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The NBA comes courting in London

A crowd of nearly 19,000 treats the Jazz and Bulls, especially favorite son Luol Deng, like conquering heroes during NBA exhibition game at London's O2 Arena.

October 07, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

LONDON — In arguably the greatest finish to an exhibition game in world history -- taking into account that even conducting such an argument would indicate lunacy or at least acute boredom -- a basketball hovered on a high arc as a rapt crowd inhaled.

Then, as if it mattered, that ball dropped cleanly through the hoop and the O2 Arena roared, especially the Chicago Bulls, who acted like they'd won something with their court-corner love-in of group hugs and gaping grins and slaps of the formidable back of the rookie James Johnson.

"I just tried to let it go as fast as I can," said Johnson, whose lucky rebound of Derrick Byars' long miss and ensuing 10-footer left his hand at somewhere between 0:00.2 and 0:00.1, caused a 102-101 Bulls win over the Utah Jazz and somehow meshed with the unusual evening.

The dreary and pulse-less history of exhibition games seldom finds such commotion.

Through most of the NBA's third annual preseason stopover in East London, the 18,869 fans seemed decidedly un-bored. They delighted in mascot antics as they got a rare dose of the razzmatazz for which Britons tend to commend Americans. They wore the gear of at least 11 different NBA franchises including the front-running purple-and-gold of the Lakers. They watched two of the NBA's rising teams and jeered at a good many of the game's 18 missed free throws (out of 72 attempted).

They applauded the return-to-hometown of Bulls forward Luol Deng, who grew out of South London to American fame while retaining British semi-anonymity as he plays neither soccer nor cricket nor rugby nor tennis nor golf. They applauded when Deng thanked the crowd from the middle of the court just after pregame introductions, and they applauded his game-high 18 points plus some of his game-high five assists before his exit in the third quarter, his fading shin injury still a consideration.

He'd just played his first game in London since playing for some team he can't remember at age 13 before leaving for high school in New Jersey at 14 and, well, "It was amazing," Deng said. "I'm really kind of glad it's over, but it's unbelievable. You know, I'm looking in the stands, and seeing some of the people that helped me to play basketball, and for them to see me in a Bulls jersey. . . ."

Already he'd won pregame praise from Commissioner David Stern as "from central casting" and "a wonderful iconic symbol for the game" given Deng's stirring internationalism, his family having fled the Sudanese civil war to Egypt and then the United Kingdom before he rose through Duke to the NBA.

Stern sat in the stands as did other famed sorts including London soccer bright lights such as Jermain Defoe of Tottenham and Joe Cole of Chelsea, who sat not so far from the front-row boy band that finished runner-up in last year's "X Factor," the British first cousin of "American Idol." Before the game -- and before he made off for Taiwan for a Nuggets-Pacers preseason game -- Stern spoke globally.

Forecasting an NBA regular-season game in London, he said, "It's going to be either 2010 or 2011," doubtless thrilling NBA coaches everywhere. He said the NBA will add to its China office and other international offices with an India office, a Middle East office and an Africa office. He also predicted at least the second round of the playoffs for the Bulls and pronounced himself "fascinated by Utah, which now has four international players."

The Jazz, with Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer and the oncoming rookie Wesley Matthews, looked perfectly promising even in a road game with the crowd Bulls-tilted, and the public address announcer mispronounced Williams' first name only once before correcting nicely.

After the game, Williams said, "I think a lot of people outside the U.S. don't know about the Jazz," so this helped spread Jazz knowledge across oceans.

"You tested the Lakers, didn't you?" a British reporter queried.

"Not really," Williams said. "Not last year."

The Bulls of Deng and Joakim Noah, with Derrick Rose seated with his strained right ankle, got a fine 32 minutes from starting forward Taj Gibson, the rookie from USC who scored 10 points with five rebounds before fouling out. Then two mostly second teams clawed at each other through an unusually intense fourth quarter, of which Deng said, "Both teams played hard for a preseason game."

Finally, in the shockingly frantic final seconds, Johnson, who scored 18 points, came upon a true oddity, an exhibition moment he'll never forget. Off U.S. soil for the first time in his 22-year life, having reveled in seeing "the soldiers with the red coats on, things like that" while in London, the Wake Forest product found the whole thing "exciting for me" even as he carted around a pink Dora the Explorer backpack.

"It's my rookie duty," he said.


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