Overpaid, over-sized and over here: richest team of the summer swaggers into town

Jonathan Brown comes face to face – almost – with the US basketball squad

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It seems bizarre when talking to Tyson Chandler to think that American sports fans have been worrying that their basketball team is too short. Even at 6ft 3in, I am forced to crane my neck uncomfortably up at the 7ft 1in Dallas Maverick, who is not only the tallest man in the side but the NBA's top defender.

But he tries to be reassuring. "I don't think size matters. It's about being the best team," he says. Few would argue that the US men's basketball side has any serious rivals in London this summer barring perhaps Spain.

Since players from the world's most lucrative sports league were allowed to compete in the Olympics in 1992 they have taken the gold medal four times, failing only once in Greece in 2004 when they could manage only third.

Gold is not an option but a requirement for the richest collection of sportsmen in attendance at this year's Games. As they effortlessly moved the ball up and down the court at the Manchester Arena yesterday, the multimillionaires of the NBA were commanding rock-star levels of media attention.

Tonight, they will take on Team GB in a sellout game before 17,000 fans in the biggest night British basketball has ever witnessed. Among the team is LeBron James, the richest man in sport – the Miami Heat forward earned £34m last year. His teammate is Kobe Bryant, a close friend of fellow Los Angeleno David Beckham, whose salary and endorsements saw him collect just a fraction less than James in 2011.

Bryant and co have opted not to spend the Games in the athletes' village, preferring instead to billet themselves at a West End hotel which they have hired in its entirety for the duration. "Hopefully we can pass the spotlight to the other athletes and help them get their due," he says. "It's about globalising the game and hoping basketball fever will take off here."

Bryant, whose career was nearly overshadowed in 2004 when he was accused of sexual assault – charges that were later dropped – cuts an articulate and modest figure.

Despite his friendship with Beckham, he says he has not followed the row over alleged racism and swearing in the English Premiership, although he insists basketball is a whole lot more wholesome. "We try and keep it as clean as possible, basketball especially, there could be kids in the front row they can hear pretty much everything that's going on so you have to watch yourself a little bit."