A few minutes before tipoff of the USA-France men’s basketball game Sunday afternoon—won, as expected, by the superstar-stacked Americans, 98-71—the public address announcer at the Olympic basketball arena ceased trying to pump up the crowd with forced enthusiasm. (“This is the Olympics! Do you know how lucky you are to be here? Let’s hear some noiiiiiiiise.”)
Now, apparently, it was time for some teaching. A hoops court flashed on the big screen, near the top of the arena, and the PA announcer started with the basics. “A basketball court is 28 by 15 meters,” he said. Next up were explanations of the three-second rule, the point of the 24-second shot-clock—shoot the ball before it gets to zero—and the definition of a layup (“a high-percentage basic shot”). Then, the announcer covered dunking. “The slam dunk is the ultimate crowd pleaser,” he said, and the screen showed a digital player slamming it home. Really? Slam dunk? Isn’t that one super-obvious?
As often as humanly possible, the NBA boasts about its global imprint. Games are seen in more than 200 countries, the number of international players in the league has grown 9,000% over the past 15 years, babies in China can make hook shots. We get the message.
But has the basketball craze really, totally passed over Great Britain, to the point that fans need a pre-game tutorial? Apparently so. In the fourth quarter, with the USA thumping France—Kevin Durant scored a game-high 22 points; LeBron James, being LeBron James, did a little bit of everything on offense and defense; Kevin Love, who played sparingly in the pre-Olympic exhibition tour and was criticized by USA Basketball chair Jerry Colangelo for underperforming, scored a surprising 14 points off the bench—Wayne Scibier, a social worker from Epson, England, was sitting next to his sister, Antoinette, in the stands, taking in the action. Scibier’s sister knew her hoops, but this was the first time ever that Scibier was watching basketball. He’d never seen it in person, he’d never seen it on TV.
So how was he digging the game? “It’s really good,” Scibier says. “It’s fast, with all the back and forth.” That’s sweet news for the Americans: before the game, USA basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said he wanted to push the tempo. (To impress Scibier, of course.)
Was he picking up how it all worked? Having his sister as a guide helped. But Scibier still needed some assistance. I asked him how many points baskets were worth. “When they make it from outside that line,” he says, pointing to the three-point stripe, “it’s three, right?” Nice. What if a shot is made inside the line? He pauses. “One,” he says. Antoinette yells, “Two!”
Again, Scibier points towards the court. “I don’t get that 24-second countdown.” He had missed the big-screen tutorial. I explain it to him, and ask him if he knew what a slam dunk is. “That’s the bit where the guy jumps up and hangs on the hoop and looks like he’s going to pull it down, right?” See, Olympic organizers, super-obvious.
Layups are an issue. “That’s when the guy gives the ball to the other guy,” Scibier says, with a bit of confidence. I correct him, and explain that the three-second rule is designed to prevent big guys from parking themselves under the basket, where they can catch the ball and get an easy shot. “Oh, like a basket hanger,” Scibier says. Whoa, that’s a common hoops term. How’d he figure that one out so easily? “In soccer, we call it a goal hanger,” Scibier says.
Scibier starts firing questions. “Do they call them referees or umpires?” he asks. Refs. “Why, after the ref calls a foul, does he run over to the bloke at the table, the guy with the glasses?” He’s telling the scorekeeper who committed the transgression. Why, one time, did a player inbound the ball from the corner of the court? “Is it like a corner kick?” he asks. No, a player takes the ball out from the spot where it goes out of bounds. “Oh, like a throw-in.” Sure.
It’s not like Great Britain hasn’t produced any good basketball players. John Amaechi, for example, grew up in England and played in the NBA from 1995 through 2003. (In 2007, Amaechi became the first NBA player to come out of the closet.) The Brits are even suiting up an Olympic team—yes, we’re aware the host country gets an automatic slot in the Olympic tournament—led by Chicago Bulls starting forward Luol Deng, one of the better players in the league. (Deng’s family fled his native Sudan, and he came to England when he was nine.)
Still, this Olympic tournament is a chance to increase basketball exposure in Great Britain. Though the NBA’s marketing efforts are more focused on emerging markets like China and India these days, don’t think the league isn’t trying to capitalize in London, and reach British sports fans like Scibier.
With the game coming to a close, I give Scibier a quick test. He nails them all: the point value of a free throw, the function of the shot clock, a few others. Sign him up for NBA TV. The buzzer sounds, and I thank Scibier and his sister for their time. Talking hoops with them was much more fun than watching a blowout from the press box.
“I’ll tell you what, don’t bring me to a baseball game,” says Scibier. “That three-strike thing—what is that? I thought cricket was complicated …”
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