LONDON — You know you’re a hit when the coach whose team lost back-to-back regular season games walks out of the building touting how much his team learned from their experience.
What the Nets and Raptors did Saturday night, though, goes above and beyond what anyone expected, even from a celebrated guest like the NBA. Two teams with a combined 35 wins before the night started, played the craziest (in a good way) and best regular season game of this NBA season.
That they did on the back-end of a historic, back-t-back set — the first regular season games played on European soil — only made it that much sweeter for the sellout crowd that piled into the splendid 02 Arena on this magnificent cities’ eastern edge. And yes, that would be the same crowd that rose to its feet in unison and gave both teams a standing ovation before the final 12.6 seconds of the third and final overtime was played.
“Hats off to the NBA … because I think it’s a huge success,” exhausted Nets coach Avery Johnson said of the European experiment. “This is one of the best wins I’ve been a part of … If you look at this crowd, the last two nights, I didn’t see an empty seat in the building. They were into the game and we provided them to two thrilling nights of basketball.”
And fans from all over the continent found their way here for the weekend. I know this because I had the pleasure of shaking hands and taking pictures with many of them before, during and after both games. They came from all over. Sweden, Germany, Holland, France, Spain, Italy and Russia, just to name a few, were all represented. There were men, women and children. Fans of the teams specifically but mostly fans of the NBA game. They wanted to be a part of the experience.
Still, none of us expected to see the triple overtime thriller we all witnessed on this night.
“Hopefully, every time we come through London we’re the home team here,” said Nets power forward Kris Humphries, who showed off with 38 points and 35 rebounds in two games, much to the delight of the crowd. “It feels good. It’s been great here, a great experience. Thanks to all the people that made this happen.”
Johnson’s counterpart, Toronto’s Jay Triano, didn’t spend his time complaining about the things his team did or did not do properly. (There’s plenty of time on Sunday’s flight to watch the film and haggle over those things.) Instead, he talked about how nice it was to see his young players grow up on this most global of stages. He talked about all the lessons they’ll take from their time here, of the unique opportunities this break in the normal NBA travel routine provided his staff to lock in on the team’s needs, and the fact that you don’t get many chances in life to make history.
“This was a great game for our young guys to play in,” Triano said. “Anytime we can put our young players in situations where there is a chance to win a game on the last possession … this is the kind of growth we’re looking for for our young players. “Anytime you play, and the fact that we came over here, is good for our guys. It helps with their mental focus on the game, and we thoroughly enjoyed our trip.”
We all did.
I say we do it all over again next year.
Same teams, same time and everything.
I’ll beg the bosses to clear my schedule now.
In fact, I’ll make sure they speak with the man, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, largely responsible for all that transpired here this weekend.
“I share the NBA vision that globalization is the next step for the growth of the league,” Prokhorov said on a panel discussion before Friday’s game. “So these games in London, it’s a great testimony to show how the sport is going global. We have a U.S. team with a Russian owner, with a French, Dutch and Slovenian player facing the Canadian team with players from Brazil, Spain, Italy and some other countries, and the games are in London.”
Like I said, same teams, same time and everything.
Let’s do this again.