Sport on TV: Hype, hoops and the basket cases

IT was the first time Sky Sports had broadcast basketball live from America (NBA Basketball, Sunday), but Nicky Horne, presenting back in the studio in London, seemed to be getting the hang of things pretty fast. 'Orlando's starting five are very, very tall men, aren't they?' he said to his co-presenter Kevin Cadle. 'What's the reasoning behind that?'

Well, there's no harm starting with the basics, but not since Alan Partridge on The Day Today accused a jockey of being short has a television sports presenter seemed quite so baffled by the obvious. If a mild sense of unease slightly ruffled your enjoyment of last weekend's coverage, it was chiefly because you were wondering just when Horne would ask: 'That thing with the kind of string bag dangling from it - what's the thinking there?'

Nicky Horne presented Channel 4's first season of American football. Back then, very few people in this country knew much about the sport, and Horne less than most. The idea seemed to be that he would lead the viewer on a voyage of mutual discovery. Now Sky are backing him to do the same for the bouncy ball game.

Will it catch on? In America, there's barely a gable end that doesn't have a basketball hoop fixed to it. Here, of course, they're a rarer sight - dotted almost as lightly around the country as Sky satellite dishes. On the other hand, people are already wearing the merchandise, so to a degree the game comes pre-sold. Which is as well, since there were enough teething problems with Sky's coverage to ruin the healthiest appetite.

Take the studio set: two chairs, a couple of cardboard cut-outs, a rather precarious looking table with 'Sky Sport' written over it, a basketball and a hoop. It looked like a sports shop at the end of an especially well-attended closing down sale. And there sat Horne and the former coach Cadle, dropped - or slam-dunked - in at the deep end.

'We're talking serious basketball, here,' Horne said in his preamble, and indeed, this was a hot fixture to come in on - Patrick Ewing's New York Knicks versus Shaquille O'Neal's Orlando Magic, the top two teams in their league, dollars 350 million-worth of players assembled on one court. 'Kevin, we're not talking chicken feed here, are we?' We weren't. But we were talking a problem with talking. Off went Kevin: 'With endorsements, you're talking about that they will have more money worth than the gross national product of many countries.'

The simplest linking phrases were mumbled and mashed ('Welcome back, and before without any further ado, let's go back to Madison Square Garden'), but it wasn't just words that went wrong. The previous programme had over-run, so there wasn't time to put up the graphic bearing our presenters' pre-match predictions until 15 minutes in, by which time they lacked a certain drama. Also, we joined the game late: 'The score is 4-0,' said Horne as we went over live. It was 2-1.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, in the post-game analysis, Horne managed to confuse Ewing with O'Neal. Hard to confuse Shaq with anything - animal, vegetable or mineral. Little wonder that, as the programme wore on, Horne adopted the increasingly frenzied jollity of someone trying to smile while having their fingers slammed in a drawer.

The pictures were from NBC, but every time they cut away for commercials, we had to come back to Horne and Cadle to fill the gap. Horne spent the evening flicking an anxious eye at the monitors as if he was afraid a large, snarling animal might burst through them at any moment. In moments of acute conversational seizure, he was reduced to describing what he saw there: 'We just saw a shot of Michael Douglas, who's watching the game]' Passing from NBC's American commentators - assured, informed and somehow casually enthusiastic - back to London was like moving from next door's barbecue directly into a dentist's waiting room.

Horne held up a wad of foam-padded plastic the shape of a stiffened sleeping bag. It was one of Shaquille O'Neal's size 22 boots. 'Are these things specially constructed?' Did he think they grew on trees? If so, he wasn't alone. Cadle turned the object around in his hands. 'You only find this kind of a foot on a tree stump,' he said, mysteriously.

Still, at least the basketball was fluid - plenty of those long shots which don't seem to touch the net, let alone the hoop. One possible domestic crisis: basketball is, in a very specific sense, end-to-end stuff and a nation raised on football may have a problem with a game in which there's no such thing as a dour midfield tussle.

And what should we make of the fact that during freeshots, the crowd behind the backboard does its best to distract the shooter by standing up and flapping bright orange signs - or 'waving all that stuff' as Horne put it. 'Is that cricket?' he then wondered. No, not cricket: the players are generally shorter in cricket.

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