder that, with people like this in mind, the rules of defensive fouls were explained during every trip to the free throw line.
One thing that was apparent from our vantage point was the rebounding action on every play. Or, to put it another way, the lack of rebounding action on every play. We didn’t need a close seat to see who was and wasn’t fighting for position and the ball. To truly appreciate the rebounding apathies of Bargnani and Brook Lopez, you have to see them in person.
Gotta jump on that play, Andrea.
Other than the rebounding, defense and lack of passing, Bargnani played well. So did his future replacement, Ed Davis, who was active, under control, and productive. For the Nets, Deron Williams controlled the game, while Damion James worked hard on either end and was rewarded. Lopez put forward about 25 times more effort on offense than he did on defense, and Kris Humphries continued his year-long impression of a poor man’s Blake Griffin with the kind of effort, strength, shot selection and athleticism that will see him inevitably corral a full MLE deal in the offseason.
Whatever popularity the Cal-Deron point guard combination had at the opening tap slowly gave way to a strong DeMar Derozan following. Derozan starred in this game, and was cheered on every one of his successful forays to the basket, be they in the half court or the open floor. And there were many such forays. Derozan – a man who once couldn’t separate himself from Sonny Weems – went on to record a game high 30 points, taking only 19 shots to do it, and did not commit a turnover, despite all his aggression. Lest there were any residual doubt by this time, DD is not a massive bust.
Inevitably, we were treated to both the highs and lows of the NBA experience. The highs included musical interludes from both Michael Jackson and Prince, a strangely successful rendition of the Outhere Brothers’s classic Boom Boom Boom, the always entertaining Slamball sections, the inflatable Raptor mascot that looks like an evil Barney, the inflatable Nets mascot accidentally deflating mid-routine, the always exciting Kiss Cam (highlighted in this instance by a man who looked like fat Bono refusing to kiss a bluegrass Tina Turner), a three-play-long period of unstoppable play by Johan Petro that led to him thereafter being nicknamed “The Unstoppable Johan Petro”, and the man to our immediate left, who booed all Nets free throws in a hilariously well-spoken fashion (imagine Noel Coward playing a particularly sardonic ghost in an episode of 60’s Scooby Doo). The lows included a quickly irritating “ka-ching!” noise on every made and-one, the customary request to make it clap, Flex Cam, the man in our section who wouldn’t sit down and who also wouldn’t take a hint, no playing of the national anthem (the British one, not the American one), Travis Outlaw’s performance, the no-show by the woman on the unicycle who flips crockery onto her head, and multiple instances of the Mexican Wave. If you sit more than 3,000 British people in a circle, they’re going to do the wave. It’s a rule; if nothing else, it represented an attempt at audience participation.
Aside from Derozan and the Waves, the other big cheer came for Sundiata Gaines, recent ten day contract signee of the Nets and a former Raptors guard, who came in for the first time in the fourth quarter and pretty much won the Nets the game. With his 7 points and 2 assists in the final 7 minutes of the fourth quarter, Gaines effectively closed out the game for New Jersey, the welcome recipient of a Toronto lineup that could not stop anybody for more than one possession in a row, and which also couldn’t make a basket below the six minute mark. There was also quite a big cheer when Brook Lopez and the otherwise silent Amir Johnson (who somehow recorded a -31 in a game that was close throughout) threatened to throw hands after a hard foul in the fourth quarter.
But that was about it. The pre-game excitement did not stack up to the mid-game delivery.
Perhaps it’s because it was a Friday night in an arena with half of its courtside seats empty, perhaps it’s because the game was not overwhelmingly exciting, or perhaps it’s because it sounded quieter than it was because no one was sitting behind us, given how far away we were. Whatever it was, though, the mid-play level of noise in the arena was jarringly quiet. You could have heard Reggie Miller pee on cotton.
The entertainment, though, was not without its high points. The concept of a string concerto as half time entertainment was treated with bewilderment by many, but greatly appreciated by those of us who like to think we’re far more educated and classy than we actually are. And the unmistakably high point came when a Nets cheerleader, on a brave exploration of the Slamball trampette, accidentally faceplanted on the dismount action and showed the audience everything her mother gave her. This helped remind some of us that we are neither educated nor classy.
If you put a slim girl in a nice dress, stand her 100 feet away, and
give her a stringed instrument, she becomes hot. Fact.
Nevertheless, despite the violins, the valiant efforts of the Nets entertainment crews, the Raptors mascot, arena MC Simon Hosannah, and DeMar Derozan, they could not make something out of nothing. Although the game was reasonably high scoring and close until near the middle of the fourth, it never truly got going. The atmosphere was certainly not palpable. The atmosphere was the opposite of palpable. Indeed, the atmosphere was unpalpable. The atmosphere could not be palped. Any attempting to palp the atmosphere would have been unsuccessful; indeed, few onlookers could be observed engaging in any palping. Put slightly less stupidly, the game was enjoyable, but it was not great.
The Second Game
The second game was great.
I was not initially going to go to the second game. However, a few hours before it tipped off, an otherwise innocuous Twitter conversation somehow turned into a pair of lower bowl tickets, nine rows back from the Raptors bench, for less than half of their face value. Unexpected as the deal was, it certainly was not unwelcome. It meant another five hours spent travelling through the beautiful sights and sounds of north London, it meant a day out on two hours sleep, and it meant that the 5,000 words that I had previously written about the weekend were now basically redundant. But it was totally worth it because of how great the seats were.
How great were the seats? This great.
Oh yes. That’s a lot better.
Great enough to hear the talk on the Raptors bench, if not clear enough to fully decipher it. Great enough to be able to make misogynistic judgements about the cheerleaders that had a semblance of validity to them. Great enough to hear John Christie complain all night. (All. Night.) Great enough that the players didn’t merely look like cattle (which is what they look like from the top tier, as long as you are able to accept the idea of cows in headbands). Great enough to be seated adjacent to the attractive women in what was quite clearly the Official Groupie Section. [The Unofficial Groupie Section was the other side.] And, more importantly, close enough to smell the sweet futile envy of all those sitting behind us. Here’s what it looked like from the other side.
That’s me, that is.
Does that count as a television debut? I hope so. Because it’s going to.
Without a protracted where-the-hell-are-the-others drama to completely ruin the build-up, we hurried through the increasingly gropey security gate as quickly as possible straight into the arena. We stopped only to collect two absolutely free yet completely unnecessary foam fingers, designed to enhance our enjoyment of the game in unimaginable, finger-based ways. That foamy enjoyment lasted all of about four minutes before I gave the finger to the girl seated to my right (if that makes sense), to save her the effort of getting one for herself. Such magnanimity earned me a Starburst in return. I’d made a friend and gained a sweet. We were now destined to enjoy the game.
Anthony Morrow, who was quiet in the first game and who was not playing in the game due to a concussion, was diligently shooting free throws, unnervingly making every single one of them. He was the only player out on the court during the latter part of the optional shootaround. When the layup line started, Toronto shot layups and jumpshots as a team for about two minutes, before breaking off into two distinct factors; the jumpshooters and the dunkers. Barbosa, Calderon and Bargnani led the charge for the jumpshooting faction; DeMar Derozan flitted between the two. The dunking troupe featured both Johnsons, Sonny Weems, occasional lashings of Derozan, and a dollop of Bayless. However, the troupe was unilaterally spearheaded by Julian Wright, who spent several minutes throwing dunk contest-esque self-alleyoops to himself, usually starting from an ambitiously long way, and completing very few of them. Wright had not played the previous night, and had not played in many previous nights, receiving only 9 minutes since Valentine’s Day, all of them in blowout losses. Julian Wright, it appears, didn’t think he was going to get any playing time. Julian Wright, it appears, doesn’t want that to change.
(Wright never did play in the game, recording his second DNP-CD of the weekend. Given that he was later witnessed trying to play games with James Johnson on the bench as the Raptors called timeout while down seven in overtime, it might behoove Wright to improve his body language and demeanour. You don’t have to look forlorn all the time; you just have to look like you’re vaguely aware of what’s transpiring on the court, whilst appearing willing and able to improve yourself and the team’s fortunes. Julian Wright did not give off that impression.)
When it came to the player name announcements, events went down just as they had in the first game; same players (save for Vujacic over Morrow), in the same order, with the same levels of reception. The only break from procedure came when James Johnson, the first player announced, missed his turn in the post-announcement handslaps. Julian Wright found this funny.
Celebrity sightings were few and far between on this night. The Arsenal quarter of Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere and Gael Clichy were introduced to the crowd, where they were promptly booed lustily by thousands of people who are now going straight to hell for their sins. Darryl Dawkins was not seen on this night, which must have meant he wasn’t there, because Darryl Dawkins tends not to do inauspicious and unseen. At one point in the first half, John Amaechi and Dikembe Mutombo were introduced from the crowd, seated next to each other on the other side of the court. They were incredibly well received, although it was probably more for Meech than Deke. And while they were being introduced, the girl sitting next to me astutely spotted that Robert Horry was there too, sitting alongside Meechdeke. Horry quickly disappeared, however, later replaced by a small white child.
We’re also pretty sure that we saw Fatman Scoop here, too, but we have absolutely no proof of that. Maybe lots of people in London look like Fatman Scoop. You never know.
In addition to Fatman Scoop, we discovered after the fact that seated immediately to our left was Ben Causse, Manager of Consumer Products for NBA Europe. Had I known this in advance, I probably wouldn’t have annoyed him with three hours of stupid comments and foam fingered fun. The only solace? One of the free t-shirts hurled into the crowd landed in the seat immediately to Causse’s left, where the catch was held beautifully by a happy looking man dressed in red. Since that was only three seats to my left, I made a play on the ball, and managed to get my fingertips in it. Had I made more of a concerted effort, and gotten the dive in, I probably could have stuck the catch and won myself a t-shirt. But had I made more of a concerted effort and gotten the dive in, I would have landed in Ben Causse’s lap. He’s probably happy I didn’t do that.
(Additionally, seated behind us was a young child, clearly still learning the game, who was asking his father on every possession whether now would be a good time to shoot a three pointer. Later, in overtime, he made the burn of the night: “Daddy, Travis Outlaw can’t play.” Ouch.)
Bizarrely, the game featured no half time entertainment other than a selection of NBA highlights on the big screen. There was no half time violin playing, no woman on a unicycle throwing plates onto her head, no dogs doing backflips, not even a woman drowning. There wasn’t so much as an appearance from the Slamball team, or the inflatable Raptor thing. Tonight, more than most nights, it was about the game.
If that was a calculated gamble, it paid off. For the game was excellent.
As astutely observed by the little boy, Outlaw did struggle on the night, being largely invisible until the third overtime. He didn’t rebound, score, look to score, handle the ball, or have any noticeable impact defensively. Indeed, no one from the Nets small forward rotation did much of anything; Damion James had a couple of early deflections and an easy basket, but did not do much else, and Stephen Graham’s few minutes were vacuous. The same is true of Toronto’s small forward ensemble; save for a nice block around the basket (something he’s always been good at), and a couple of terrible offensive decisions (something he’s always been bad at), James Johnson had little impact, as did Sonny Weems behind him. Both teams used more than a smattering of three guard lineups during this game, and during the whole weekend. At the easiest position in the league to fill, both teams are at their weakest.
New Jersey’s three guard lineup was, of course, led by Williams. Deron could be seen to mishandle the ball in traffic on multiple occasions, which is unlike him; however, given that he was suffering from injuries to both hands that had previously put his very presence in the game in jeopardy, it can be overlooked. Jordan Farmar was used almost exclusively off the ball, which seemed like a strange idea, particularly given that he was often taken off the ball in deference to Sundiata Gaines, who played a huge amount without doing anything. You can see why Avery Johnson would want to reward Gaines for his good performance in the final few minutes of the previous game, but a 23 minute follow-up audition for a man still on a 10 day contract, and who did nothing in his time, seemed overzealous. Nevertheless, another 10 day seems inevitable now.
Ed Davis had a great weekend, recording 24 points and 23 rebounds in 53 minutes on 10-12 shooting. He has had a great rookie season overall, and is amazingly far long in his learning curve for a 21 year old. Amar’e Stoudemire comparisons are unnecessarily ambitious, but slightly-smaller-Tyson-Chandler ones may not be. Reggie Evans’s injury was a blessing in disguise, because it’s allowed Davis to become the salvation to a terrible season. I can’t prove the idea that Triano would have stolen Davis’s minutes with Evans, of course, but it’s a common coaching mistake to default to the old guy. So it’s possible.
Toronto’s two best players, again, were Derozan and Bargnani. Bargnani mostly took good shots, mostly made good shots, and even put forth more rebounding effort, recording 12 for the game. He did little to stop Brook Lopez or impede the progress of any opposing Nets player, but he played well anyway. Derozan, meanwhile, continued the play he has now produced for several months, creating shots off the dribble, hitting them, running the court, hitting mid-range shots, and being a go-to player for his team in only his sophomore season. Any cynicism I may previously have had about Derozan has proven wildly off-base; the man is a fluid and productive with a good understanding of the game, particularly for one so young. He was the best player over the weekend, no mean feat in a weekend featuring Deron Williams. He seems to have neglected playing the defense he did as a rookie, and might have forgotten that he’s supposed to pass sometimes, but these are often the perils of losing teams. If he can break those bad habits and maximize his talents, he really could be the first 20ppg shooting guard who can neither shoot nor dribble.
One thing of note is that the two did not pass to each other. At all. Is that due to nothing more than a coincidence, or some kind of conspiracy? Perhaps both. Neither is a great passer, neither does a great deal to get open off the ball, and Toronto doesn’t exactly run the most intricate pass-and-move playbook. But the two had about as much chemistry as a Neil Funk and Stacey King sitcom. It doesn’t bode well.
As has been the case all season, Humphries played fantastically. He went and got the ball on both ends, made shots without dominating possessions, defended fairly effectively, ran the court, and rebounded in the way that has become his custom. Vujacic also contributed his one trick to the game, looking like the worrying shooter he was for one season as a Laker. He still has his liabilities with everything that isn’t jumpshooting, but he’s good enough as a jumpshooter to contribute. Maybe Humphries is having a contract year. Maybe Sasha is, too. It wouldn’t be a first for him. Or maybe they’re just both recipients of the kind of opportunity they sorely needed before. Either way, the pair are proving useful pickups, and a good way of demonstrating how cap space doesn’t have to be used on overpaying free agents. Both were acquired in salary dumps. (And in Dallas’s case, it was quite the whoopsy. Humphries was traded by the Mavericks for Eduardo Najera, purely as a means of ridding the contract of Shawne Williams. Any argument that he was surplus to requirements due to the presence of Dirk Nowitzki is somewhat undermined in the knowledge that Steve Novak, Alexis Ajinca and Brian Cardinal have all logged PF minutes for Dallas this season. Still, everybody makes mistakes.)
Strangely, New Jersey played better as a team once Brook Lopez fouled out. It’s probably a coincidence – Brook’s 34 point, 14 rebound, 8 block game had kept New Jersey in the game, and his replacement, Outlaw, did little – but it was illuminating. At the very least, Brook demonstrated more hustle on this night than in the previous one. That is to say, he got over the halfcourt line for at least half of New Jersey’s possessions.
(Brook is one of the best centre prospects we have had for many a year. This is proven by the way he walked into a 34/14/8 without using a huge amount of effort to do it. And he’s already loafing his way to 20ppg. But he needs a little Humphries in him to realise his potential. So does Robin Lopez.)
The performances of individuals, however, were not nearly as important as the game itself. For a March time game between two high lottery teams, that’s news.
Crunch time and overtime wasn’t exactly a decision-making showcase. The Raptors ran plays through Derozan to the point that it was predictable, at which point they changed plans entirely, stood him in the corner (where he serves pretty much no purpose) and just let Bargnani hold the ball for a while. Meanwhile, New Jersey looked for Sasha Vujacic on every possession, and, if they couldn’t find him, opted to drive wildly into traffic instead. Had they not already traded their first round pick, I would assume they were tanking. (Maybe they were. Maybe they were tanking in the second round instead. Maybe they really wanted to draft 32nd instead of 37th. Then they can trade that pick for cash again.) When Sasha was unavailable, the Nets took it in turns to throw up airballs, dribble into traffic and throw the ball away. But like Toronto, they made enough shots. Sasha was hitting clutch jumpers and missing layups; Deron was able to create any shot he wanted but unable to hit them. And then in the surprise of all surprises, Outlaw (who had already shot one airball in OT) was fouled on another one, and stuck two clutch free throws, in the loudest, most vociferous, Outlaw-hating crowd he will likely ever experience in a home game. Those two free throws ended up winning the game for New Jersey.
He certainly shut that child up.
This isn’t me.
Like the first game, the second game was a close run affair all the way through. At an unofficial count, at no point in regulation did either team open up more than a 6 point lead, that coming when Toronto took a 44-38 lead late in the second quarter. It was at that point that I made a financial wager on the outcome of the result, betting an undisclosed amount that the Nets would come back and win. (I waited until we were losing before betting on them, thus getting a better price. That’s how confident I am in my beloved Nets.)
Truth be known, the financial aspect of the game added to my personal enjoyment of the game. But by reinforcing my support of the Nets for one weekend only, it only added to what came next.
Unlike the first game, the second game never got blown open. The second game, to be frank, was fan-bloody-tastic.
Maybe it wasn’t the highest standard of game, particularly defensively. Many of the most dramatic plays were due to mistakes or bad decisions, rather than precision execution. But it’s probably not possible for 63 minutes, 273 points, 116 rebounds, 61 assists and 19 blocks to be boring. The standard of play used to get those numbers was not important. To us in the crowd, the standard of drama was all that mattered. To everyone except Julian Wright, the tension was palpable.
The Nets eventually won the game, but the real winner was the sport of basketball itself.
There have been plenty of exciting games in the course of this season and any season. Even ones that go triple OT and are decided by one point in three hours are not unprecedented, however rare they are. Yet on this night, there was an added caveat that took it to another level.
By being a neutral court venue, we naturally had a lot of neutral fans. Corporate people bought tickets for the tax write-off, and either never turned up or never cared what happened. The Official Groupie Section came for the air time and a nice post-game liedown. Robert Horry came because he was paid to. But the rest of us were there for the sport.
We weren’t necessarily there for the Raptors or Nets, though. Whilst Toronto had the bigger fan base of the two, it was not a partisan Raptors crowd by any stretch. This was not a Bulls/Jazz situation. There were a lot of neutrals there, including myself as a Chicago fan, and the girl to my right, who said she was “rooting for the players” (which sounded rather noble).
But in the light of what transpired on the court, this could not sustain. By the end of us, most of us were rooting for someone. Even the girl was eventually brow-beaten into being a Raptors fan, waggling my finger in support.
Imagine, if you will, a tense, important game with important ramifications for your entire season. Maybe it’s a win-and-you’re-in affair, or maybe it’s an elimination game. Maybe you just really want to stick it to a rival on a national spotlight, such as was the case with the recent Bulls/Heat game. Doesn’t matter specifically. Just imagine the platform. Add to that high scoring, triple overtime, trading basket for basket, neither team being able to close out the other, both teams improbably fighting their way back into the game.
Now imagine that the hysteria from such a home crowd extended to both teams, that both teams were at home, that the fans were pulling for both teams in equal measure.
That was us. The context wasn’t the same, but the end result was.
Cheering for New Jersey, regardless of the coin-flippy nature of my allegiance, proved as fun as fun can be. I cheered more for the Nets on this night than in any Bulls game. And this was solely because of the atmosphere. Whereas the first game was rather disencouragizing, no one need put forth any additional effort to carry the crowd for this game. The game did that by itself. A playoff-like atmosphere ensued, with strangers high-fiving each other and yelling at every made basket, yet it was strangely more than that. The bipolar nature of the crowd, and the lack of a home team, meant they just wanted more basketball. And they kept getting it. They were happy to see someone, anyone, score; in addition to picking a favourite team, the crowd were also hoping it would never end. This extends to me, even though I had money on it and a train to catch. (We missed it, by the way.) A game which should have been a doldrums snoozer – and which would have been were it played at the Prudential Center – developed into a carnival atmosphere, a party without being a farce, a true showcase of the NBA product.
Just like the advert said it would be.
The best part? There was only one wave. For some reason, it didn’t occur until during the first OT, right at a time when this supposed boredom-shaking device was jarringly out of place. But at least there was only one. If that’s not progress, then I don’t know what is.
On this day, the basketball won out.
With all that excitement came a crashing comedown.
If you go through your whole life wondering what something is like, and then it happens, you part with happy memories. But if it takes a perfect confluence of events outside of your control for that moment to happen, you also go forth knowing that it won’t happen again. I have always wanted to know what it would be like to watch a highly entertaining, Sportscenter-leading, triple overtime NBA game, played in front of a packed arena in my home country, a missed train-ride from my house, in front of my peers, my fellow ball-starved countryman whose numbers might not be huge, but whose sheer effort level to support the game they love is born of a resilience and dedication that us only understood by those around the world that are doing the same. Even if I’d rather it was Chicago crushing Utah in game 7 of an NBA Finals than the 12th and 13th best teams in the East during whatever the opposite of March Madness is (March Sanity?), I wanted to know what this was like. Now I know. It was great.
But that was it. It’s not happening again. And that’s not great.
Regardless of its quality in the grand scheme of things, this otherwise moribund NBA game provided genuine excitement to a crowd starved of anything comparable. Perhaps a little bit too much of that excitement was directed more towards the inflatable moonwalking dinosaur and the dancing girl who accidentally showed her babymaker, and less towards Amir Johnson’s excessive hedging on pick-and-roll defense. But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference why people enjoyed it, just as long as they did. And they did.
However, that in itself is a double edged sword. Sure, we got to watch two games, but then what? Then, now, it’s back to a world of buffering streams, message boards, and Associated Press releases, hunkering under bins for scraps of NBA coverage and squeezing clean the internet’s teats for every morsel of its soothing, reinvigorating transaction-laden goodness. And it won’t really suffice. In the internet era, we are sufficiently exposed to the product to crave for it, yet not enough to ever get our fill. For us fans, scratching the itch only makes it itch more.
That probably won’t pacify the NBA fans from other countries, whose itches never get scratched. I can empathise. But you’ll just have to trust me. Like any good relationship, it never ends as well as it starts. It might be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but that doesn’t change the demonstrable fact that losing love only makes you yearn to love more. And if you don’t get it, it hurts.
If that sounds like an overreaction to an irrelevant March-time lottery decider…….you weren’t there.
Expanding on expansion
These games were very, very relevant to a great many people. For that reason, the NBA’s London trips are always resounding successes, and particularly this one, despite the anguish factor. They are a backbone of the English basketball calendar, and yet these games are not just British, English events. They are an occasion for much of Europe. Several hundred hardcore basketball fans from across the continent booked their flights and hotels, and travelled to London, purely for the purposes of these games – for them, it was close enough, and as close as they were getting. The support came from many sources, and was undeniably immense.
That said, the question of the feasibility of NBA European expansion was answered this weekend.
Commissioner Stern seems to love the idea. He has spoken in reverent terms about the concept for over three years, laying the groundwork in typically Sternsian fashion, repeatedly provoking the issue with the NBA Europe Live tours. Stern seems to believe that while it’s admittedly far-fetched, it’s an attainable and desirable goal. For obvious reasons, on a purely selfish level, I want to agree with him.
But it isn’t.
London, England, is a fabulous city. It has history, charm, diversity, tradition, money, and a skyline you can actually see, a place filled with character and contrast with no obvious flaws other than maybe the Blackwall Tunnel and the whole of Deptford. There are people here, there is money here, there is an enormous culture of sports here, and there is a swelling reservoir of untapped potential for basketball. And it also has the rare yet painful opportunity of not already having a basketball team in place.
There exist many basketball-crazy cities across Europe. Indeed, as briefly mentioned here, the allegiance in certain European cities far surpasses those of compatriot NBA cities. The highest standard of non-NBA basketball, the Euroleague, does not have the corporate power of the NBA, nor is it even especially close. However, the passion in the game makes it the powerhouse that it is. There is none of the aforementioned NBA choreography; people go for the game, rather than the experience. It’s a bit like rivalries at BCS conference home games, except that after a loss, the fans exact their revenge in ways other than typing angry words on message boards. To summarise the post I just linked into four far simpler words, but which you should still read anyway, these people freaking, care.
But from an NBA perspective, for the international conglomerate seeking business opportunity more than unilateral fandom, this doesn’t really help. These cities already have their basketball pedigree in place. Madrid already has Real Madrid. Barcelona has Barcelona. Belgrade has Partizan. Moscow has CSKA, and, to a lesser extent, Dynamo. Athens has Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, and many other also-rans. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. These places are basketball-crazy because they already have basketball to watch; high calibre, prestiguous basketball, steeped in history, culture, precedent and legacy.
Are fans in those cities going to drop all that for a sterilized American product built around snippets of Busta Rhymes songs? No. And nor are there sufficient grounds or suitable financial incentive for NBA expansion to run concurrent. Put more contritely, Europe already has basketball. It doesn’t need the NBA, and the NBA doesn’t need it.
Went to college in Deptford for a few months. Lovely place.
This is not the case in London, of course. Many attempts have been made to create professional basketball teams here, but invariably, they all fail. The London Towers endured a few years of success, even competing in an early edition of the Euroleague, but they were demoted to amateur status and effectively folded in 2006. Their replacement, London United, lasted only one more season. Their replacement, the London Capital, survived only two more seasons. With a 300 seat arena, they surprisingly didn’t do a lot of business.
And so as of this moment, in the BBL, the nation’s only professional league, there is no team from the nation’s capital.
Basketball in Britain receives painfully little media coverage, with next to no place in the public conscience. There’s a reason this event was backboned by explanations of the rules – even though they were at the game, a lot of people didn’t know them. There’s a reason for the painfully fledgling nature of the BBL – almost no one wants to watch the games. And there’s a reason for the jarring lack of media attention the sport gets in both television and printed media – almost no one wants to see it. Basketball in Britain survives as a cult, and a cult only.
Mind you, there are some plus sides to that.
There was genuine, palpable excitement amongst the mini yet mighty British basketball community for these games. In the context of every NBA game played ever, these games means nothing; in the context of this single NBA season, they meant equally little. Yet here, they were a lynchpin of the basketball calendar. And to celebrate, we had a basketball week.
The atmosphere generated – eventually – is a testament to the validity of the market. Two teams with a combined 9-51 road record went head to head in a two road-game set to determine which team is worse at losing. The only thing to play for was nothing at all. Yet we lapped it up. Don’t underestimate the personality of the cult.
Furthermore, fuelled by ESPN, basketball coverage in this country has taken unbelievable leaps forward in only three years. While it mainly consists of Division 1 college basketball,- which is cheapest – there is now so much basketball broadcast over here that it is impossible to watch enough of it to keep your Sky Plus memory clear enough to record the rest. (And believe me, I try.) With Eurosport 2 providing one weekly Eurocup broadcast, plus a couple of magazine shows, ESPN have jumped in with more than a dozen weekly college games, two or three NBA games, and now even some Euroleague action. Sky Sports have also seen fit to recommence BBL coverage, and we didn’t have any BBL teams go defunct this season, thanks in no small part to a franchise-saving New Year’s whip-round by Guildford Heat fans
As I write this, Earl Boykins just got a name-drop on BBC Breakfast News, in a feature about the game that would never previously have run. The fact that the newscaster had to be told Boykins’s name in order to make his I’m-short joke is not important; what is important is that the possibility even came up. Furthermore, led by Luol Deng, the national team has made an unprecedented amount of time in only a two year period. From painful matchups against the likes of Uzbekistan and Portugal, Deng (and mainly Deng) has turned the team around, turning them into a Group A European team (if you don’t know what that means, trust me that it’s damn hard to do), and into their second consectuve Eurobasket tournament, where last time they took the British underdog spirit and almost turned it into historic upsets. Granted, we lost every game in that tournament, but we competed in them all, and damn nearly upset the eventual winners Spain. Britain is not a basketball minnow any more.
Believe it or not, British basketball, and basketball in Britain, are both at an all-time high.
But that all time high is still really, really low.
None of the success of this weekend will change the fact that, at this time, more children play conkers in school than basketball. The lack of pedigree, history, understanding and facilities makes basketball a sport in the doldrums. Whatever basketball focus we have is primarily towards the NBA, and somewhat towards the national team, yet rarely to our domestic product. As an NBA journalist living in Britain who only just learned who Yorick Williams is, I am as guilty of this as anyone. But it’s inevitable.
To put it into some context, the BBL Trophy final was held on the Saturday afternoon at the O2, in between the two NBA games, with free attendance for anyone who turned up early enough with a game two ticket. Few did.
Cesc Fabregas is to football what Rudy Fernandez is to basketball, if Rudy Fernandez dealt solely
in awesome. Right down to the burning, open desires to return to their homeland.
Stern wants this market. Stern wants this market badly. The NBA opened an office in London back in 2007; take everything you now know about the relative destitution of English basketball, and ask yourself why they would do this. For all its basketball related flaws, London is an economic capital of the world, an international powerhouse in both legacy and enterprise, and an absolute mountain of a city. The upside potential of it as a basketball market is ridiculous, and one need only look at its dominance in the football market – 14 professional teams, including international powerhouses Arsenal and Chelsea – to see that it would take only a tiny share of that market to produce a hell of a basketball franchise. It has also been demonstrably proven, over the course of this weekend, that there is sufficient scope for a well supported London team.
But how, really, is this going to become a full time affair? London has the facilities, the money, the infrastructure and the accessibility, sure. There is considerably more reason to believe in the financial viability of London as an NBA city than in some incumbent NBA cities, and the fact that at a Johan Petro/Ed Davis March-time rebounding battle recorded consecutive sellouts is testament to that. People here can care enough to make it work, and adding the team is the easy part. Yet how palatable is this idea to the NBA players, the people who actually matter the most?
London might be the perfect city for the idea. But this doesn’t change the fact that it’s a long, long way from perfect, and a long, long way from America. The only way to carry off the transportation issue is to make midseason European ventures into lengthy stays, incorporating multiple stops against multiple franchises in multiple cities and playing them all in one hit as an extended road trip. But from whence do these other cities materialise? How many candidates are there with the facilities and the opportunity to create an NBA market equal to pre-existing ones, in accordance with the required parity demanded in any new franchise? Do the financial and basketball struggles of incumbent American teams not demonstrate the impossible nature of creating parity across more than a dozen supposedly equal franchises? How does European expansion work for the players on the European franchises, for whom going ‘on the road’ means multiple USA round trips in a six month period? What happens if two European franchises ascend to the very top of the NBA and end up playing a Finals series together? Is Commissioner Stern willing to greatly alienate an easily alienated American fanbase in a potentially irrepairable way? American audience struggle to tune into Finals series deemed anything less than epic at the best of times; how are they going to fair in a battle of the Berlin Cuttlefish versus the London Drizzle?
And how on Earth does this transportation issue work in a 2-2-1-1-1 playoff format?
The question was asked whether this was ever feasible, and the answer now stares us in the face. It isn’t. For now, and probably for ever, it is just a gimmick.
This is not an epitaph. This is the continuation of good things, and potentially the start of something even bigger. The NBA truly wants the proliferation of its product in this huge, slumbering market, and what the NBA truly wants, the NBA truly gets. Despite the tedious inevitability of the empty corporate seats, the event was, as expected, incredibly well supported. Just like it was the time before, and just like it will be the next time. You can guarantee there’ll be a next time. This cycle will go on until at least 2013, and probably thereafter. By having the money, the facilities, and (relatively speaking) absolutely no pedigree, the NBA is free to exploit and form us however they choose to do so. And they will.
This puts us English firmly in the passenger seat. America will host 1,187 NBA games in this regular season, while Canada hosts 41, England hosts 2, and the rest of the world hosts 0 combined. This makes us more important than everywhere else in the world. That’s how it works. A lot of good came from this, not least of which is this simple fact – lots of people enjoyed themselves immensely.
But it’s a hollow victory.
Does any of that matter, though?
No. Not now. We’ll worry about all that later. That doesn’t matter right now; indeed, it might not matter ever. This weekend only matters in isolation. And everyone who went and/or partook in it came out ahead.
The unfortunate realities of the European expansion dream in no way cheapen the fun that was had this weekend. This is particularly true of the Saturday. We weren’t high fiving strangers after made baskets as if this was an important playoff game whilst thinking about what came next, and nor should we have been. That’s because we were having huge amounts of fun. And if an apt description for the weekend-long basketball showcase was needed, “huge amounts of fun” is the best one you can find.
Oh and for the record; lower bowl seats? Totally worth it.