London Eye: Team GB's kids from America
Some of the NBA's finest will play for Britain at London 2012 in order to raise basketball's profile here. Will it work?
Thursday 19 April 2012
"Does Great Britain deserve to be in the Olympics?" Russia's coach, David Blatt, pondered the question. "Sports-wise, no. The British team received a free pass, at our expense basically." Russia finished third in the European Basketball Championship, behind France and the winners, Spain, who came back to Madrid to a reception that had something of the flavour of the return of their footballers from the World Cup.
Great Britain, unlike Georgia and Macedonia, did not make it past the group stage. The finalists qualified for London 2012. Russia did not.
For only the second time, Britain has made it to the Olympics, in the same way that they did for the London Games in 1948, by hosting the tournament. However, uniquely, their place had to be confirmed by the world governing body, Fiba, who faced arguments that when London was awarded the Games in 2005, Great Britain did not actually run a team. The one it does have is accused of not being particularly British.
In July in Manchester, Great Britain will warm up for the Olympics with a high-profile contest against the United States, the overwhelming favourites to take gold, just as they did in 1948. The British team is likely to have at least three representatives from America's National Basketball Association, whose links to this country vary from the strong to the non-existent.
Byron Mullens was brought up in Ohio, where Barack Obama recently took David Cameron to watch a game, and now plays for the Charlotte Bobcats. He has never actually set foot in Britain, though he did spend a month playing in Athens.
His mother was born in England and, asked what he knew about the old country, Mullens replied: "I have heard it is kind of like the US in some senses, such as restaurants." He is likely to find the portions are smaller.
British basketball's dilemma is that it needs Mullens, Luol Deng – Obama's favourite player – and Ben Gordon to drive the sport forward.
Deng, who came to Croydon at the age of 10, fleeing Sudan, did learn to play in London and now averages 15.9 points a game for the Chicago Bulls. He is also among the highest-paid British sportsmen in the world, earning £7.1m a year, although his performances have been hampered by a wrist injury that will require surgery at the end of the season.
There is also Gordon, who has yet to justify his $55m move from Chicago to Detroit, although a staggering 45 points against Denver Nuggets suggests his form might be returning. Gordon was born in London, although his family left for America soon after his birth. In no sense did he learn the sport here.
However, without them the British game resembles the line from the basketball movie White Men Can't Jump: "All I care about is getting out of the Vista View Apartments because there ain't no vista and there ain't no view and there certainly ain't no vista of no view."
If the sport cannot use the encounters with the United States at the MEN Arena and the Olympic matches in London as a springboard, it will remain forever trapped in its own version of the Vista View Apartments.
White Men Can't Jump was released in 1992, the year that Olympic basketball changed forever, the year of the Dream Team. Centred around Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson, it was the first time the hugely-paid elite of the NBA were allowed to compete in the Olympics. They scored 100 points or more in every one of their matches and their lowest margin of victory was 32 points in the final against Croatia. "It was like beating up your little brother," said Clyde Drexler, one of the members of the original Dream Team. "You knew you could beat him, the question was how badly."
However, the United States turned to the Dream Team for similar reasons as to why British basketball is gazing towards the NBA. The American Olympic teams, drawn from amateur players based around the old college system, had started to lose regularly.
Drexler is standing in the Cloud Bar at the Manchester Hilton which gives panoramic views across the new first city of British football and to the Pennines beyond. Drexler expects the United States to win in London – they have dominated every subsequent Olympics save Athens in 2004, where a "complacent" team of "guys who just wanted to shoot" were beaten by Argentina.
"Spain are going to be good again and so are Argentina but America will dominate the sport for the next 10 years. But, after that, it's going to be anybody's game because of the way other countries are developing basketball. If you go to the Philippines, China or Japan, there are NBA players everywhere and that's never happened before.
"Gordon could be your best player," said Drexler, pondering the question of whether Gordon and Deng might do for basketball in Britain what David Beckham has achieved for football's profile in America.
"It's going to take a little marketing," he said. "Someone has to throw some money behind British basketball – Beckham had a lot of money thrown behind him – and you need high-visibility games like the GB-USA fixture in Manchester."
Amid all the arguments about "plastic Brits", Drexler points out that unless British basketball recruits more NBA players and unless more British players cross the Atlantic, the sport will never leave the Vista View Apartments.
Of the squad that travelled to Lithuania for the European Championship last year, only two, Nate Reinking and the captain, Drew Sullivan, play their basketball in Britain and Sullivan has spent his life travelling.
He was 16 when his family left London for New Jersey and 23 when he returned across the Atlantic to play in Paris, Newcastle, Barcelona, and Cyprus. Most curious of all, was Samara, a city so far east that it was designated as the capital of the Soviet Union should Moscow fall to the Germans in 1941.
"I loved it, probably one of the best places I have lived," said Sullivan, who is now 32. "The standard of basketball and the status of the competition were superb. Yes. Samara is very far east and very cold but I was treated extremely well and, if I had an opportunity to go back to Russia, I would jump at the chance. As a professional, you want to play in the most competitive places.
"Could the British league be anything like the NBA?" he ponders with a bemused smile. "Well, that would be a form of fantasy. The money you are talking about would have to be phenomenal.
"Even when seen from the top leagues in Europe, the money available in the NBA looks ridiculous. For comparison, you are talking Manchester City and Plymouth. But what we can do with our younger players is coach them properly so they do have a chance to compete before they go off to Europe, America or wherever it may be.
"We lose a lot of our young players because they don't see any light at the end of the tunnel. We're playing the United States in Manchester but every year Americans come over to play in Britain so some don't get the opportunity.
"British basketball players are more respected on the continent than they are over here. That's the biggest disappointment. The culture here has always been to bring in Americans. But the attitude needs to change; they have to have more faith in our young players.
"Can you make a living in England? Depends what your view of 'making a living' is? James Jones, who is from Manchester, Andrew Bridge, who plays for Newcastle, have spent their whole careers here. They are not driving around in Audi R8s or anything but they are not necessarily struggling."
Sullivan remarked that to captain Great Britain at only their second Olympics was "the greatest honour I could imagine", adding that he would be scooping up any memorabilia he could find during the Games and he might not be the last member of his family to become an Olympian.
"My eldest is a keen basketball player. She's four and can dribble with both hands without looking at the ball. If she wants to move away like I did when I was 16, then we would support that. My wife might have a hard time understanding but she hasn't been through it like I have and I'd want my daughter to be better than me."
Great Britain men and women play the US at the Manchester Arena on 18 and 19 July. For tickets, visit ticketmaster.co.uk or call 0844 847 8000
Olympic news you may have missed...
Rower Tom James will defend his Olympic title in the men's four after Alex Partridge decided to take a place for Britain in the men's eight instead. James, Andrew Triggs Hodge, Pete Reed and Alex Gregory will compete in the World Cup regatta in Belgrade next month and should keep their places for this summer, with final selection confirmed in June.
Josh Taylor has become the sixth GB boxer to secure his place in London after reaching the semi-finals of a qualifying event in Turkey. Taylor's win over Vladimir Saruk-hanyan, coupled with defeat for Sam Max-well, meant Taylor booked the solitary 60kg berth.
What's coming up...
Today The last GB Olympic selection shoot begins in Lilleshall, with Archers including Alison Williamson chasing places in the final squad. The Modern Pent-athlon World Cup in Russia also starts today, offering British ath-letes qualification opportunities.
Tomorrow Tom Daley goes in the final World Series leg in Mexico after success in Moscow last week.
Sunday London Marathon. The prestigious race doubles up as a qualifying event this year, with elite runners looking to secure their places at the Games.
Usain Bolt Taking a break from various advertising dem-ands, the Jamaican sprinter has pledged to 'amaze' fans with a 9.4 seconds 100m run this summer. "I'm work-ing as hard as possible so I can go as fast as possible," he said. British athletes Have been promised access to more tickets for friends and family by UK Athletics following criticism of original ticketing restrictions.
Haile Gebrselassie Double gold medal-ist gave up hopes of making Ethiopia's marathon team. "He has given up with pain in his heart," manager Jos Hermans said.
Dan Keatings Ankle injury has sidelined the 22-year-old gymnast for four weeks ahead of the European Championships, delaying his hunt for a place in Team GB.
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