Houston Rockets lift off

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The Independent Online
Just two years ago the highlight of their schedule was a trip down the M1 to face Crystal Palace. Today, Sheffield Sharks line up alongside the Houston Rockets and the champions of Italy, Spain, Israel and Australia in the McDonald's Championship, the glitziest tournament any English club has played in.

According to Jim Brandon, the American coach of the Budweiser League champions, it does not stop there. "This is the biggest tournament any Spanish, Italian, Israeli or Australian club has played in as well," he said. "Outside of the NBA finals, this is the greatest club basketball tournament in the world."

Earlier this week, the NBA hit town and transformed London Arena for the three-day event, boosting capacity by 20 per cent to 10,500, with extra seating for the London Docklands venue. "I'm not sure English fans realise what this means to have the event here," Brandon said. "The sport has to utilise this weekend for all its worth so that we can look back on the McDonald's as the start of a real move forward for UK basketball."

NBA teams have won all six previous McDonalds, but this is the first time six champion clubs have competed. The Rockets are the first reigning NBA champions to take part, and the likely absence from court of the injured 7ft 4in Hakeem Olajuwon should give this year's event a slightly more competitive edge.

Olajuwon, however, disagrees. Even if he doesn't play, he does not rate the chances of Houston's opponents and says: "The rest of world basketball won't catch up with us in my lifetime."

Brandon's team, who tuned up with a 97-61 win over Hemel Royals on Tuesday, take a slight step up in class tonight for their first game against the European champions, Real Madrid.

The Sharks need no motivation after losing by just 13 points on aggregate to the Spaniards in the European Clubs' Championship this month. "It couldn't be a better start for us because my players are obsessed with settling the score against Madrid," Brandon said. "If Madrid don't play well they'll lose."

Sheffield would then have another mountain to climb in tomorrow's semi- final against the winners from tonight's game between Italy's Buckler Bologna and Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv. In tomorrow's other semi-final, Houston play the Australian champions, Perth Wildcats.