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The Union Leader (Manchester, NH)


LONDON — If Jean Fofana didn't have a reason to like the Celtics before, he does now.

Though this bartender at the Red Lion pub couldn't name a Celtic, as a basketball fan whose entire scope of NBA knowledge is rooted in LeBron James, Fofana didn't need long to connect two dots.

"Kyrie Irving was transferred there!" he said excitedly.

Richard Corbett, enjoying his lunch and a pint of ale in this pub, which is tucked across Westminster Street from Parliament and Big Ben, believes Fofana may be typical of the many British fans who will show up at O2 Arena Thursday night when the Celtics play the Philadelphia 76ers.

Like the NFL, the NBA has made London an annual regular-season stop as part of its Global Games initiative. But in a nation where football — the original kind Americans know as soccer — reigns supreme over all other sports, basketball isn't going to escape novelty status any time soon. Maybe so in Spain, Turkey, Italy or another major EuroLeague city, but not here. London's Copper Box Arena, home of the London Lions of the British Basketball League, holds 7,000 fans.

"Basketball, well, there's probably more interest in the American (league) than our own one. It has quality," Corbett, a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from Yorkshire and Humber, said of the 12-team BBL. "(Thursday's game) will attract interest because it's a special thing. The same thing happens with American football; it's a once-a-year thing. But a sustained interest in the league as such, it's not very widespread."

Martin Simonds, a musician who once lived in Los Angeles and sampled Lakers mania, can notice an uptick here, saying, "I know it's gathering momentum in England."

But his friend, Michael Cohan, who pedals tourists around the Buckingham Palace area, hasn't noticed the same promotional push for this year's showcase.

"Last year they used to promote it on Regent Street; they put big, massive banners on Regent Street. They would promote it. I haven't seen it this year," said Cohan. "But last year, it did catch a bit of people. They bought their shirts, they bought their scarves, they went to see the games and all that.

"It needs a lot of publicity, a lot more marketing, too. I don't think people will go just like that. It's not America. UK is not America. They're interested in football and that's it."

Wayne, a cabbie outside Paddington Station, believes basketball simply isn't a big enough part of the British culture, saying, "Growing up, you never even played it in gym class except for two weeks every year."

But maybe the celebrity component of NBA culture is making an inroad after all. A customs agent at Heathrow Airport began by stating that he knew nothing about the sport.

But then he picked up a customs declaration card.

"Who's that fella from the NBA, (Steph) Curry? Not three months ago I was holding a card for him. No idea why he was here," the agent said of the Golden State star. "So I asked him if he was any good, and he said, 'Yeah, pretty good.' I liked that. No airs about him."

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January 10, 2018


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