LONDON — New Jersey’s team? Sure.
But the Nets fancy themselves as so much more these days. They’re quickly becoming the world’s team in the NBA, having played preseason games in China this season, after conducting a basketball clinic in Russia, home of their billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Now they’re just hours away from making history as part of the first NBA regular season games to be played on soil outside of North America, tonight and Saturday here at London’s O2 Arena.
They’ve seen the Kremlin, the Great Wall and now Buckingham Palace all before St. Patrick’s Day, cementing the Nets as true citizens of the world.
“Hey, we’re a global team,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said. “And I don’t think it’s the last time [you’ll see us do this]. But Prokhorov has added that dynamic to our franchise. It was great to go to Russia and spend some time with him. It was great to go to China and play two preseason games and give back to that community. And now here we are in London, pretty much with the same game plan. This is where we are right now and there is really nothing to complain about. [NBA Commissioner] David Stern had this vision a long time ago and now to see it happening is great for our fans, especially for our fans abroad.”
Their counterparts staring back at them in this historical contest?
The Toronto Raptors, who truly embody the spirit of the league’s Basketball Without Borders mantra, boasting six players on their roster that hail from foreign lands. Raptors coach Jay Triano participated in BWB Africa last summer in Dakar, Senegal.
“I’m not sure you could have picked two better teams to represent the league when you look at it from that standpoint,” said Raptors’ big man Solomon Alabi. A native of Nigeria, Alabi is one of three Raptors to participate in the Basketball Without Borders program before joining the league as players. Andrea Bargnani (Italy) and Alexis Ajinca (France) are the others.
Alabi said meeting Dikembe Mutombo, Steve Nash, Malik Rose and other league ambassadors in South Africa as a 16-year-old changed his life. Before then the NBA was just a dream. Being able to reach out and touch those players and the game at such an impressionable time made his dream seem like a real possibility.
“I was lucky enough to come to the states and play high school basketball,” Alabi said moments after the Nets and Raptors finished working with local kids after practice for a NBA Cares clinic. “The special thing for me is that Dikembe and the other people I met then remembered me. I was just like these kids that were just out here. Their words and encouragement meant everything to me. It’s a dream come true to me. It’s a great thing to be here right now, because this is proof that the game is getting bigger and people all over the world understand that.”
It won’t hit some of these players until they hit the floor of the arena tonight and see the fans in the stands, screaming and cheering the same way they do in Boston, Dallas, Miami, Chicago and Salt Lake City.
And that’s fine.
For guys that grew up watching the league from afar, the way Alabi, Bargnani and Ajinca did, watching the reactions of their teammates will be as much fun as watching the reaction of those fans that turn out for the games.
“You can’t appreciate what this means to these fans here if you’ve never been on their side,” Ajinca. “It’s a completely different experience when you are watching those games and can’t reach out and touch the guys playing. For at least this weekend, these fans will be able to see [us] up close. That’s a big deal wherever it happened.”
Times certainly have changed since Johnson broke into the league as a player, some 20 years ago, when a preseason trip to Mexico City was considered spreading the game around the globe.
“We were flying coach and getting $20 a day per diem and I was happy. When I got upgraded to first class, man, I thought that was the best thing in the world,” he said. “So, it’s a different world now: private planes, playing games internationally. “We played in Mexico City and I thought that was a big thing. Now to be playing games in Russia and China and now here in London — it’s pretty good. And we’ve had other NBA teams that have had training camps and preseason games in Paris and in Italy, so I think it’s great.
“For us, we like London. If you talk to a lot of the guys, if we had to play somewhere they don’t mind playing here in London. And it’s tough, because we’re losing two home games. It’s not easy losing home games. But we’re gaining fans,” Johnson continued. “And you’re going to see this happening more and more, especially with our team, with the presence of our owner. This is a really great city to be in. I’ve been here before. This is a NBA-type arena. And obviously, with the Olympics coming here in 2012, I think this is a great precursor for what’s to come.”