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How NBA became the hottest ticket in town

Friday 18 January 2019 19:03, UK

Tim Hardaway Jr defends Washington Wizards power forward Jeff Green 2:11
Watch highlights of the Washington Wizards 101-100 victory over the New York Knicks at The O2

NBA basketball is the sport of the social media generation, a game full of colour and explosive moments, writes James Dielhenn.

This is the sport with players wearing trainers so hi-tech that they have no laces, and are tightened via an app. They say football and the NFL is America's game but it is basketball, led by the savvy league and brand of the NBA, that is capturing the attention of this generation and those to come.

This is the sport of the social media generation, a game full of colour and explosive moments with just enough time in between to create your Instagram story.

Drake's social media feeds are full of the Toronto Raptors. Celebrities have become like offshoots of their favoured teams, a passion borne authentically which does wonders for circulating the online buzz.

Bradley Beal handles the ball against the Knicks
Image: Bradley Beal came up big for Washington in the fourth quarter

It is rare that the megastar footballers of the Premier League are awe-struck but put them court-side at an NBA game and they behave like selfie-seekers.

What seemed like the entire Arsenal team plus Olivier Giroud, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and goodness knows how many more were at The O2 on Thursday night in London for the 91st NBA game on European soil, to see the Washington Wizards beat the New York Knicks 101-100. The NBA is the place to go, and the place to be seen.

(From left to right) Hector Bellerin, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette in the crowd during the NBA London Game 2019 at the O2 Arena, London
Image: Hector Bellerin, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette were among the Arsenal players in attendance

A full 20 million more people follow the NBA's Instagram than the NFL's. They have 13m more than the Premier League also, but the NBA's social media following hints at a younger demographic of fans than America's other core sports. It is a fan-base that has always existed albeit, for long periods, in the NFL's shadow, but spending time in the bubble that the Knicks and the Wizards created it is clear why their sport can captivate.

The NBA feels accessible - these superstars are so close it seems like you can reach out and (try) to block their free throws. That is literally the case for those in the courtside seats who may regret their purchase if one of these 6ft 8in athletes spins out of control, but for the wider audience, there is something refreshing about NBA and the fun that surrounds it.

New York Knicks' Tim Hardaway Jr (L) takes on Washington Wizards' Otto Porter Jr

Go to most towns in the UK and basketball hoops outnumber tennis courts, golf courses and swimming pools. Basketball has long been the sport played under our noses, without us noticing.

It is the second most-participated-in sport in the UK for people between the ages of 11 and 15, according to British Basketball last year, who saw their funding devastated but their popularity unhurt. At the Knicks and Wizards game, the British public in attendance was represented by all ages and demographics, in a way that not every sport can boast.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek (left) and Ethan Ampadu in the crowd during the NBA London Game 2019 at the O2 Arena, London
Image: Chelsea duo Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ethan Ampadu were happy to pose for pictures with fans

That popularity extends throughout Europe in a way that no other American-based sport does. In action on Thursday for the Knicks and the Wizards were two Frenchmen, a Czech, a Croatian and there would have also been a Turk but for an extraordinary reason.

The Knicks were without Enes Kanter, their center, and an outspoken opponent of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. An international arrest warrant was out for Kanter the day before Thursday's game, according to a Turkish media report. "There's a chance that I can get killed out there," he said before electing not to leave the US.

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Social issues lurk amid the eccentricity of the NBA but its biggest names' handling of such things has won them fans.

LeBron James, the sport's biggest name, has a conscience to match his superstardom.

While the NFL was in the midst of a crisis as players led by Colin Kaepernick defied orders and "took a knee" during the national anthem to protest against social conditions, James' reaction was calm and measured.

"My voice is stronger than my knee."

2:05
Lacazette and Aubameyang were among the star names who stopped to chat with Sky Sports at The O2

He backed Kaepernick's stance but, instead of fanning flames, added dignity to the debate. NBA players across the board listened and responded with decorum.

Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs' coach, took things a step further when he said: "It's easier for white people because we haven't lived that experience. It's difficult for many white people to understand the day-to-day feeling that many black people have to deal with."

The NBA has cemented itself as the sport for America's 'woke' generation.

Knicks and Wizards
Image: Beal took a knock to head early in the game

There are plenty more examples of its personalities eschewing the idea that sportspeople can't have an opinion. It was a shame that the latest, the Knicks' Kanter, couldn't play in London.

But to watch his team-mates in their famous blue and orange was a reminder that the Knicks are a genuine worldwide brand, the team that Joey from Friends introduced to the 90s generation.

The team from Madison Square Garden have fallen on hard times since then and this season is petering out for them - but they hope to lure Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving for next year.

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The Wizards, for their part, were missing their best-known players in John Wall and Dwight Howard but are a sizeable commodity themselves. They had the third highest average salary in the NBA last season, according to Sporting Intelligence, behind Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors.

The same study had the NBA as the highest-paying sports league in the world ahead of the Premier League.

London's first NBA game of 2019, and one of 2,460 games to be played in the league this season, concluded but the Wizards playoff hopes did not, thanks to a dramatic finish.

Thomas Bryant's last-second shot is rejected by Allonzo Trier who is then called for goal-tending to seal a 101-100 victory for the Washington Wizards over the New York Knicks 1:15
Watch the sensational last-second finish as the Wizards beat the Knicks at The O2

Everybody was on their feet, holding their breath for the referee's decision as instant replay decided the result with less than one second remaining.

That final-quarter frenzy when the Wizards took the lead, then lost it then reclaimed it was the type of action that any sports fan could get addicted to.

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