Basketball is an afterthought in soccer-mad Britain, where professional teams sometimes have to share gym practice space with badminton games as the sport’s two national squads prepare for their first Olympic appearance since 1948.
As host of the 2012 London Summer Games, the British men’s basketball team led by Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng and its women’s team will be included in the field. Still, most of their countrymen don’t know Britain has a pro basketball league.
“If you asked them to name a team, they’d say the Harlem Globetrotters,” Mike Davies, alliances director of the British Basketball League, said in a telephone interview.
The British men’s team, which qualified for the 24-nation European championships that begin today in Lithuania, ranks 56th in the International Basketball Federation’s world rankings, below Mali and Cape Verde. The British women don’t even make FIBA’s list.
The country lacks basketball traditions, such as the college rivalries familiar in the U.S.
“For university games, we might get somebody’s girlfriend out to watch,” said Henry Wilkins, 20, who plays guard for a local basketball club as well as for Leeds Metropolitan University.
The biggest-drawing team in the British Basketball League, the Newcastle Eagles, averages about 2,500 fans a game. That’s fewer than the attendance for fourth-division English soccer league teams, and can make finding and keeping a venue difficult.
“To be honest, they could probably make more money from one night with a well-known pop singer than if they have 20 home games with us throughout the season,” Davies said.
Manchester United, the record 19-time English soccer champion, attracts more than 76,000 fans per game to its Old Trafford stadium, while the English national squad’s home, Wembley in north London, can hold 90,000 for soccer and rugby.
Britain also faces insurance woes caused by the National Basketball Association lockout, which is forcing international teams to pick up a bigger share of costs. Britain couldn’t afford insurance for the European championships for Detroit Pistons guard Ben Gordon, who was born in London.
Because of the labor dispute, national teams would have to pay all of an NBA player’s insurance, rather than sharing those costs. That would have meant a potential cost of 120,000 pounds ($195,000) or more for Gordon from a national team that has an annual budget of 2 million pounds, said Chris Spice, performance director for British Basketball.
“We paid about a third the price, for better coverage” before the lockout, Spice said in an interview following Britain’s 96-70 exhibition win against the Netherlands on Aug. 7. Spice said he hopes the NBA labor dispute will be settled or outside funding can be obtained to allow Gordon to play in the Olympics next July.
The last time Britain competed in basketball at the Olympics was in 1948, when the Summer Games also were held in London. The men’s team finished 20th of 23, beating only Ireland, after warmup contests against squads such as the YMCA.
“It was a different world,” said Lionel Price, 84, a retired industrial developer who still lives in London. “We were happy to win, but if you didn’t, it was no big deal.”
The British men’s and women’s basketball teams have the same goal -- reach the quarterfinals in 2012 and then play well enough to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“It’s time we qualify on our own right,” said Julie Page, the 28-year-old captain of the women’s team and a Manchester, England, native who attended Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington.
A British women’s team including members of the Olympic squad went 1-4 at the World University Games this month in Shenzhen, China, including an 85-33 loss to the U.S. team that won the gold medal.
“We want to compete, we want to prove to the world that we belong,” said Pops Mensah-Bonsu, a 27-year-old forward who’s played for teams ranging from the NBA’s Toronto Raptors to Italy’s Benetton Treviso. “You come out to support us, and we’ll show you we’re legitimate.”
Price, the last surviving member of the 1948 Olympic basketball team, met the members of the current British squad and looks forward to watching them play next year.
“I don’t think they’ll win a medal, but they’re very enthusiastic and a nice bunch of chaps,” he said. “I told them, it’s not the winning and the losing, but being able to play. They’ll never be able to take that away from them.”
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