I was not sure about what to expect. Among all the international sports, basketball is arguably the one that deserves less coverage in the UK. The domestic competitions rarely deserve any mention in the newspapers, and they are clearly nonexistent for television. Events such as the Euroleague Final Four, Eurobasket, or even the FIBA World Championship are largely ignored. And still, basketball is the second most played team sport in the UK (after football) among the under 18, which is something David Stern made sure to highlight in his last two visits to Britain.
So, going to an NBA game in London would certainly be some kind of a sociological experience, analogous to a house party where everyone is invited but one is never quite sure about who's going to turn up. Eventually, many people showed up (selling out the event), forming a multi-cultural group of basketball fans that even included thousands of middle class white British youngsters with their parents. I thought they would prefer watching football, rugby, or cricket, not the likes of Vince Carter or Dwyane Wade. But no, there they were with colourful NBA jerseys having fun next to the NBA Jam Van.
The game between the New Jersey Nets and the Miami Heat was a typical preseason exhibition, with many turnovers and a close ending. A few good plays and spectacular dunks were also part of a show embedded in the classical American sports attitude of full-time entertainment on and off the court. It was, in the end, a good promotion of basketball in the UK.
Why it still needs so much promotion is what puzzles me. Not only are there fans, playgrounds, and players, but also there are role models such as Luol Deng, the Chicago Bulls player that was essential in the qualification of Great Britain for the next Eurobasket. So, what is missing for basketball to become a major sport in the UK? Three things in my opinion.
First and foremost, club basketball is not well organized. There are too many teams and too many competitions. Putting together a British championship with strong financial support and one or two internationally recognized players (such as the MLS did with David Beckham) would be a first step for the establishment of basketball as a major sport in the UK.
Secondly, I would say there is a generation gap in the UK regarding sports. Football (yes, even football with the Home Nations still being allowed to have separate teams), rugby, and cricket, among others, follow the same structures of the past 70 years, whereas basketball is something that does not belong to that past, but to the present and to the future.
Instead of the Empire, Britain now has the European Union, where the vast majority of the members take basketball very seriously. Instead of a white, rural Britain, we now have a cosmopolitan country with people from all parts of the world, mostly living in or near big cities, where playgrounds exist in large number. Overcoming this generation gap is something that maybe only time will solve.
Finally, the third and arguably the most relevant problem is the lack of media coverage. The New Jersey Nets vs Miami Heat did not deserve live coverage, and with the exception of the Guardian, the game was largely ignored by the press. Sky Sports, the engine that apparently makes sports work in the UK, is in love with American Football but does not seem to see the market for basketball. The same with Setanta Sports that last year showed the FIBA weekly show, but not live games.
Despite all this, basketball has a future in the UK. With the Olympic games in 2012, the increase in the number of young people playing the sport, and with the likes of Luol Deng becoming internationally recognized sports stars, that future might actually be here sooner than expected.