MANCHESTER, England The question almost would be unimaginable in the United States.
Whos No. 6? a reporter asked a U.S. official.
Yes, even LeBron James isnt recognized everywhere in Britain, where soccer is king, and basketball hardly is an afterthought.
That will change at least briefly today, with James and the U.S. Olympic team bringing it some rare attention with a game against Britain.
Its only an exhibition, so the result doesnt matter. But the event does, to those who want to see basketball gain a place in Britains 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 Britains games for BBC Radio. Team USA being here is arguably the biggest-ever game this country has hosted. Its arguably bigger than any game theyll play at the Olympics because theyll only face USA if they get through their group and perhaps meet them in the quarterfinals. So this, this week, its almost the climax to the history of British basketball. Its 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 wont be very competitive, but it will give the Americans the opportunity to play in front of the opponents 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 Xs and Os of basketball and the people who play it: James was asked about injured teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler about departed one Jeremy Lin.
And this being soccer country, of course there was that. Bryant is the most popular NBA player outside the U.S. but far from the most famous athlete in Los Angeles for the British.
So what about David Beckham not making the hosts Olympic soccer roster, Kobe?
I would love to have seen him have some type of role on the team, said Bryant, a soccer fan who lived outside the U.S. 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 sports governing body, didnt immediately award the hosts the traditional automatic bid into the Olympic tournament. It wanted to be certain there would be a legacy beyond the London Games, that support for the home teams program would spark interest in watching, playing and following the sport.
FIBA eventually was convinced, helped by the British performing respectably last year at the European Championship. NBA All-Star Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls is the teams leader, and Joel Freeland has signed with the Portland Trail Blazers. (Charlottes Ben Gordon, born in England before moving to New York, was expected to be on the roster but passed on playing).
Thats probably not enough to challenge the U.S., 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 its their country. Theyre playing here, Krzyzewski said. Luol, I know Luol, I coached him. Theyll 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 theyll spread you out. So itll be a different type of game for us to defend, different type of team.
The Americans dont 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 that 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 dont understand it. They dont know the rules. They dont read about it in the newspapers because its not in the newspapers; its not on the news. Its not part of our social fabric, if youd like, like it is in the States.
The Americans are glad to do their part. Theyll see a more traditional basketball atmosphere in a few days, when they face Argentina and Spain in Barcelona.
For now, theyre trying to help create one.
Were happy to be in England, in Great Britain, and you start even getting even more of a flavor for the Olympics, and were anxious to play Great Britain (Thursday) night, Krzyzewski said.