Or maybe it was the red, white and blue skull-cap with “ATL” splashed across the forehead that tipped him off.
“You here for the big game?” the baby-faced kid said to me, not realizing I was lost and in need of someone, anyone here in this massive and historic city, to point me in the direction of my hotel.
“Yes sir, Nets and Raptors doing the deed twice this week at the 02 Arena,” I shot back. “You must be a big NBA fan to find me like this. I knew there were NBA fans over here.”
Look at that. Mere hours after crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the trip I like to call Hang Time Without Borders, my faith in the global reach of the game was justified by a kind stranger willing to show me the way to my hotel in Canary Wharf, in London’s business district.
Only he was no ordinary kid. He was a bell hop at the hotel and spotted my get up and knew instantly where I was headed. And the big game he spoke of had nothing to do with the Nets and Raptors. Chelsea and Manchester United had a game last night at Chelsea’s home stadium.
“This is a futbol country, or as you say in the states, soccer,” he said with a smile. “You have heard of Didier Drogba? Frankie Lampard? Those are my guys. I like basketball all right, but the biggest game around here is Chelsea against Man-U. And I’m a big Chelsea fan. I have to tell you, the NBA has some work to do over here. There just aren’t as many fans here as you are used to in the States.”
That’s why I’m here, my man. This is like the basketball crusades. A mission that the NBA began years ago with routine stops in Europe and one that will be realized here in the United Kingdom specifically in 2012, when the Olympics will be held here and the world’s greatest basketball stars from the NBA and around the globe will converge on this city like the plague.
(Sorry for the medieval reference, but you try reading up on the history of this place and not diving into character.)
Some things just get lost in translation from Atlanta to London, from the new world to the old world, from round ball to futlbol. (I’m still trying to figure out what you can buy with 10 pence. How anyone is supposed to get clean without a face towel in the bathroom is beyond me.)
I went from the plane, to the train, to the tube (not to be mistaken with the “loo” here, a simple mistake I made trying to find my way from the airport to the city that cracked up the guy at the train station early Tuesday morning) and finally to a sleek catamaran on the Thames River — all done representing the game we love here at the hideout — and I still couldn’t win any favor with the locals.
“You must be a tourist,” he said.
“What gave me away, the camera, the NBA Finals backpack or the look on my face (jaw constantly on the floor)?” I said while taking in a few sights on my first trip here.
“Nope. It’s your accent,” he said. “You talk funny.”
My skin is thick after a year and half of getting beaten up here at the hideout. I can take being the punch line of a few jokes. But I suspect I’ll get the last laugh Friday and Saturday, when massive crowds show up to see the Nets and Raptors duke it out.
I understand they’re not exactly the Lakers and Celtics. But Deron Williams is here, courtesy of that trade deadline deal that sent him from Utah to New Jersey in what was arguably the most surprising transaction of this NBA season. No team embodies the NBA’s global spirit better than the Raptors, with more than a third of their roster being products of the league’s long-running international invasion. Alexis Ajinca (France), Solomon Alabi (Nigeria), Leandro Barbosa (Brazil), Andrea Bargnani (Italy), Jose Calderon (Spain) and Linas Kleiza (Lithuania) can give their American teammates pointers this week on how to fend for yourself in a foreign land.
Sure, the NBA has been here before.
But this is my first crusade.
And it doesn’t matter to me that there has been nary a mention of this weekend’s games on the Sky News sports report or there were just 83 words in Tuesday’s Evening Standard about the games, most of it chiding D-Will for being 0-3 with the Nets since the trade.
I don’t plan on leaving here without converting at least a few of the natives to my side, starting with the boys at the bell stand … or whatever it’s called around here!
(Something tells me D-Will and the rest of the Nets and Raptors are ready join this crusade as well.)