Pistons-Knicks game in London might not change much for NBA in Great Britain, but it will make one English fan very happy


Being an informed NBA basketball fan in England has historically been difficult at the best of times.

Being an informed Detroit Pistons fan in England over the past ten years or so has been nigh on impossible.

NBA games are not shown on television here, and newspapers and the rolling sports-news channels here will only occasionally report the scores of games, nothing more. Thankfully, the depth of my own fandom (addiction?) has ensured that the lack of information, discussion and debate – the three key elements that typically fuel one’s support of a sports team – never dampened my enthusiasm during those early years. I feel I have reaped the rewards of sticking with everything during the initial difficulties in following the team as, in more recent times, the Internet – specifically the evolution of the NBA’s own Game Time app – has slowly but surely allowed myself and others like me to become ever more immersed in the NBA soap opera over here in the UK.

Despite this brave new world allowing myself and the other Pistons fans in the United Kingdom to more closely follow the happenings in Detroit, there really is no substitute for the live game experience. That’s why, when news broke last Wednesday that the Pistons would play the Knicks at a mystery ‘international venue’ I immediately began hoping that the venue would turn out to be our very own O2 Arena here in London.

I have attended all the NBA events that the league have put on in London in recent years, even sitting through back-to-back Nets-Raptors games back in February. The Pistons’ fall from grace had rendered us somewhat irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but it appeared to me that national prominence didn’t seem to have too much bearing on which teams were chosen for the European events, be them preseason tune-ups or actual regular-season games.

Therefore, I felt well within my rights to hope that 2011-2012 might see the Pistons themselves roped into jetting across the pond. The lockout put paid to that.

But now, following confirmation from a number of sources, I am now just six months away from seeing my Pistons in competitive action for the first time. I’m also excited that this will be the first time Detroit have played outside of North America – and I will be court side to see it. The opposition isn’t a bad draw either, the dysfunctional Knicks are always entertaining, if not just to see how they shoot themselves in the foot next.

So is there any chance that this helps grow the popularity of the NBA and basketball in general in the United Kingdom?

Basketball has long been a niche sport in terms of supporting the UK, despite being the third-most popular team sport played here. This has always perplexed me, especially given the huge popularity of the sport in Europe. Common excuses for this are the lack of exposure, lack of finance, lack of public courts. My own view is that the UK has never had a true basketball hero to look up to, someone to inspire a surge of interest on the back of a patriotic fervour, similar to that which England’s Paul Gascoigne, aka "Gazza" effected in Soccer following the 1990 World Cup. That moment almost directly led to the cash soaked golden age of Premier League soccer here in the UK, catapulting the English league ahead of traditionally more glamorous leagues such as Italy’s Serie A.

Luol Deng is doing his very best to fulfill that role and has the inspirational back story to match. Perhaps a good showing at the Olympics will trigger something. It’s just a shame Ben Gordon continually decides against supporting Luol in driving the sport forward here in Britain. With the Olympics now in full swing, Luol, supported by Gordon and Pops Mensah-Bonsu, could really have had the chance to lead a charge toward national relevance for basketball here.

I feel that task will now fall to the USA team. I’m hoping they can have an impact on our country similar to the one the Dream Team had on Spain in 1992, stirring a movement that inspired the likes of Jose Calderon and the Gasols.

The Knicks vs Pistons game will not have the desired effect that the I suspect the NBA wants it to have. It will make me very, very happy, as it will for many Knicks, Pistons and NBA fans here. It will be a great night out for all of us, but it will not create a tidal wave of NBA interest and an inward flow of dollars into Stern’s coffers. The question the NBA has to ask itself is, how badly does it want the sport to be popular here? Which as we all know, translates into, is the reward for investing in a concerted attempt establishing the NBA in the UK ever likely to provide the desired return? Would Stern and company be open to the idea of setting up a franchise here, for example? Or would other countries, where there is already a huge basketball fan base be more "ready made" for such a bold move?

No matter what the NBA decides to do in that regard, I for one am extremely pleased that after 10 years of following the Pistons I am finally going to get the opportunity to see the team live – and particularly now as we hopefully head back towards the playoffs after the widespread buffoonery of recent times. I guess all those late nights trawling for a live feed of some type and all those hours spent devouring every biased word on pistons.com are finally going to pay off for myself and any other UK-based Pistons fans. I have to say I am yet to encounter any other Pistons fans here in London, but perhaps a good showing vs. the Knicks could lead to a few more people here deciding to follow the fortunes of Moose, Stuck and BK – despite my own cynicism!