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Basketball: Lakers to bring NBA razmatazz to London

In a few days, the O2 Arena will host Axl Rose and what remains of Guns and Roses. But first, sport: tonight a collection of extremely tall and athletes, together with two troupes of cheerleaders, will attract a sell-out crowd of 19,000 to London’s Docklands, for an evening of high-octane professional basketball.

The game, a pre-season friendly between the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves represents the latest effort by America’s hugely-successful NBA to export their product to a country where football players where shin-pads rather than helmets, and sports fans tend to prefer meat pies to hotdogs.

It will raise the curtain on a crucial season for NBA basketball’s expansion into a European market it has been tantalising with pre-season friendlies for the last four years. In March, the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors are due to visit the O2 for back to back match-ups, in the first regular season fixtures to ever take place on this side of the pond.

The similarities between tonight’s “hoops” and the pop concert fayre that usually fills the O2 will extend far beyond the extravagant tattoos which are sported by almost every protagonist in both basketball and rock-and-roll. For much like a fashionable band, the LA side’s appeal is all about razmatazz.

Led by Kobe Bryant, who is arguably America’s best-known contemporary sportsman, and supported by half of Hollywood (Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman attend almost every home game), the Lakers have for years been nicknamed “Showtime” for the outrageous and sometimes unnecessary flair with which they dispatch opponents.

The past decade has been hugely productive, with the side winning five of the past ten NBA Championships, turning the Staples Centre in Downtown Los Angeles into perhaps the most glamorous venues in world sport. At every home game, the $4,000 courtside seats are filled with shoulder-to-shoulder Hollywood A-listers. A typical front row might have Rihanna at one end, Leonardo Dicaprio at another, and Ben Affleck and collection of beer-drinking friends sandwiched in the middle.

Things won’t be quite so glitzy in E14 tonight, where the courtside seats, which have changed hands for a somewhat less-obscene £500, will instead contain a smattering of Premiership footballers. Punters are only likely to see Bryant, who is nursing a minor injury on his first ever playing trip to the UK, on court for a few minutes. Andrew Bynum, the team’s gifted but volatile young centre is also out with a bad knee.

Nonetheless, the organisers are anxious to stress that TV viewers on ESPN will still be treated to the Americana of the Lakers Girls, a high-kicking cheerleading squad which counts Paula Abdul among its alumni. Proceedings will also be broadcast on Five Live, albeit sans eye candy.

There is, lest we forget, a sporting match-up taking place, too. And while European audiences have traditionally been sceptical about the charms of the game, there are signs that Transatlantic crowds have recently begun to appreciate the subtleties that helped basketball achieve Olympic status.

A sport of momentum, athleticism, and surprising subtlety, which is often decided by an organised defence, basketball repays knowledgeable viewing. Since a growing number of European players now feature in the NBA – four Brits are currently attached to clubs, while Laker Pau Gasol hails from Spain – the number of clued up UK fans is growing swiftly.

“Basketball is already huge in China and Europe has really got behind it in the last 10-15 years,” was how Luke Walton, one of the Lakers key bench players, put it during an interview in LA this week. “You can tell that by the amount of players coming through. The more popular it becomes in other countries, the more people play it and the better it is for the quality of the game.”

The more knowledgable viewers of tonight’s encounter will know that the most important figure in the LA ranks is actually the team’s coach. He is Phil Jackson, the so-called “zen master” of sports management who espouses eastern philosophy and native American spirituality (Fabio Capello has cited his books as a major influence on his career) and with eleven titles is arguably the most gifted manager in not just the history of the NBA, but in any sport.

A bear of a man, with a magisterial manner, Jackson is also accomplished at making his teams peak at exactly the right moment: namely when the eight month regular season reaches its climax, with June’s playoff stages. Tonight’s game is therefore all about fine-tuning for a season in which LA’s dominance of the modern era is threatened by the Miami Heat, who have acquired several top players over the summer, including Lebron James, perhaps the most exciting player in the game today.

For soothsayers looking to predict the outcome of tonight’s game, that throws a spanner in the works. Normally, the Lakers, who won 57 and lost 25 regular season fixtures last year, would be cast-iron favourites to take down the lowly Timberwolves, who won just 15 and lost 67. But with nothing substantial to play for, unless you’re a reserve looking to impress a coach, tonight’s game is likely to be far closer than the form book suggests.