MANCHESTER, England — The question would be almost unimaginable in the United States.
“Who’s No. 6?” a reporter asked a U.S. official.
Yes, even LeBron James isn’t recognized everywhere in Britain, where soccer is king and basketball is hardly an afterthought.
That will change at least briefly Thursday, with James and the U.S. Olympic team bringing it some rare attention with a game against Britain.
It’s only an exhibition, so the result doesn’t matter. But the event does, to those who want to see basketball gain a place in Britain’s sports culture.
“This is a massive opportunity for British basketball to get some oxygen, to breathe life into the sport in this country,” said Chris Mitchell, who calls Britain’s games for BBC Radio. “Team USA being here is arguably the biggest-ever game this country has hosted. It’s arguably bigger than any game they’ll play at the Olympics, because they’ll only face USA if they get through their group and perhaps meet them in the quarterfinals. So this, this week, it’s almost the climax to the history of British basketball. It’s huge.”
Manchester Arena is expected to be full, many fans familiar with Kobe Bryant but with no clue how to pronounce the name of U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski. It probably won’t be very competitive, but it will give the Americans the opportunity to play in front of the opponent’s fans for the first time during their preparations for the London Olympics.
“They will represent their country, they will cheer on their team and hopefully we can just play well in front of them,” James said.
The Americans met the media Wednesday before practicing at the arena, getting occasional questions about the X’s and O’s of basketball and the people who play it: James asked about injured teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler about the departed Jeremy Lin.
And this being soccer country, of course there was that. Bryant is the most popular NBA player outside the United States, but far from the most famous athlete in Los Angeles for the British.
So what about David Beckham not making the host’s Olympic soccer roster, Kobe?
“I would love to have seen him have some type role on the team,” said Bryant, a soccer fan who lived outside the United States as a child. “Just his leadership and his intelligence could have helped the team out.”
Basketball has such little presence in Britain that FIBA, the sport’s governing body, didn’t immediately award the hosts the traditional automatic bid into the Olympic tournament. It wanted to be certain that there would be a legacy beyond the London Games, that support for the home team’s program would spark interest in watching, playing and following the sport.
FIBA was eventually convinced, helped by the British performing respectably last year at the European Championship. NBA All-Star Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls is the team’s leader, and Joel Freeland has signed with the Portland Trail Blazers. (Charlotte’s Ben Gordon, born in England before moving to New York, was expected to be on the roster but passed on playing.)
That’s probably not enough to challenge the United States, which will be looking for a strong performance after having a tough time with Brazil in an 80-69 victory Monday night in Washington.
“I think this will be tougher than most people expect because it’s their country. They’re playing here,” Krzyzewski said. “Luol, I know Luol, I coached him. They’ll play real hard. They can shoot the ball, and they play a little bit unconventional in that actually their two bigs I think are their best shooters, and so they’ll spread you out. So it’ll be a different type of game for us to defend, different type of team.”
The Americans don’t garner the same attention here as they did four years ago in China, where basketball is massively popular. But their visit gives a sorely needed boost to the Brits who want to see the sport matter at home. Mitchell has been covering basketball for more than a decade, calling it a “niche” sport which sometimes draws only a few hundred fans and no press to its domestic league games.
“Basketball is an unknown quantity in this country,” he said. “People don’t understand it. They don’t know the rules. They don’t read about it in the newspapers because it’s not in the newspapers, it’s not on the news. It’s not part of our social fabric if you’d like, like it is in the States.”
The Americans are glad to do their part. They’ll see a more traditional basketball atmosphere in a few days, when they face Argentina and Spain in Barcelona.
For now, they’re trying to help create one.
“We’re happy to be in England, in Great Britain, and you start getting even more of a flavor for the Olympics,” Krzyzewski said, “and we’re anxious to play Great Britain tomorrow night.”