Rocket men boost attendances

The popularity of basketball in Britain is on the increase, writes Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online
They came in pursuit of the great American team last night, 10,000 British basketball followers, stepping out of the Docklands Light Railway station by the London Arena to a greeting of light drizzle.

For many, the evening was a pilgrimage to see in the flesh the team they had witnessed so often on video or satellite TV - the Houston Rockets, consecutive champions in the sport's most testing environment, the National Basketball Association. What America does today, Europe does - well, perhaps the day after tomorrow. The Rockets' involvement in the McDonald's Championship, which concludes today, is part of a strategy conceived by the NBA and the sport's world governing body, Fiba, to stimulate worldwide interest in the game.

"This championship has been to Paris, Barcelona and Madrid in recent years,'' Ray Lalonde, a spokesman for NBA Europe, said. "It is a key factor in developing the sport in Europe."

Rob Webb, spokesman for England's Basketball League, said: "The NBA have identified England as a place where basketball is up and coming. The game here has come a long way in the last two or three years."

After the boom years of the early 1980s, the British game has re-established itself. It has a three-year contract with Sky TV. Crowds in the Budweiser League are up by 33 per cent on last year, and earlier this season Manchester Giants were watched by 12,348 people - the largest number ever to witness a British game.

Houston's main attractions are Hakeem "The Dream" Olojuwon, their 7ft centre, and Clyde Drexler, although the former was hedging his bets about playing after recent injuries.

"Houston are the top team," said 13-year-old Daniel Clifford, one of the many young spectators queueing outside the Arena. "This is a special occasion."

Houston's moves, however, were unlikely to come as a surprise to him as he owns a large collection of NBA videos. "I'd buy more if I got more pocket-money," he said with a meaningful look at his parents.

Daniel and his friend Matthew Cook, from Seaford, near Brighton, are the new generation to whom all this NBA effort is addressed. Both play for their school where the regular visits of the Worthing Bears play-coach, Colin Irish, has stimulated interest in the sport.

For 15 year-old, Danny Hutsky, of Southend, this was a first experience of live basketball. He and his friend Peter Wisken, the latter resplendent in Chicago Bulls' colours, had paid pounds 25 each for the privilege.

"We can learn something about the game tonight," said Hutsky, who was offered trials with London Towers earlier this month. Sadly for the Towers, and perhaps the British game, he could not make sense of the map sent by the club and failed to turn up.

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