Fans in Europe tune in for NBA action

LONDON -- If you were an NBA fan growing up in Italy a quarter of a century ago, you had to wait until the game tapes were flown in from New York before you could watch Larry Bird and Magic Johnson battling it out in postseason play.

Today, millions of basketball fans across Europe have a wide range of ways in which they can watch their heroes and favorite teams competing live at the business end of the season -- even if there is always the curse of time difference to overcome.

But, however difficult it is for the Euro fan to keep track of the NBA playoffs in 2007, technology has certainly come a long way since the early 1980s when Larry Legend and Magic started nudging the league toward becoming the mass global phenomenon it is today.

"In those days, there was a young TV executive called Andrea Bassani, who is now the TV director for Euroleague," recalls Terry Lyons, the NBA's vice president of international communications and a league employee for the last 26 years.

"His father was a pilot for TWA so Andrea had flight privileges which meant he was able to fly across the Atlantic, come to our office in New York, grab a few tapes and fly back to Italy where they would air them the next night. That was our first international TV deal and it is fair to say technology has advanced since then!"

Whether young fans in Madrid cheer for Jose Calderon from a late-night tapas bar, supporters in Munich shout for Dirk Nowitzki in a bierkeller or Parisiens sit at a sidewalk cafe and watch Tony Parker and the Spurs, the NBA playoffs are now an established part of the worldwide sporting calendar.

The nature of the league means overseas interest is also an ever-evolving and changing entity. Great Britain has never been considered a hoops hotbed, but generations of basketball fans who were attracted to the sport by Michael Jordan and his glory years with the Chicago Bulls have this week been able to watch two players who could star for the British team at the 2012 London Olympics -- Luol Deng and Ben Gordon -- dismantle the defending champion Miami Heat.

During the early evening on Sunday, the Sports Cafe in central London was packed with basketball fans, including many expatriate Americans, who were glued to the Bulls' Game 4 victory over the Heat.

"I remember sitting my 'A' levels [the equivalent of the SAT] when Michael and the Bulls were in the middle of their second three-peat," says Greg Tanner, a freelance TV producer and presenter who is active in the London basketball community that produced Deng.

"My friends and I would stay up until 4 a.m. watching the Finals, then go straight to the court to play because we were so inspired. Then, I would be going to school and sitting exams not having slept all night because I'd been watching Michael!"

Tanner has known Deng, who returns to London every summer and revisits his old hoops haunts, since he was 14. So, rooting for the Bulls was an easy decision to make even without his old allegiance to Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. But European fans' allegiances are not always as simple as a nation following its favorite son en masse.

"Fans in Europe are watching a lot more basketball now and so they are better educated," says Rich Sheubrooks, who combines his duties as Nike global basketball consultant with those of global scouting director for the Memphis Grizzlies from his base in Barcelona.

"We saw when the Sixers were in Barcelona last preseason that Allen Iverson is huge here. Kobe and Shaq, Vince Carter, they're all popular. It's not as simple as everyone in France follows Tony Parker and the Spurs, everyone in Russia follows [Andrei] Kirilenko and the Jazz; fans are more knowledgeable. The kid in Spain might watch a Raptors game because Calderon is playing, but Tony Parker might have a great night and they'll start rooting for him.

"Still, all these guys are favorite sons to some extent. Manu Ginobili has been named sportsman of the year in Argentina, which was the first time a basketball player won the award, same thing for Pau Gasol in Spain, for Dirk Nowitzki in Germany."

Fame, of course, can have its flip side. Observers note that Tony Parker's crossover into mainstream pop culture -- his engagement to actress Eva Longoria, his rap album -- has led to something of a backlash against the San Antonio Spurs' star at home, with some French fans believing he has "gone Hollywood" and let his focus on basketball slip.

The far less high-profile Boris Diaw, and his exciting Phoenix Suns team, are attracting more and more French fans, possibly at the expense of Tee-Pee and the Spurs.

But that validates Sheubrook's point about the more knowledgeable European fan. Just like his or her American counterpart, the European fan may be just as interested in following an attractive team or flamboyant player as he or she is in rooting for someone simply because of a hometown connection.

"It's no different to the States," says Sheubrooks. "European fans love a team like the Suns, or a player like Kobe, and will stay up to watch their games. But if Detroit get to the Finals, I'm not sure how many people across Europe will be setting their alarms to get up and watch their games in the early hours."

Choosing a team and player to follow is only half the battle for the Euro fan, of course. The really tricky part comes in actually watching them play, especially at this time of year with every game so vital.

Tanner now organizes parties at his house for a group of like-minded friends after an unpleasant experience at the Sports Cafe in the 2001 Finals when the British licensing laws demanded that the bar close before the end of a Finals game.

A midnight finish on America's East Coast is 5 a.m. in London and 6 a.m. in most other parts of Europe, meaning watching a seven-game NBA Finals series live, in real time, is for the total fanatic … or the insomniac.

"I remember when I had an interview at Giessen in Germany," says Great Britain national team coach Chris Finch, an American, who coached the German club three years ago. "I couldn't sleep and got up at six in the morning just as Dirk and the Mavs were finishing the last three minutes of a playoff game. It was pretty surreal to me at the time and just showed that they'll show Dirk at any time of the day or night."

Finch now coaches the Belgian club Bree, in addition to his British national team duties, and notes another important source of news and information for the Euro basketball junkie. "There are a lot of U.S. military personnel in this part of Europe so Armed Forces Radio is big here," adds Finch.

"And the other thing I noticed about the NBA in Europe is that, in many countries, they only show one live game a week so that becomes all-important; it has an NFL Sunday feel to it. Guys will come up to me and say, 'Wow, did you see that game last night?' But to me, I'm an 82 game-a-season guy; that one game can be pretty meaningless."

The "sports bar" culture, while big in Britain, is not as firmly established as it is in the States and, across the rest of Europe, is even less prominent. And, when the time difference is factored in, Sunday evenings are one of the few times that public bars and cafes are likely to screen live playoff games in Europe.

More often, the playoffs are followed by small groups of die-hard fans who gather at a house to crowd around a television set, or who wait for the tape-delayed rerun the following morning. There are also the fans at home who log on to ESPN.com to read the play-by-play and then launch the video player to grab a look at a few key highlights.

Savvy fans can even scour offbeat cable and satellite packages in the hope of tapping into a French or German station that will expand their game options.

But, perhaps the most exciting element in the globalization process that started with a few ad hoc transatlantic flights to Italy is, who knows where it might all end?

"The Internet changed everything in the mid-1990s," says the NBA's Lyons. "Fans that weren't able to watch full games could enjoy up-to-the-second reporting, click on box scores instantly and download highlights on NBA.com. That's certainly helped fans follow the game.

"No matter what time you start a game, you're always going to inconvenience someone, somewhere. But the issue is, with TiVo and digital recording, how can fans get the best access to games? You look at almost every step of technology along the way -- whether it was flying tapes across the ocean to Italy in the 80s to satellite delivery and digital technology today -- the NBA has been at the forefront."

Ian Whittell covers the NBA for The (London) Times.