Almanack: Hype, glory and Towering ambition

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QUOTE of the week: Manchester City manager Brian Horton defends his decision to spend pounds 750,000 on striker Paul Walsh. 'One or two people have been making an issue of the fact that he hasn't scored for 18 matches, but that doesn't concern me.'

'WELCOME', bawled the commentator, 'to the greatest game in the greatest league in the country]' Mega-decibel rap thumped out of tall speakers, banks of spotlights swivelled, ranks of teenagers went collectively bonkers. The venue was Wembley, but the stars were not Shaquille O'Neal and Orlando Magic: they were the London Towers, accustomed to playing in front of three men and a dog at the Sobell Centre in Islington.

Not Wembley Arena, it should be noted, where the Magic's pre- season games against the Atlanta Hawks late last year drew crowds of 9,000, but 'Wembley Court', a chunk of Exhibition Hall 3 adorned with Budweiser banners and - an appropriately transatlantic combination - stalls selling fried chicken and Cumberland sausages. The visitors, for the Towers' first game in their new home, were the League-leading Manchester Giants. Mid-table London faced a tough night. The commentator, shaped not unlike a giant basketball, wound himself up to a frenzy. 'Who-oooos gonna win . . . this game??]]'

Basketball has always been a 'nearly' sport in this country. A league team played in the car park at Wembley in the 1950s; the Harlem Globetrotters inspired school- gym imitators in the 1970s with their tours and cartoon series; in the 1980s ambitious new teams formed, spent their way to success, and folded. In the 1990s the Basketball League is determined to make a lasting impression on the national sporting psyche.

Almanack asked Rebecca Nairne, the sport's marketing whiz, how this was to be achieved. She responded with a sheaf of initiatives, targets and case-studies. Much of this made good sense: American-style salary caps to cut team costs, buddy-deals with local cable TV stations, sponsor-

friendly team names, etc etc. But isn't 'the greatest league in this country' taking the hype a little too far? 'We probably aren't the greatest league,' Rebecca agreed, 'I think the commentator was getting a little carried away. But there's no doubt that the people involved in the sport do love it.'

Almanack has an almost allergic sensitivity to marketing baloney and a fogeyish aversion to transatlantic razzmatazz. So Thursday night's game at Wembley Court ought to have induced a fit of the vapours. In fact, it induced a fit of the giggles: the whole evening was almost absurdly enjoyable. The play was scrappy compared to the aerial ballet of the NBA, but there was pace, poise and the occasional flash of skill. Andrew Bailey, the Towers' England international guard, took his team to a 69-65 victory with a series of calm penalty shots late in the game. A thousand or so spectators - average for the league but a huge crowd for the Towers - screamed their heads off.

After the game Almanack buttonholed London Towers' colossal coach, Charles Luke-Bannerman. What did he think of his team's new home? 'It's absolutely wonderful,' he said, his native English oddly inflected with American. 'It's brilliant. It's everything a top team needs.' But are London a top team? Can they finish the season on a high? 'I've just told the guys,' he said, sounding like a cross between Barry White and Dave Bassett, 'that the next six games are like a new season for us. We've got to put everything behind us in the run-up to the play- offs.' Giving Almanack's man a friendly pat, as if to a few-weeks- old puppy, coach Luke-Bannerman ambled off to join his team.