LONDON — Great Britain bagging another gold medal is no longer news. But Great Britain winning a basketball game is.
This island isn’t exactly Hoop Heaven. Half the people here are more familiar with netball than basketball. If basketball is your game, this isn’t exactly the easiest place in the world to ply your trade.
“We used to look for an hour just to find a gym and get up 50 shots,” recalled Luol Deng, the Chicago Bulls’ All-Star who risked censure from his team in order to represent his country in these Games. “And then they’d kick us out for badminton.”
So it was with great pride and relief that Deng and his mates got off the schneid in their final game in the tournament, defeating China, 90-58, and thus enabling a gleeful PA man to inform the happy crowd that “this is Great Britain’s first win in Olympic basketball competition since 1948.”
All right, already. This was a battle of bottom feeders, each team entering the game with an 0-4 record in group play. Their Olympic experiences were both going to end with the final buzzer. But I think it’s safe to say that while China surely wanted to win, England truly needed to win.
The lack of success here notwithstanding, basketball has become enormously popular in China. Call it the Yao Effect, if you will, but it’s very real. The NBA has a real presence in China.
Not here. Basketball has a minimal presence. There is a professional league, but good luck trying to find anything about it in any of London’s approximately 111 daily newspapers. In the British Isles, basketball has the cultiest of cult followings.
That’s why the Olympics represented such an opportunity. Just having a team entered — and I’m still somewhat confused if England could be called an “automatic” entry or not — put the sport out there for people to observe. Going winless would not have been a good thing.
And the truth is that during this week of play Great Britain had often been quite competitive, taking Brazil to the final minute (67-62) and extending mighty Spain (79-78). On the flip side, there was that weird game with Australia, when, after leading by 15 points in the second half, they fell apart completely and lost by 31 (106-75).
In their hearts and minds, they knew they could play with these teams (well, most of them, anyway). They just had to prove it.
Things did not start very well. The game wasn’t even a minute and a half old and they were down 7 without the ball. Now every so often a game decided by 32 points really does have a key juncture, and this was it. In this case it was a matter of Nate Reinking coming to the rescue. The 29-year-old veteran of many English hoop battles nailed a pair of threes to jump-start a 27-8 explosion. The Chinese were broken.
It was 46-31 at the half and 72-48 at the end of three. England was playing the complete game they all felt was in them, and the packed house at the Basketball Arena was loving it all.
“We wanted to get it for ourselves and our fans after all the work we put in,” said Reinking, who had announced his retirement from the program before the Olympics had begun and who was tearing up as he addressed the media. “This is all so humbling I want to keep playing. We’re almost there.”
It was also the last game for head coach Chris Finch, an American who has been in charge of the English program for seven years. He would have been devastated had his team not won at least one Olympic game. “I thought it was important for our entire program that we get a win,” he acknowledged. “It’s what we needed, what the local basketball community needed.”
Deng had been the best player on the team throughout the week, as one might have expected, but he did not have to dominate in order for his team to walk off with this overpowering triumph. Scotsman Kieron Achara, who plays in Spain, had a big game with 16 points, 6 rebounds and 2 of his 3 3-pointers as the English were cruising to their halftime lead. Four teammates, none of them named Deng, joined him in double figures. Andrew Lawrence, who plays at the College of Charleston, had six assists. Kyle Johnson, age 24, had three 3-pointers. He plays in Greece.
There surely are some pretty good basketball players here, but they developed their games without much encouragement. The lucky ones, like John Amaechi (Penn State), Robert Archibald (Illinois) or Deng (Duke), migrate to the States. The rest do the best they can.
Basketball’s lack of profile here is frustrating to the ones who love it and who know that it is the second most popular team sport in the world and that many countries on five of the six continents play it very well. But here is Great Britain, officially ranked 43d in the FIBA rankings, just behind Cameroon and just ahead of Portugal.
They were fortunate that Deng’s patriotic juices were flowing freely. The Bulls were not happy that their All-Star forward, who has had trouble with shin splints and who missed considerable time this year with a wrist problem, insisted on playing for this team. “I have no regrets,” Deng said. “If there were another Olympics in the next month, I’d play again. It’s something they’ll never take away from me. I’ll always remember marching in the Opening Ceremonies and playing with these guys, many I’ve known for a long time.”
Deng is ready to preach the hoop gospel here. “I have a belief basketball is going to grow in this country,” he said, “and I’m going to stick to that belief.”
There is no question that just having it here was a huge plus. “I was taking a walk in Olympic Park one day,” Finch said, “and I was amazed so many people knew who I was. That tells you about the exposure.”
They destroyed China and FIBA said China was number 10. Oh dash it, let’s get on with it. This was the greatest day in the history of British basketball, wasn’t it?