It was very easy for me to fall in love with basketball in 1992, even being in the UK. When you grow up in an era of Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, Ewing, Magic and Bird, it was never a case of how, but when. I didn't have highlights, I had occasional snatches on TV and day-old scores (not even box-scores) in the newspaper, but I still made a point to follow.
My interest ebbed and flowed as TV coverage came and went and before the Internet had taken off, but eventually my patience paid off and a few years ago, through various mediums, I got to watch the NBA again regularly.
This year, though, has been a very poor year for me basketball–wise. Maybe I had gotten my hopes up that LeBron or Dwyane would have made it to Chicago, perhaps it was NBA League Pass hiking their price up from last year (or at least not giving me the same value for my money), but I felt less passion for this NBA season. I had found myself drawn to the NFL, with all its glitz, glamour and because I am based in the UK, it's easy to watch without paying any more for TV than I already am.
I still kept an eye on the NBA, checking scores daily, watching with intrigue as various streaks, both wanted and unwanted, came, went and in some cases, are still carrying on. In my heart, though, I knew I never had the same passion as I did in previous seasons, which is ironic, given that this is the most talented Chicago Bulls team I have seen since the days of the Three-peat.
It was two articles on Friday, though, that seemed to fire my will again—one was the lighter fuel and the other was the spark. Two articles which were complete poles apart in the basketball universe, and yet stirred the imagination and fingers of this writer—Kemba Walker and FIBA.
I pay very little attention to Trending Topics on Twitter—it’s the haven of spammers, fans of Justin Beiber and the Jonas Brothers and for spreading false rumours of celebrity death. Yet every so often, a name will catch my eye and I’ll wade through the inevitable torrent of fake accounts and time-wasting tweets to find out more. On Thursday, there were two similar topics trending at the same time—"Kemba" and "Kemba Walker."
There wasn't the usual spam on there, it was too recent, and yet people found it important enough to tell the Internet about. Then I got tweets from the Bleacher Report itself, so I looked further—
"Miami needs Kemba Walker!"
"Kemba just broke ankles and hit the game winner!"
I was intrigued, but it was late and various bouts of sleep deprivation meant I needed an early night. The next day, during lunch, I found the highlight reel of the UConn-Pittsburgh game, and I found Kemba Walker. It wasn't’t the greatest shot in the world, it didn't carry them to the Final Four and beyond, it was just…smooth. I had to rewind and watch it a couple of times, first to see the shot again, then to see the felling of the oak tree that was Gary McGee.
Then I had to check that I wasn't watching the clip in slow-motion, as that’s how he seemed to be falling. It was a beautiful move and it made me realise what I was missing. I've seen Blake Griffin dunks, Derrick Rose spin-moves and Kobe Bryant game-winners, and yet a college kid’s "shake’n’bake" dribble was enough to convince me that man cannot live on highlights alone.
I need the player introductions, I need those first quarter moments that are equally important and yet don’t occur with two seconds remaining and so don’t appear on the highlight reel. I need proper commentators to enhance my basketball knowledge, which, despite their best efforts, sportscasters just cannot do.
After seeing my faith re-energised, it was about to get an unwelcome test. FIBA, the world governing body of basketball, are due to decide this weekend whether to allow the Great British team a guaranteed spot to play basketball at the 2012 Olympics. If they don’t allow Team GB to play, it could spell the death-knell for British Basketball—funding might not be available, meaning less money to go to grassroots basketball.
GB basketball has a hard enough time trying to get exposure. TV time is hard to come by, teams are localised (with none sadly in the goldmine of the nation's capital) and for FIBA to take the decision to not allow them to play in front of their home fans would be catastrophic.
Usually, I wouldn't be one to side with those who haven’t earned a spot to play in competitions, but I do believe home nations should be allowed to participate. Be it in World Cups, European Championships or Olympics, everyone loves to see the hometown favourite. The Olympics are guaranteed to sell out, and having packed arenas to watch the basketball is just what basketball (and other "secondary" sports) needs to reach a new audience.
The greatest players in the world will compete outside the confines of the NBA and even though people will be interested, it’s nothing compared to the interest and emotional attachment you get in rooting for the home team.
Does it matter that our players aren’t stars? No, of course it doesn’t. I was at the O2 Arena to watch Team GB beat the Czech Republic, and even though I’m sure half the crowd were interested in the gold medal winning rower sitting two rows in front of me, everyone was cheering for Team GB.
Everyone booed when the Czech Republic got a basket and cheered whenever Luol Deng scored, or even touched the ball. They didn’t even mind when the commentator got Pops Mensah-Bonsu’s name wrong for an entire quarter, because we were all wrapped up in the basketball spectacle.
I have no idea what FIBA will decide, but I hope they sway in the favour of allowing the Great British team to play basketball at the Olympics. Hope is an understatement, I pray that they do. I shall be purchasing tickets for the Olympic basketball and whether I get the Dream Team or not, I do really hope I get Team GB tickets. I want to be part of the greatest spectacle on Earth, even if I’m not competing.
The next best thing to competing will be watching as many games as I can, so NBA League Pass, you have another subscriber. Whether there will be another season next year is for a different column, but for now I shall enjoy moment I can, as there really is nothing like the NBA, and I’d do well to remember how lucky I am to be able to watch it.