As show time drew nearer, I had no idea what to expect from my first experience of watching professional basketball. In the UK, the sport is a long way down the pecking order. Its top domestic league, the British Basketball League, receives fairly sparse coverage and draws in small crowds compared to its football and rugby equivalents.
Despite having some games streamed on the BBC Sport website, the division still has massive steps to take if it wants to be a major name in the sporting landscape of this country.
My own exposure to the game had come through fleeting snatches of Olympic competition on TV and the less salubrious surroundings of City of London School’s sports hall, where my coordination and speed was certainly found wanting in PE lessons.
The game I had come to see was London Lions v Leicester Riders. Much like their city’s football team last year, the Riders were top of the tree at the conclusion of the regular season. However, unlike their counterparts, they still had play-offs to negotiate (similarly to rugby union’s Aviva Premiership) if they were to be crowned champions. This encounter was the first of two legs which would determine who would make the final to face either the Newcastle Eagles or Worcester Wolves at the O2.
The Copper Box Arena stands in the shadow of the London Stadium, where West Ham and Tottenham were doing battle in the lucrative Premier League. The former venue and the British Basketball League make up a far more modest package, but comparing the two franchises is hardly fair.
It was fairly obvious as I meandered my way to Stratford that the vast majority of those heading in my direction were going to watch the Hammers, but thankfully there were still a few thousand who had decided that the basketball was the better option.
Once inside, those with media passes could make their way down courtside. However, the lack of media seating presented a problem, so I decided to place myself in a section of seating that was not occupied by the crowd, in line with one of the baskets.
It soon became clear that the environment was far less hostile than during the build-up to a football match. Even though there was a lot at stake, there was no chance of anyone kicking off or lobbing coins at the visiting contingent, which was probably the case at the other big sporting event going on in E20 at that time.
There was applause for visiting coach Rob Paternostro as he was announced as the league’s best coach for the season. However, the ovation was certainly more muted when his charges entered the court, with attention turning to the task in hand.
The PA announcer, who also happened to be the club’s chief executive, Vince Macaulay, succeeded in geeing up the crowd during the warm-up. The cheerleaders for the Lions were already assembled on court, with the players snaking their way through to loud cheers, the substitutes receiving just as big a roar as those starting.
Then, out of the blue, a gospel rendition of the national anthem was belted out. Craven Cottage this was not.
After the all the hubbub, the tip-off was almost upon us, with the Lions mascot (a lion, funnily enough) patrolling the perimeter of the court to engage the team’s younger fans.
As the match began, it was clear that Macaulay was much more than the club’s figurehead and his charisma greatly endeared himself to the crowd. The opening stages were incredibly to-and-fro, with both teams taking their chances. Slam dunks drew the biggest gasps and the first of those was put away by the Lions to level the scores at 5-5. At 10-10 Macaulay growled “have some of that!” as the hosts netted their second three-pointer of the contest. It was clear that he would not remain impartial.
One of the Lions substitutes did his best to try and involve the crowd, stamping his feet and throwing sweets in their direction. However, things were threatening to turn sour for his team-mate, with the Riders flying into a 19-12 lead and demonstrating why they were such a fearsome force during the campaign.
Whenever a free-throw attempt was converted, there was a gameshow-style noise which could have been plucked from Pointless, while other interesting references include Woody Woodpecker, the “puppy power!” rallying call from Scooby-Doo and an alien-like zap which could have the beginning of “I’m Blue (Da Ba Dee)”. Macaulay was also back at it, booming “hand in the cookie jar from Conner Washington …. Digestive” as the Leicester man was unable to put away his free-throw.
Basketball clearly appeals to a younger demographic, with groups of teenagers and twenty-somethings standing out in the arena. At a time when people lament the cost of a football ticket, attending a basketball match seems a viable alternative, with tickets as cheap as £7 in advance for kids and just £10 on the door, with the most expensive adult ticket being £22. Family tickets ranged from £35 to £60. The relaxed atmosphere was also a strong point, with spectators allowed to bring food and drink to their seat, although there was not too much of the latter. The engagement with the crowd and the regular use of tunes during breaks in play mirrored Davis Cup tennis and T20 cricket.
Leicester seemed to be pulling away, but this did not dampen Macaulay’s sprits, as he responded to one of the Leicester being penalised with “if you’re going to travel, you’re going to need an Oyster card”. Tempers began to fray for the first time midway through the second quarter and it became clear why there were three match officials.
The refs rotated anti-clockwise seamlessly and although I initially thought that having three seemed excessive, the thicket of long limbs meant that the ball was often obscured, so it was advantageous to have more than one view of a specific incident.
One of the features of the sport was the way that points were scored extremely regularly, with no time to draw breath, aided by the use of rolling subs. It was no less true in this encounter and while the Lions were seven points down at the halfway mark, the first leg was by no means beyond them.
The interval saw the crowd entertained, as several kids had to make a free throw as part of a competition to get tickets for the BBL Final. These children were, on the whole, extremely diminutive in stature, so I arrogantly assumed they had no chance. After many wayward attempts, Summer made me eat my words with a perfectly-executed effort. No-one managed to replicate her feat, so she scooped the prize.
“All The Way Up” was blaring out of the speakers, but unfortunately the same could not be said for the Lions, as the Riders still had their noses in front and underlined their championship-winning credentials. Tempers did flare at one stage – the three officials were useful once more – and there was a bit of ‘rutting stags’. Macaulay’s one-liners continued to amuse, as he gently mocked Brandon Clarke with the line by saying, “Hand in the cookie jar, Oreos for you.”
Despite the Lions being thwarted in their attempts to get ahead, they were chipping away at the Riders’ advantage. Having been down 47-40 coming into the quarter, an emphatic three-pointer for the home side meant that they were just two points away from drawing level. Cries of “defense!” reverberated around the arena as the Lions looked to ride the wave of positivity. The importance of the rest of the game was now ramped up – the encounter could go either way. This significance was reflected in the angry reactions of the players following a decision that they felt should have gone their way.
Going into the final quarter, it seemed that the Lions were going to be frustrated, and so it proved. This did nothing to dampen Macauley’s spirits as he admonished Brandon Clarke once more, comparing his footwork to that seen on Strictly Come Dancing. The Lions were six points adrift of their opponents and while they followed this with another shot from outside the three-point arc, their Achilles’ heel in this fixture was being able to capitalise on that conversion. Cries of “Lions” rained down from the stands, as the home support desperately tried to rally the troops. Their partisan backing extended to booing Leicester’s Eric Robertson as he stepped up to take a free-throw.
As the pressure increased, it was the Riders who stood up to the task. The game had become very stretched and there were definitely some tired bodies out there, but it was only the visitors who were able to take their chances in an end-to-end denouement. The final score was 90-71 to the Riders, a healthy lead to take into the second leg.
The Lions were understandably dejected, but they showed their professionalism by posing with fans at the end of the game, while also shaking hands with those who had hospitality seats. Children flooded onto the court, revelling in the opportunity to occupy the space recently vacated by their heroes.
In the end, it was not be for London’s only professional basketball team, as they were defeated in the return leg 72-55 in the East Midlands. Nevertheless, their season was a successful one, as they made an improvement on their quarter-final finish in 2015/16. Coming away from the match, I got the impression that this was a club very much in touch with its fans and had aspirations to pick up silverware in the not-too-distant future. Watch this space.