MANCHESTER, England — The question would be almost unimaginable in the United States.
“Who’s No. 6?” a reporter asked a U.S. official.
It’s only an exhibition, so the result doesn’t matter. But the event does, to those who want to see basketball gain a place in Britain’s sports culture.
“This is a massive opportunity for British basketball to get some oxygen, to breathe life into the sport in this country,” said Chris Mitchell, who calls Britain’s games for BBC Radio. “Team USA being here is arguably the biggest-ever game this country has hosted. It’s arguably bigger than any game they’ll play at the Olympics, because they’ll only face USA if they get through their group and perhaps meet them in the quarterfinals. So this, this week, it’s almost the climax to the history of British basketball. It’s huge.”
Manchester Arena is expected to be full, many fans familiar with Kobe Bryant but with no clue how to pronounce the name of U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski. It probably won’t be very competitive, but it will give the Americans the opportunity to play in front of the opponent’s fans for the first time during their preparations for the London Olympics.
“They will represent their country, they will cheer on their team and hopefully we can just play well in front of them,” James said.
The Americans met the media Wednesday before practicing at the arena, getting occasional questions about the X’s and O’s of basketball and the people who play it: James was asked about injured teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler about departed one Jeremy Lin.
And this being soccer country, of course there was that. Bryant is the most popular NBA player outside the U.S., but far from the most famous athlete in Los Angeles for the British.
So what about David Beckham not making the host’s Olympic soccer roster, Kobe?
“I would love to have seen him have some type role on the team,” said Bryant, a soccer fan who lived outside the U.S. as a child. “Just his leadership and his intelligence could have helped the team out.”
Basketball has such little presence in Britain that FIBA, the sport’s governing body, didn’t immediately award the hosts the traditional automatic bid into the Olympic tournament. It wanted to be certain that there would be a legacy beyond the London Games, that support for the home team’s program would spark interest in watching, playing and following the sport.
FIBA eventually was convinced, helped by the British performing respectably last year at the European Championship. NBA All-Star Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls is the team’s leader and Joel Freeland has signed with the Portland Trail Blazers. London native and former George Washington standout Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who spent time in the NBA, also is on the team. (Charlotte’s Ben Gordon, born in England before moving to New York, was expected to be on the roster but passed on playing.)
That’s probably not enough to challenge the U.S., which will be looking for a strong performance after having a tough time with Brazil in an 80-69 victory Monday night in Washington.
“I think this will be tougher than most people expect because it’s their country. They’re playing here,” Krzyzewski said. “Luol, I know Luol, I coached him. They’ll play real hard. They can shoot the ball and they play a little bit unconventional in that actually their two bigs I think are their best shooters.”