London calls once again for the NBA this week, with the New York Knicks facing the Washington Wizards at the O2 Arena. A cursory glance at the league standings illustrates the low stakes at play, and with the faces of each team, Kristaps Porzingis and John Wall, sidelined by injury, genuine star power will be short in supply.
Yet tickets for Thursday’s regular-season contest sold out within minutes, as they always do. Those avid basketball fans are, however, in the minority, with the crowded U.K. sporting landscape dominated by the English Premier League. For those pushing the NBA’s brand, this annual London game is a priceless shop window.
Especially considering the U.K. has no homegrown NBA superhero to call its own.
The 2012 Olympic Games in London led to the arrival of stars whose illumination was mega-watt bright: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, James Harden from the all-conquering United States, a cluster of others from the rest of the world.
Deng, now restricted to a minimalist role toward the end of the Minnesota Timberwolves bench, was never transcendent, even in his pomp. Even in the USA, he was never a household name (he would make one additional All-Star appearance). And while he admirably continues to stage an annual developmental camp for young British talents, he called time on his international career after those Games. With his patriotic affections shared with his native South Sudan, it was always a long shot that he could hold the attention of the U.K. at large.
In reality, British basketball is still awaiting its first high-profile basketball star. How impactful could that player’s presence be? A look at neighbouring European countries gives a glimpse of the possibilities.
Germany has had a figurehead at the summit for two decades in Dirk Nowitzki. France (Tony Parker) and Spain (the Gasol brothers), likewise. Slovenia might have just landed its first in Luka Doncic. These players are difference-makers on and off the court.
“Tony Parker was the first NBA All-Star and championship winner (from France),” says Armel Le Bescon, his biographer. “So his impact is huge on French basketball. He allowed young French basketball players to believe in the American dream, and he also liberated the French players who said to themselves: ‘Yes, it is possible to be drafted and play in the NBA.’
Winning the European title in 2013 transformed Les Bleus into a hot ticket. The French Basketball Federation was able to sell a ton of replica jerseys, fill big arenas (the TP Effect: the final stages of EuroBasket 2015 were held inside Lille’s cavernous soccer dome) and sell valuable television rights.
Parker retired from France duty after the 2016 Olympics. But now, as the owner of Pro A team ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne, he remains influential behind the scenes.
“In terms of logistics, training camp, at all levels, it is Tony Parker who demanded that the team of France travel in the same first class as the largest nations: USA, Spain,” Le Bescon adds. “Physios, assistant coaches, video, private flights. TP asked the French Federation to be at the top so that players could give the best of themselves then in the field.”
Parker had the benefit of a strong supporting cast of compatriots, enough to garner four European medals including that gold in 2013. In Germany, Nowitzki had to shoulder most of the burden alone in his role as the basketballing face of a nation.
Still the only European to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, his championship run with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 cemented his spot in Deutschland’s Sporting Hall of Fame alongside the likes of footballer Franz Beckenbauer and tennis great Steffi Graf.
As it was for Parker, coming through domestic competitions and youth national teams forged a connection as a hometown boy made good when he packed up and took his game to the United States. “He inspired young players who for the first time saw that the NBA was possible,” says German television commentator Andre Voigt.
The Mavs forward, still on the floor at age 40, led Germany to third place at the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis as the tournament’s MVP. Three years later, that team claimed EuroBasket silver, and Nowitzki another MVP prize.
The squad was named as Germany’s Sports Team of the Year, unprecedented for basketball, a sport which had long trailed handball in the fight to be a distant second in popularity behind soccer when it comes to the nation’s affections.
Yet, says Voigt, much of Nowitzki’s popularity at home stems from pride in his accomplishments on foreign soil. He is effectively an ambassador in the USA. Research company Nielsen declared him to be “the most marketable basketball player in the world” based on a scoring system measuring “appeal, awareness and endorsement potential.”
“His success never really translated to the Basketball Bundesliga, because he simply wasn’t part of it for the last 20 years,” Voigt adds. “So, he brought young people to basketball, but the league never benefitted.
“Dirk came on the scene pretty much, when Jordan left … When His Airness retired, the NBA pretty much vanished, Dirk brought it back, but it never reached the heights of the mid-90s. People cared about Dirk but not about the NBA as a whole.”
The same cannot be said of Spain. Aside from Lithuania and what was once Yugoslavia, no country in Europe has embraced basketball as deeply as Spain. Spain’s men’s team has posed the greatest threat to American hegemony over the past decade, and now its women’s team is doing the same.
Those heroics pushed the NBA to a new level. Basketball, in the pages of the country’s myriad sport-only newspapers, has been accorded greater prominence.
The NBA will trust that its showcase in London can eat away, if even a little, at the omnipotent force that is the English Premier League. Even taking a small slice that is currently carved up by rugby, cricket and a host of smaller sports would be significant.
There are some signs of progress. The U.K. has the greatest number of subscribers in Europe for the NBA’s League Pass streaming service while it ranks second in sales of branded product.
Further advances would be even easier if the U.K. had a pitchman from these islands, one widely recognised with stardust to sprinkle onto both the presently struggling national team and the domestic British Basketball League.
Regrettably, there are no obvious candidates in the works. Should one emerge, that player could be quickly elevated into the mainstream on the back of the visibility the NBA is obtaining in the U.K.
“The NBA, more than any other league, if we had someone at the level of LeBron James, Steph Curry, that real pinnacle superstar level, it would transcend everything from a brand point of view,” says Chris Gratton, U.K. head of sports at marketing agency FleishmanHillard.
“The NBA has undertaken international expansion and the eyeballs and the presence in the U.K. is huge. Therefore, someone like a Giannis [Antetokounmpo] has a profile in the U.K. as a European superstar. But if someone from the U.K. reached that pinnacle level, among the top two or three basketball players, they would be massive.
“It’s down to the pull in the local market. A Tony Parker in France or Giannis in Greece, those guys have the world at their feet. Even the big American sports stars carry a big value overseas.
“But if you can add someone localised, it carries so much more weight to an audience who finds them relatable, they might have a backstory from where in the country they grew up before hitting it big. It all becomes more tangible and more accessible. That has a huge brand value.”
That there isn’t a British Dirk, Tony or Pau perhaps boils down to a developmental drive which, according to its critics, is less a functioning system and more a series of remote units in need of a reboot.
With a large playing base at the teenage level, the law of averages suggests someone will eventually break through. Current Great Britain forward Gareth Murray hopes it happens soon.
“I think it would definitely help,” Murray says. “Having someone to look up to. You have the likes of Dirk: the guys around the world, they look up to him.
“Luka Doncic now, coming through as a young star. It definitely helps put Slovenia on the map.
“That could help the same in Great Britain.”