By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Aug 9 2010 11:26AM - Updated Aug 10 2010 6:40AM
The NBA is breaking new ground by going across the pond. Monday's announcement of two regular-season games in London is a first for a league with a long history of taking its teams outside of North America, while also continuing the buildup to the next Olympics.
New Jersey and Toronto are taking part in the first games in Europe during the season, March 4-5 at London's O2 Arena. The landmark games are part of a growing initiative throughout the United Kingdom to promote the sport of basketball.
"I believe that that is a very important lead in to the 2012 Olympics, because in Beijing, basketball was the hottest ticket," NBA commissioner David Stern said in a conference call Monday. "We don't necessarily expect that to be the case in London, although if things break right with respect to Team Great Britain, I think that there's a good possibility that basketball will assume a role that folks in the United Kingdom might never have anticipated.
"So we are very excited about that and we see this as sort of a multi step process, a development of Team GB, the friendlies this autumn and the regular season games in March. We want as much as possible to demonstrate the power and fun of this sport of ours."
The New Jersey and Toronto franchises have their share of international flare, and showed Stern a great willingness to take part in the NBA's continued global push. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov owns the Nets and Toronto's roster features several Europeans.
Raptors center Andrea Bargnani was the first European No. 1 overall in pick in 2006. Stern pointed out the players from both sides could be representing France (Johan Petro), Italy (Bargnani & Marco Belinelli), Spain (Jose Calderon), Brazil (Leandro Barbosa) and Lithuania (Linas Kleiza) in the 2012 Games. New Jersey is also part of the NBA China Games this October.
"I am very happy that the Nets are participating as the home team in the NBA's first international regular season games in Europe," Prokhorov said. "Along with our preseason games in China in October, the games to be played in London next March demonstrate my commitment to bringing the NBA experience to international fans and making the Nets the first global team in the NBA. I thank the NBA for organizing these games."
Selecting the Nets and Raptors made sense for both the league and the teams.
"The Raptors stepped up and said because they are very much an internationally focused team, they would like to be considered," Stern said. "And Mr. Prokhorov, when he bought the team, made it clear he would like very much to travel.
"Some teams are more anxious to travel than others or rather some teams are more opposed to travel than others, and so we had these two teams and it seemed like a good idea."
Also significant is the timing, with the games scheduled after the All-Star break. The games between these Atlantic Division foes mark the latest point in the season for internationally-hosted games. The league has opened the season in Japan several times and played in Mexico City in December 1997.
Stern said the dates were chosen with respect to the preseason schedule of international games and travel. With the Nets playing in China in October, opening the season abroad didn't seem "fair" from a travel standpoint, Stern said. The playoffs begin in April.
Stern and the league hopes to stage future regular-season games in international cities, perhaps even on an annual basis, but haven't committed to dates or locations. As for a long-rumored NBA European division, Stern reiterated that he doesn't see that happening anytime soon.
The NBA has taken a keen interest in promoting the growth of basketball in the U.K. According to the league, participation in the sport has doubled over the last four years. The NBA also operates an office in London to bring the league closer to its European fan base.
"Europe is, for us, second to China as a potential revenue source, and we shall continue to develop in Europe," Stern said. "We have a presence in large European cities and we are going to keep working there with respect to all of the things we do, which is clinics and grass roots events, marketing and marketing partnerships, global merchandising, and television and Internet arrangements.
"So we view Europe as a particularly fertile place, and we think that we are particularly under developed in Eastern Europe, as well, and that's something we'll have something to say about in the next several months, as well."
The league has held 13 regular-season games in Japan and Mexico since 1990.The Nets are making their second trip to London, having played Miami in 2008 as part of NBA Europe Live. Toronto is headed to the U.K. for the first time.
Four NBA Europe Live games have sold out in London, including an upcoming preseason contest between the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota. The league staged its first game in London in 2007.
Twenty-four teams will have played 56 games in 18 cities in Europe since 1988 with the conclusion of NBA Games -- London 2011. The league played its first regular-season games outside of North America between Phoenix and Utah in Tokyo in 1990.
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