The question has, albeit inadvertently, become something of a punchline. When the NBA makes its now annual trip to London it is asked to players, coaches, league executives and, more than likely, the guys working at the souvenir stand at the O2 Arena. The question, which is as inevitable as the photos of NBA and Premier League players hanging out together: "Do you see an NBA team in London or Europe in the future?"
The answer that always seems to come back is yes, the NBA sees itself having teams in Europe, but at an undefined time in the future. Ten years and 20 years seem like the most common responses. The most recent statement came from NBA Commissioner David Stern to Ryen Russillo and Scott Van Pelt last year.
"I think so (teams in Europe). I think multiple NBA international teams. Twenty years from now? For sure. In Europe. No place else. In other places I think you’ll see the NBA name on leagues and other places with marketing and basketball support, but not part of the NBA as we now know it."
Still, the question will be asked again and again this week of the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks as they prepare for Thursday night’s match-up. In a way it’s understandable; after all, there are only so many times you can ask Joe Johnson about his jetlag. But, something doesn’t quite fit. No-one’s going to confuse London for Portland (or Lithuania or the Philippines for that matter) when the Global Games land. The mainstream media will give the event a curious, and fleeting, glance. If there’s a groundswell of momentum building towards London becoming a basketball hotbed, you have to really strain to see it.
But that doesn’t mean things aren’t happening and some green shoots of growth are peeking through. Thursday night’s game marks the NBA’s third trip to the O2 in four seasons (the Magic and Nets were scheduled to come here in 2011-2012, but that was scuppered by the lockout). This year’s game sold out in a matter of hours, the League has recently signed a TV deal with BT Sport, the lack of which was THE number one annoyance of fans in this little corner of Europe, and when you factor in the exuberance of the NBA fanbase here (yes, it is small in number, but does seem like every single one of them has a podcast or T-shirt business), you can start to see a vague outline of where the NBA would like things to be headed.
And to be fair, the League seems aware of this, as Stern put at a press conference last year when asked about if the NBA ever saw itself going head to head with the Premier League in Blighty.
"In England? Are you kidding? No chance. We just want to work our way up someplace underneath cricket and rugby. We have a wonderful amount to learn from the EPL. We met today with [Premier League boss] Richard Scudamore to swap stories and the like and get smarter. But we have so much room to improve and grow by leaps and bounds and then we would be some small fraction of the love that the British have for their football."
The key words there are "room to grow" and there is plenty of that. When compared to some of the NBA’s other Global Games’ destinations, such as the Philippines and Taiwan, where the affection and column inches the players received was a stark contrast to when the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers came to Manchester and Kevin Durant commented on how he could smoke the hookah, I mean, go shopping like a "regular person".
Again, given the scenes that greeted the Rockets (and Jeremy Lin) in Taiwan it could raise questions about what the NBA is doing but it’s the potential for growth, not KD’s ability to get a Yogen Fruz in peace, that has the league looking at London and Europe.
Of course, the natural comparison, especially in the UK, is the NFL. It’s not a perfect one because the NFL has been on domestic television here for 25 years and, well, it’s the all-conquering NFL. It's also worth noting that the NFL, with its own jackhammer-like subtlety, is giving fans the chance to buy season tickets for its three games at Wembley, making it not so difficult to read the tea leaves.
It’s also worth noting that the NBA’s growth in Britain isn’t necessarily one and the same as the development of the domestic game in the UK. Although, basketball is the third most-popular game in English schools, there are some challenges it faces. Just ask John Amaechi. Others include a domestic league, the British Basketball League, that operates on the periphery of big time European basketball (teams don’t compete in Euroleague or Eurocup). Also, London hosted the Euroleague Final Four last year, and the consensus was things didn't go so well.
Internationally, the British side did as well as could probably be expected at the 2012 Olympics, winning a game against China and giving Spain an almighty scare. The team, now coached by Nets’ assistant Joe Prunty, followed that up with a surprising 2-3 record at Eurobasket last summer despite missing its two NBA players, Luol Deng and Joel Freeland. That said, the national team still needs to make puppy dog eyes at Byron Mullens and Ben Gordon and faces a potentially-crippling decision on its funding in the near future.
So what does it all mean? The end of the road is still a fair distance away. 10 years? 20 years? Who knows? To be honest, there are still countless questions that need to be dealt with (a small sample: At what stage does Euroleague get annoyed with the NBA's encroachment? If you have NBA teams in Europe, how will its American sponsors view the potential of a Finals game tipping off on a Tuesday at 3pm Eastern? What happens if Andray Blatche kills an unsuspecting Englishman with a Eurostep?) before the big one can be answered. But as long as the NBA sees potential it’s going to look at London as a destination, and a single regular season game in January is a fairly low-risk investment in that potential. And if nothing else, we get to see the Atlanta Hawks work on their British accents.
Atlanta Hawks English Accents (via NBA Europe)
Colm Heaney (colmcanada in the comment section and @colmheaney on Twitter) is a Belfast-based journalist who occasionally blogs about basketball for the Irish Mirror and the Sunday People. He will be in London for the NBA Global Games featuring the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks on Thursday night