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Taking In The Raptors From London

Natasha Alibhai - Special to Raptors.com
March 7, 2011

Natasha Alibhai is a long time Raptors fan who made the trip to London to represent #RTZ (For the fans, by the fans.) You can find her on Twitter @Nat77, as well as by following the social media initiative @RTZfans that she has been working on this season with the Raptors.

When the Raptors schedule came out last summer, I circled this trip on my calendar. Not too often does one get a chance to be a part of history and with the help of Air Miles and a place to crash in London the trip became a reality.

I got in a day before the games hoping to see the hype built up around the event but to my disappointment, the only person I spoke to who was aware of the NBA in London was the immigration officer. No signage at the airport like one would see at All-Star weekend, no ads on the subway. I was getting a little worried that London was not as ready for basketball as I hoped.

More Photos from the NBA games in London -- http://is.gd/mcJ9I7

That all changed come game day as I made my way to the arena hours before tip-off to get a chance to speak to fans who were planning to attend the games. The O2 and everything leading to it from the tube station was plastered with posters of the NBA. There was a definite buzz with fans from all over Europe flooding in to get a rare opportunity to watch an NBA game that mattered.

Walking up to the arena, there was a wall of posters where fans could pose next to the true to scale images of their favorite players. Inside the concourse area, there was a pop-up NBA store set up where fans could purchase a jersey of their favourite player -- unless he happened to play for the Raptors or Nets. Yes. The only Raptors/Nets item you could buy was a generic t-shirt with the team logo. Seemed a little strange since new fans would only know the people they saw in action over the weekend.

I set up inside to talk to fans about what they were looking forward to this weekend and it didn’t take long to figure out that the majority were here for the Raptors even though these were billed as home games for the Nets. Not surprisingly, the most popular player fans were hoping to catch was Jose Calderon. A little surprising were the number of fans donning Jorge Garbajosa jerseys. There was also a ton of people who were here for the entertainment having never been exposed to the game at all.

Check out this video of fans at the game who stopped by to talk to me about the weekend -- http://youtu.be/yVDPq-G0YWA

Gates opened an hour and a half prior to tip and on both nights the sold out crowd waited anxiously to get in. Once inside, the experience felt similar to going to ACC. Lineups at the concession stands, video game pods and a hype crew to get the fans excited. I settled into my seat and began to notice a common theme. Lots of younger fans had convinced their parents to bring them out, and were now explaining the rules and premise of the game.

Once the ball was tipped, it was the typical NBA we know and love. Sure the fans didn’t know when to cheer or when to boo but they were engrossed. More popular than the game itself had to be the Raptors mascot. He drew the loudest cheers as he spent both games entertaining fans both young and old. The Nets had their dancers at the game and they too put on a show for the fans in attendance. Game 1 was over before you knew it but Game 2 was the real treat. A triple overtime thriller which had everyone on their feet for the last 10 minutes. It was the NBA at its best even if the two teams going at it were not going to be playing in May.

Over the course of the weekend, fans in London were introduced to what I believe is the best game in the world. They embraced it as they watched DeMar fly through the air for a thunderous slam and Andrea step back to hit that smooth jumper. They even broke out into a mini “Let’s Go Raptors” chant that made me feel warm inside. Is London ready for the NBA to expand over here? I am not so sure. But hold an event like this in a few cities across Europe over the next few seasons and maybe we can revisit that question.