The NBA's plan to have teams in Europe has faltered in recent years, but the league still believes it can happen someday. In the meantime, there is building to do, and that includes everything from arenas to fan bases.
The next phase comes today and tomorrow, when the New Jersey Nets and the Toronto Raptors the play league's first regular-season games in Europe.
"We think it's the perfect time and bringing regular-season games to Europe is really the next step in the development of our fan base," Heidi Ueberroth, the NBA international president, said.
The Nets and Raptors will play games today and tomorrow at London's O2 arena, where the league has previously staged exhibition games. Ueberroth said the game tomorrow was already sold out and expected the opener to be played before a full house.
There have been exhibition games throughout Europe in recent years, and those will continue. But with London set to host the Olympics next summer, the NBA decided it was time to play some games that count.
"Pre-season games are very successful, we'll continue to look at those," Ueberroth said. "But we saw an opportunity here and we've got two teams that are very interested in coming here and playing games. It really seems like a natural development and the right thing to do at this time."
Though New Jersey and Toronto would have trouble filling an arena in North America, it is a good matchup for Europe. The Raptors have six international players while the Nets, now owned by Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire, have shown a willingness to travel in his quest to build a global fan base, and New Jersey has a rare buzz after the surprise trade for Deron Williams, the All-Star point guard, last week.
Along with the games, the league is hosting various clinics, competitions and other fan events throughout the week as it tries to figure out exactly how much passion there is for the NBA in Britain.
The NBA announced this week that there would be NBA, WNBA and US men's and women's Olympic exhibition play in Manchester, England, over the next two years.
David Stern, the NBA commissioner, has said he does not believe the buzz in London can match Beijing, where basketball was perhaps the most popular sport at the Olympics.
Before the Games most of the top American players took at least one promotional trip to China, where the NBA has estimated some 300 million people play basketball.
Football is king in Britain, where there is such a question about the enthusiasm for basketball that the International Olympic Committee has not even decided yet if it should award the traditional automatic bid into the Games to the host country's team. The NBA is hoping it will, with a decision coming soon, and Ueberroth said the league is working with the local governing body during this week's festivities.
"Basketball's in a different level and stage of its development in the UK and China, but what the Olympics will do is it will certainly put basketball further on the sporting map here in the UK," Ueberroth said.
"And I'd say regardless of location, basketball is always one of the hottest tickets in the Olympics and so we think it's a great showcase to have the men's and women's competitions here."
London's O2 arena is scheduled to host the semi-finals and finals of the Olympic tournament.
It is regarded as one of the few NBA-ready arenas in Europe, which has been one of the greatest obstacles to any expansion plan. There has to be enough teams so that clubs can go there for an actual road trip, where they would play a few games before returning to North America. There still are not enough buildings to house those teams, and the state of the worldwide economy probably slowed any hopes of any more being constructed.
So the NBA is doing what it can for now, opening offices in major markets throughout Europe to expand its presence on the continent. Ueberroth has a staff in 17 offices worldwide.
"To get to a point where we have franchises, we have to have all of the things add up, including the arenas," Ueberroth said. "For us, it has to be a series of steps, including fan affinity."
The NBA has staged 51 preseason games in 18 European cities. When the NFL and NHL recently started playing regular-season games there, Stern said that would be no great achievement for his league, noting it played games in the regular season in Japan all the way back in 1991.
* Associated Press