Tall story as Olympic basketball arena passes big test

Venue has enlarged doors for giant competitors but can Britain grab chance to measure up on world stage?
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The Independent Online

It was, remarked Dan Clark, all 6ft 11in of him, just nice to play basketball in Britain on a surface that wasn't muddled with badminton markings. He was standing in the middle of the Olympic arena, the pristine venue for next year's Games and yesterday the first to be properly put to the test.

They may have been beaten 82-60 by France last night, but British basketball has changed beyond recognition since Chris Finch, their Florida-born coach, held his first coaching session in 2006; standing in front of him were six players. "From that first year to now is as different as night and day," says Drew Sullivan, the captain and one of those first few on the day England, Scotland and Wales became one, or rather six.

Six years on they will be competing in a first Olympics since 1948. Then they finished 20th out of 23 in the Harringay Arena, a venue long since buried beneath a shopping centre, and the sport has rarely registered on the British sporting radar since. Now comes the chance.

As host nation they will play with the big boys – and these are very big boys. Australia and China who opened the six strong invitational tournament – the latest warm up event and the first within the Park itself. Before the action began, the teams were introduced to the crowd, limited to 2,600 to test the venue (and banned from bringing vuvuzelas, fireworks and animals). First on court was China's Qingpeng Zhang. He is 6ft 2in yet within moments he was dwarfed. Out trooped his team-mates; six foot nine, six foot 11, seven foot, then Zhaoxu Zhang at seven foot three, his shorts alone could have housed their own test event. Despite his height he did not have to duck as he came through the arena doors – they have been built with extra headroom and none is shorter than 2.4 metres. That's considerate construction.

Like its Harringay predecessor, the basketball arena will not be in situ long. But that is part of the plan. With 12,000 seats, and an exterior that resembles the dappled ice-white surface of a wedding cake, it is one of the largest temporary venues built for an Olympics, and at £42m the most expensive. It will be dismantled after the Games, with the exterior and frame possibly going to Rio de Janeiro to play a part in 2016. Among the crowd, having paid his £25, was John Armitt, chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, the man charged with building the Park. "You find yourself always looking round," he said. "Does the building work... that is the acid test."

The bricks-and-mortar legacy for basketball will be the handball arena, which becomes a multi-sports venue, but it is the opportunity presented by an Olympics and the prospect of British players taking on the giants of the NBA that offers the best chance the sport has had of breaking through here. As a game so well suited to inner-city play in both its relative cheapness and ease to stage as well as its culture, it remains an oddity basketball has not proved more popular.

"It's a great sport, but the biggest issue here is that nobody knows about it," says Britain's Joel Freeland, the home side's top scorer with 16 points last night. "I never even touched a basketball until I was 16. It's an exciting sport for young people. It's our chance to show how much we have progressed."

Freeland once stacked shelves – probably without recourse to a ladder – and he and his British team-mates have made huge strides in recent years. This month they compete in Eurobasket, the continental championships, and there is bullish talk of even pushing for an Olympic medal.

This week will provide some indication whether that is a prospect as distant as Zhang's view of his feet. Britain had to wait until last on the opening day, which began with victory for Australia and a Croatian defeat of Serbia, to take to the court that had so impressed Clark. They were without Luol Deng, the Chicago Bull who will play in the last two games, and faced a French side ranked 41 places higher – Britain are comfortably the lowest ranked of the six competing nations. At 56 they look up at the Cape Verde Islands.

It fell to Clark to score their first point and draw the first heartfelt cheer of the day. Basketball has sold out next year and the noise created in a quarter-full arena last night should translate into one of the Games' more raucous venues.

There were moments when British optimism seemed well founded but only moments and France's superiority gradually grew in an often physical encounter. Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spur and three times an NBA champion, was the decisive figure, fleet of foot and mind, especially in the closing stages of the third quarter when France broke clear for the first time. As Britain tired in the closing stages they extended their lead to 22 points, Parker finishing with 23 of their total. Britain have come a long way, and have a long way to go – but at least, in a year's time, they will be here.