Basketball is still looking to take hold in soccer-crazed England
LONDON -- "This has become an exciting game!" the public address announcer was informing the crowd at the Olympic men's basketball tournament.
At basketball games in America, college or pro, the P.A. announcer tends to stick to the basic facts of who committed the foul or who scored the basket. At these Olympics, however, the in-game announcing has been more colorful. Within the temporary setting of the Basketball Arena -- which after these Olympics will be dismantled and sent onto another basketball tournament in another country -- the P.A. man has been making the kinds of announcements you usually hear only in the movies, when Hollywood tries to explain a sports story to a mainstream filmgoing audience. In the case of these Olympics, the in-arena announcer was providing descriptions and explaining every little detail to fans who might not have known what they were watching.
"That was a beautiful shot!" he was announcing to fans from his courtside seat in the arena during the game. "That's an alley-oop! ... A beautiful slam-dunk! ... As you know, a fifth personal foul means that the player must leave the game!"
In America those announcements would be criticized for explaining too much. But in this setting the explanations were necessary. The U.S. team of American stars -- the latest incarnation of the "Dream Team" -- has come to the land that basketball forgot, creating an opportunity for the sport to take hold at last. And so an otherwise forgettable 110-63 U.S. win Tuesday over Tunisia took on importance.
While most of the world has embraced basketball over the last couple of decades, the Brits haven't embraced the NBA marketing. When the original Dream Team visited the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, it leveraged the popularity of basketball throughout the world with one notable exception. That exception is here in Britain.
"Unlike the rest of the world," said Chris Morris, who once co-owned the now-defunct club London United in the British Basketball League, "we have football, cricket and rugby. There just doesn't seem to be room in the British sport psyche to embrace another sport. It seems to be the way it is at the moment."
He was speaking by phone from a gym in London on Tuesday afternoon where he was watching U.S. forward Anthony Davis work out in preparation for the game against Tunisia that would start at 10:15 that night. Morris now lives in New Zealand, where he is president of a basketball federation, but he returned home to act as a British liaison to the U.S. team during its Olympic run.
The issues working against basketball in the British market are not unlike the issues that have limited the growth of soccer in America. Basketball here, like soccer there, has a passionate youth following. "What you've got in the UK is a very, very big participation base for basketball," said Morris. "It rates as the third-highest participation sport behind football and cricket -- and ahead of rugby."
Yet British basketball has yet to achieve commercial success. While U.S. soccer has enjoyed strong results in recent World Cups, the Brits are just now beginning to position themselves for achievement in the game that America invented. They are making their second Olympic appearance -- both times by way of automatic invitation as host nation -- and on Tuesday they were still seeking their first Olympic victory in a game of basketball around Luol Deng, the All-Star forward of the Chicago Bulls who is the best basketball player to ever represent Britain.
Deng was a young boy when he fled with his family to England from the civil war in Sudan. The Bulls might have preferred he take this summer off in order to recover from an injury to his left wrist, but he was determined to represent the country that saved him and his family. It was in the UK that he discovered basketball, and it was in the first quarter of Tuesday's Britain-Brazil game that basketball took on an aspect of soccer -- Brazil missed 18 shots on goal. Though the heavily-favored Brazilians would prevail, 67-62, the P.A. announcer recognized an opportunity all the same. "We hope that this game," he said to the fans on their way out the door, "inspires you to follow the wonderful game of basketball."
Americans and Britons haven't fallen in love with each other's inventions. Americans who don't care for soccer complain that it's because so little appears to happen in the game, that there isn't enough scoring. Brits have the opposite view of basketball -- there is too much scoring, they say. "A friend of mine who hates basketball says, 'Everyone scores all the time. There's no premium on scoring,'" said Chris Morris. "I tell him it's about watching patterns of play."
Each side thinks the other's view is preposterous when, in fact, the two sports are both games of runs. In basketball those runs are reflected on the scoreboard; in soccer they build to create pressure that may or may not give way to a goal. Steve Sampson, the former coach of the U.S. national soccer team, used to study basketball for tactical ideas he could apply to his own sport.
Before the evening session, the organizers continued their helpful practice of broadcasting a video for fans in the arena explaining the basic rules and shotmaking of basketball. Then the Tunisians -- the 2011 champs of Africa and the only team in the Olympics without an NBA player -- came out to show the Brits how the game is played. They ran their plays to sucker the American defense while attacking the paint or hitting threes, which up to now had been a strength for the U.S. defensively. Makram Ben Romdhane drove a rebound end-to-end for a brazen dunk on the way to an early 15-12 lead. The U.S. would steadily pull away to 46-33 at halftime, and by the end there were surely some around the isles who were complaining of too many American points.
Someday the sincerity of basketball's young fans will elevate the American game here, much as their peers have already done on behalf of soccer across the Atlantic. Perhaps the visit of this ancestral "Dream Team" will make a personal impact on the last of the non-basketball nations. "That's what our ultimate goal is in life, I guess, to inspire people and motivate them and teach them, and if it happens to be about basketball I'm all for it," said 23-year-old star Kevin Durant. "Hopefully we can make that type of impact on peoples' lives."
Maybe a kid who is being inspired by the U.S. team this week will grow up to challenge Durant in the NBA a decade from now.
"And I'm sure I'll teach him a lesson or two when I get a little older," said Durant.