British team on court when basketball begins Park life

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The Independent Online

It will fall to the basketballers of Australia and China to launch the first competitive event in the Olympic Park when they play the opening game in the London International Basketball Invitational this afternoon, the latest test event for next year's Games.

For the first time, spectators will be allowed into the Park itself to watch five of the world's best teams and Great Britain, who have not taken part in an Olympics since 1948, compete in a round-robin competition in the 12,000-capacity venue. "It feels like I'm dreaming," said Drew Sullivan, the Great Britain captain, as he gazed around the basketball arena after practice yesterday. "Some of the places we have played... it's been a long journey."

Sullivan of the Mersey Tigers is one of only two home-based players in the British squad, with the rest scattered across the globe. Later in this tournament Luol Deng – of the Chicago Bulls and Barack Obama's favourite player – will feature in a British vest, although he will not take part in this evening's opening match against France, having only just joined up with the squad.

Deng, who grew up in London after his family fled Sudan, is by some margin the squad's stellar name but with players from the tough Spanish league and others based in the US, the British team has improved dramatically since 2006 when coach Chris Finch had six players at his first training session.

They are still ranked only 56 in the world but later this month will be in Lithuania to contest their second successive Eurobasket, the continental championship for which they had never previously qualified. This week they play France, ranked 14th and silver medallists in 2000, three Beijing quarter-finalists in Australia, China and Croatia, and Serbia, ranked eighth in the world. Australia and China are also in the world top 10.

Finch, who is an assistant coach with Houston Rockets in the NBA as well as being Britain's head coach, said: "It is a huge opportunity. You could not ask for better preparation."

Finch described the Olympics as a "rallying call" for his sport in this country, where participation levels remain low. FIBA, the sport's world governing body, only granted Britain a host place in the Games once they were convinced the team could be competitive and that there was a commitment to fostering the sport in this country beyond 2012.