Monthly Archives: October 2009

What we’ve learned from the first week of the NBA season

After just three nights of action, it might be a little too early for experts to draw too many conclusions pertaining to the new NBA season. Fortunately, the Sports Bloke isn’t an expert and is more than happy to pontificate on the games he’s watched so far.

It’s all just a little bit of history repeating Part 1
Anyone under the misapprehension that the addition of Shaquille O’Neal would propel the Cavaliers to that elusive first championship will surely feel chastened after Cleveland, despite two titanic performances from Lebron James, lost their opening two games to Boston and Toronto.
The Cavs were made to look lumbering as they were outfought by the Celtics and outpaced by the Raptors. Their shortlived attempt to evoke the 1986 Houston Rockets’ Twin Towers offence using Shaq and Big Z was truly horrible and quickly ditched. Even worse, in the crucial moments in the Celtics game, “coach” Mike Brown reverted to the “give it to Lebron and stand aside” ploy that drew so much criticism in last season’s playoffs. Despite signing a rash of free agents and hyping their chances for the year, it seems the Cavs have left LBJ bereft of the second and third wheels he so desperately needs.

The wisdom of NBA scouts shines through again
Two words. Dejuan Blair. The Spurs rookie might not have any ACLs but, judging by his double-double against the Hornets (14 points and 11 boards on 7-of-10 shooting), he’s got just about everything else. Conventional scouting wisdom over Blair’s slim chances of a long-term career caused team after team to pass on him in the draft. He slipped down into the second round where he was picked up by the Spurs whose point surely was: even if his career lasts three years, at least we get three years of low cost, high production from the guy so why not sign him? Why not, indeed?

Kevin McHale has the worst posture in television history
International League Pass used TNT’s coverage of opening night which meant viewers from all around the world got to see the ever-excellent banter between EJ, Kenny Smith and Sir Charles at half time and after the games. I was looking forward to this until, inexplicably, TNT returned to the studio for a segment where, rather than being sat behind their desks, the team, replete with new addition Kevin McHale, did a segment where they were standing on the studio floor. Look, I know basketball players are tall, but McHale loomed over Ernie Johnson in a manner akin to Herman Munster. I was glad to see the Celtics legend back behind a desk for Thursday’s coverage.

SVG not impressed by pre-game hoopla
The Orlando Magic were playing there first home game of the season, also their first since becoming Eastern Conference champions. The fans were in fine voice, the players buzzing for their first meaningful action and the PA announcer doing his level best to hype things to the absolute maximum. After introducing Howard, Nelson, Carter and Co, the announcer got to Stan Van Gundy. Cue a close-up of the portly porn star coach looking about as interested as a teenage son being taught how to rewire a plug by his father. C’mon Stan, it’s the first week of the season, stop killing our buzz.

It’s all just a little bit of history repeating Part 2
It may be unfair to draw conclusions after just one game, but the Knicks blowout at the hands of the Miami Heat suggested that Mike (No D’) Antoni has again failed to address the defensive issues that made his team an entertaining liability for the whole of last season. Things didn’t look too bad for two quarters with Jared “Mr Fumbles” Jeffries switching to guard Mario Chalmers. Sadly for the Knicks, the Heat worked out D’Antoni’s scheme after a quarter and a half and, with no Plan B, the Knicks subsided to an all-too-familiar 20 point road defeat.

The return of the Dos Equis advert
Yes, the most interesting man in the world is back, occasionally experiencing moments of self-doubt and living vicariously through himself. I live in the UK and this advert had been sadly missing from my life since the League Pass coverage of the NBA finals. In these five months, I have found out that Dos Equis is available in one place in London (a Mexican restaurant in Covent Garden). For me, the Dos Equis ad is inexorably associated with watching basketball and seeing it again was like meeting up with an old friend. It was the icing on the cake of the end of basketball’s tedious summer drought. Stay thirsty, my friends.

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NBA season on the sofa: opening night live blog

The long wait is finally over, the 2009/10 NBA season is upon us. And if you thought the time difference and having a day job would stop the Sports Bloke from delivering his thoughts on baskteball’s opening night from his London lair, you’d be badly mistaken.

With Lebron, Shaq, KG, Jesus, Paul Pierce, Dirk, Gilbert, Brandon Roy, Boom Dizzle and Kobe and Co all on show, the NBA’s opening night promises much. The only big name absentee will be the Clippers No 1 draft pick Blake Griffin, whose fractured kneecap is likely to keep him off the court for six weeks.

With the clock ticking towards tip-off, it’s time to boot up League Pass and settle in for some high quality hoops. God, I’ve missed the NBA!

11:32pm
League Pass is showing a test card as opposed to player warm-ups. Hmmmmmm

11:36pm
Multi-coloured screen of death is no substitute for hoops. It’s 6-2 Celtics, but I can’t see it.

11:45pm
So, 130 US dollars isn’t enough to persuade the NBA to provide a service that works. Found a less legal stream that works. It’s 19-5 to the Cavs and I have no idea what these Chinese commentators are saying.

11:49pm
League Pass finally trundles into action. We have live and legal hoops but I’ve missed most of the first quarter. 26-17 Cavs. Rasheed Wallace seems to be auditioning for a part in a Kid N Play video with his new haircut.

11:51pm
Enormous block on Rondo by Lebron. That’s his third rejection of the game (as many as the Knicks managed in the whole of last season).

11:58pm
Aside from a smooth Marquis Daniels drive to the hoop, it’s been raining bricks in the final two minutes of the first quarter. Cavs lead 28-21 at the break.

12:01am
Is it me or does Milos in the South West Airlines advert look a lot like Michael Phelps?

12:02am
Woo-hoo! My favourite American advert. I haven’t seen it since the NBA finals. Stay thirsty, my friends!

12:07am
Cavs can’t buy a bucket. And yes, Lebron is on the bench. Haven’t we seen somewhere before? No field goals for five minutes.

12:15am
Sheed drains a rainbow three. 32-32.

12:31am
Humility from Shaq re: not taking LBJ’s spotlight. We’ll see how long that lasts this year. Just ask Penny, Kobe, D-Wade or Nash.

12:38am
Instant replay disallows Lebron’s last basket for a shot clock violation. Are you watching, Bud Selig?

12:41am
Half time. Celts up 51-45. 7 of 9 from three.

12:43am
Away we go in Dallas. No sound – thanks again League Pass. I’m really feeling the value for money right now. Gilbert opens the scoring with two free throws.

12:49am
Looks like Sir Charles has fallen off the diet wagon again. I know how that goes. Still no sound on Wiz vs Mavs. It’s like watching an Oakland Athletics home game.

1:04am
Shaq leathers KG with a hard foul. Lovely reverse from Rondo. 59-47 Celtics.

1:07am
Still trying to recover from Slam’s tweet comparing Kevin McHale to Herman Munster. It’s what we were all thinking.

1:13am
Sloppy play from the Celtics. Cavs get three straight stops. A big Anthony Parker three forces a Doc Rivers time out. Ten point game.

1:14am
Stay thirsty, my friends. Again.

1:19am
Ray Allen takes three and half steps before getting fouled at the rim. The new crackdown on travelling has officially lasted two and a half quarters.

1:29am
Lebron’s heating up now. Gets his fourth block, drains a three then earns an and1 taking it to the hoop. 72-65 Celtics after three quarters.

1:34am
Roadhouse Blues by The Doors. Good work, TNT.

1:42am
Cavs go to their Twin Towers line-up: Shaq and Big Z. 80-71 Celtics.

1:44am
Wizards 10 points up on the Mavs after scoring on 8 straight possessions.

1:52am
Garnett runs the floor, rises up and, erm, blows the dunk. No Boston field goals for almost four minutes. Cavs within five.

1:59am
Just as it seems neither team will ever score again, LBJ ends the collective brick-fest with a glorious three pointer to cu the lead to four. Celtics cold as the worst possible time.

2:03am
With 3:42 left in the game, Shaq gets to the line for the first time. Is this some sort of record?

2:08am
Pierce drains a jumper with 1:08 left – Celts lead by six. Seconds earlier, Rondo performed heroics on the offensive boards but failed to convert.

2:10am
Great replay of Celts GM Danny Ainge calling for the hack-a-Shaq in the final minutes. He is greyer than Desert Orchid.

2:14am
Dagger from Paul Pierce. He did nothing all second half then made two crucial shots in the final minute. Ain’t that The Truth.

2:18am
After a free throw fest in the final seconds, Celtics close out for a 95-89 win. Lebron had 38 but it wasn’t enough. Celts record their first win in Cleveland since 2004. Hold tight for the Lakers ring presentation.

2:25am
Class move from the Lakers. Bringing back legends of the past for the ring ceremony. West, Worthy, Nixon, AC Green and Magic. Big Jack seems to approve.

2.30am
Special congratulations to Marko the Lakers massage therapist. That’s worth a ring is it, mate?

2:32am
Someone should take Adam Morrison’s ring away. It’s not deserved.

2:36am
It’s very rare to see Kobe this happy. He looks in his element, almost bursting with pride.

2:41am
It must kill Charles Barkley to watch Adam Morrison pick up a championship ring.

2:44am
Will the Clippers gatecrash the Lakers’ party or just make up the numbers? I’m leaning towards the latter owing to Mike Dunleavy’s unparalleled ability to demotivate players in any given situation.

2:51am
Blake Griffin in street clothes for six weeks. Will the curse of the Clippers ever cease?

02:56am
Kobe completes an and1 and a sweet fadeaway to hear MVP chants two minutes into the season. I’m guessing that is some sort of record.

2:59am
Ron Artest is sporting a Lakers ‘L’ and other intricate designs on his head. Aside from being called for a soft offensive foul and putting up a rather desperate finger roll, it’s been a quiet start for Ron Ron.

3:06am
Wizards complete a convincing 102-91 win over the Mavericks while Portland are cruising against Houston, leading 46-32 in the second quarter. Andre Miller has stopped sulking long enough to record five assists.

3:08am
Who dresses Craig Sager? Stevie Wonder?

3:22am
Nine turnovers for the Clippers in the first quarter. Great way to start the season. Lakers lead 32-22 after one without really breaking sweat.

3:40am
I’m starting to struggle now – been awake for 22 hours, Anyway, with the Laker starters taking a breather, the Clippers cut the lead to three with an 11-1 run. Kobe’s back on the court unsurprisingly.

3:44am
Another Clippers turnover. Dunleavy squints his disapproval.

3:59am
A last second Bynum bucket makes it 59-49 Lakers at half time.

4:49am
One point game after three quarters. 76-75 Lakers.

5:15am
An 18-6 runs puts away the Clippers. Solid efforts from Kobe and Odom, Final score Lakers 99, Clippers 92. Time for bed. Goodnight all.

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An NBA season on the sofa: preview

What do you do when you live 3,500 miles away from the action in your favourite sport? You purchase the NBA’s International League Pass Broadband and steel yourself for six months of not getting enough sleep and wandering around at work looking and feeling like a zombie. I know this to be true because I did it for the whole of last season. This time around, though, I’m going to write about it.

Firstly, cards on the table. I’m a New York Knicks fan with additional rooting interest in the Golden State Warriors. While it may seem these choices are the basketball equivalent of crossing a busy road blindfolded or sticking your face your face in a fan, they represent a fundamental truth in sport. I’m from England and we like football (soccer). Over here, you’re born into supporting your team. There’s no room, at least among proper sports fans, for glory hunting. The Knicks and the Warriors are the teams I’ve been (un)lucky enough to see live multiple times on my trips to the States so they are the teams I support. I know they suck. You don’t need to tell me.

The Sports Bloke’s season on the sofa will focus primarily on the Knicks (and my own steadily increasing levels of sleep deprivation) as I stay up past 3am to watch them struggle through all 82 games. There’ll also be stuff relating to the ongoing circus of insanity that is unique to the NBA. How much damage can Ron Artest do in one season in Los Angeles? How few assists will Memphis manage thanks to their growing plethora of toxic ballhogs? Will anyone match the sheer oddness of Drew Gooden’s facial hair? If Dirk Nowitzki cuts off his brand new Samson-esque locks, will he lose all of his strength?

Don’t be taking any of my musings too seriously. There’s more than enough proper writers and stat heads closer to the action without me having to weigh in from half a world away. This is not about serious analysis, it’s about the rollercoaster ride of supporting a sub-standard team from across the Atlantic and hoping against hope that, after almost a decade in the doldrums, they give people something to cheer about.

See you tomorrow for opening night!

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The battle of London’s two forgotten football clubs

Friends of the Sports Bloke will be familiar with my growing disillusion with the hype-ridden circus of the English Premier League. So, rather than continue whinging, I decided to do something about it over the weekend. I went to Brisbane Road to watch Leyton Orient’s League 1 clash with London rivals Brentford.

I have a little bit of history with both teams. Orient were the closest club to where I grew up in East London. They also had a player with the same name as me who played a major role in their promotion in the 1988/89 Division 4 playoffs. Most decisively, one of my best mates is a season ticket holder, something I can’t say about any other League 1 club. As for Brentford, their ground is about two miles from where I live now and a friend of mine once played for them. On balance, and partly due to the fact that I was sitting with the home fans, I decided to shun the Bees and support Orient for the day.

Of the many football clubs in London, you could probably make an argument that Orient and Brentford have enjoyed the least success over the past two decades. Orient have taken some FA Cup scalps and lost two playoff finals and Brentford reached the Championship for a brief period but neither club can match, say, Fulham’s rise from the basement of English football to the Premier League, or QPR’s fifth place Premier League finish in the mid-nineties which briefly made them the capital’s top club. If anything, the Bees and the O’s are London’s forgotten teams.

That’s not a criticism. In fact, from my own admittedly distanced perspective, it’s actually a bit of a bonus. What’s it like to watch a football match untarnished by tabloid and television hype? Pretty enjoyable all told. Here’s why…

For the first time in ages, I watched football without the merest hint of someone suggesting that, as they had paid for a ticket, they had a right to be entertained. Only in the Premier League, home to the nouveau fan, does this expectation exist. If you want sports entertainment, go and watch WWE wrestling. The fans at Brisbane Road hadn’t come for entertainment, they had come to see their team play and, regardless of the result or standard of performance, wouldn’t be on the phone to Spoony 10 minutes after the final whistle threatening to tear up their season ticket.

And there were some excellent individual performances for the crowd to enjoy. Orient centre forward Scott McGleish was the epitome of the seasoned old pro. Although he can’t be taller than five foot eight, McGleish won almost everything aerial that came his way, always making sure he stole a glance before leaping to ensure he’d guide his header into the path of his (fairly hapless) strike partner Ryan Jarvis. With Brentford 1-0 up thanks to a Carl Cort (remember him?) header from a poorly defended free kick, McGleish missed a first half penalty to equalise. Undeterred, he found the net shortly after with a swivelling first-time half volley that nestled in the bottom corner. He consistently held the ball up well, used his body to successfully battle for second balls and generally terrorised Brentford’s centre backs on the way to a man of the match performance.

When Stephen Purches came on at right-back for the home side in the second half, he shored up the right flank and allowed local lad Andros Townsend to wreak havoc on the wing. Townsend is by no means the finished article – his final ball and awareness of when to make the right pass will definitely improve – but his ability to run fearlessly at Brentford’s defenders created a sustained period of pressure that led to Orient’s winner. There was an inevitable feeling that a goal was coming. Orient dulyobliged when Bees’ Danny Foster headed Townsend’s devilish cross into his own net. The O’s prevailed 2-1 to record their second home win of the season.

After the game, McGleish and his teammates stopped in the West Stand bar to chat with fans. Post-game beers were duly downed by happily relieved fans and chuckles eminated from near the TVs as West Ham’s away defeat at Stoke was confirmed (local rivalry is local rivalry, regardless of what league you are in). My mate and I had a chat with a bloke called Peter, an Orient supporter for 40 years, who got us a beer and later gave us a lift to the pub.

I later tried to think about why I’d enjoyed my day watching Leyton Orient far more than any Premier League match I’d been to in recent years. And I think it comes down to this. The word ‘Club’ in football club is still emphasised in League 1. Orient fans aren’t at the games because it’s fashionable. They know the ins and outs of the team because they seek out the information, as opposed to having it continually rammed down their throats by newspapers and radio phone-ins every single day. The players aren’t impossibly distanced from the fans. As a result, the fans feel a human connection with the players who perform for them every week and with the club itself. They rightly feel part of a club whereas Premier League fans are treated as customers paying for a service, one they are told they should feel grateful to watch.

This is not an idyllic view of how football should be, it’s how proper football actually is and, prior to 1992, was in every division in this country. It’s the Premier League clubs that have got it wrong.

I can’t speak for other teams outside the Premier League but I’d like to think what I found at Brisbane Road over the weekend is something all supporters of supposedly unfashionable, forgotten teams can relate to. Maybe I’ve got rose-tinted glasses because I don’t watch Orient every week. You could argue that I’ve over-romanticised things to suit my dissatisfaction with the Premier League but I don’t think that’s the case.

I can definitely say this for certain: I’ve been bored with football for the past three or four years but felt totally immersed in the game I watched at the weekend. So it looks likely that I’ll be back to watch the O’s again soon. I’ll be the bloke wearing the Scott McGleish replica shirt.

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Expectations in check for the Knicks’ Seinfeld season

Seinfield was famously described as a “show about nothing” by its co-creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Thanks to the Seinfeld reunion story in the current season of David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the greatest sitcom of the 1990s is firmly back in people’s minds.

I was thinking about what I could look forward to from the New York Knicks in the upcoming NBA season when I realised the Seinfeld connection. For the Knicks, the 2009/10 season is, on the surface, a “season about nothing”.

Knicks GM Donnie Walsh, eyeing Lebron James and/or Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh in the 2010 ‘Summer of Free Agency’, has remained in a holding pattern through the summer and stuck to his pragmatic policy of not making any roster additions that will impact on team salary after the 2009/10 season.

After a seemingly neverending stalemate, blue collar double-double machine David Lee was signed to a one year deal. Sixth man Nate Robinson followed suit. Prior to that, Walsh acquired the, erm, enigmatic Darko Milicic for Quentin Richardson and picked up raw rebounder Jordan Hill and the apparently defence-orientated Toney Douglas in the draft.

From these moves, it’s hard to see how the Knicks will improve from last season. They might earn 35 wins. They may or may not play better defence. They might even block a few more shots. But they won’t make the playoffs.

Since he arrived at Madison Square Garden, Walsh has been totally upfront about focussing on the long-term goals of getting under the salary cap and being a major player in 2010 free agency. Last season, Knicks fans were
effectively asked to write off the year when top scorers Jamal Crawford and the black hole formerly known as Zach Randolph were traded in November 2008. This time around, we have the “season about nothing”, a mildly diverting stretch of 82 games before the real battle (the fight for marquee free agents) begins in the off-season.

Has a fan base ever been asked to be as patient for such a length of time? It’s a sign of how bad things got under the stewardship of Isiah ‘Doubt Him’ Thomas that the majority of Knicks fans (of which I am one, albeit one living in the UK) are willing to accept it, all the while keeping every body part crossed in the hope that Lebron will come to the Big Apple when his contract expires.

But I don’t want to debate whether the Knicks management care about the 2009/10 season or not. As a fan, I want to find reasons to look forward to watching my team. It’s not been easy, but here are five reasons to look forward to the Knicks’ “season about nothing”.

1) Guaranteed uptempo basketball
Maybe Donnie Walsh’s only big name signing was a master stroke in his plan to keep ticket holders patient until the Summer of 2010. With Mike D’Antoni as coach, Knicks games remain guaranteed to be score-fests with three pointers raining down from everywhere. In 2008/09, the Knicks were far more watchable than in the Isiah era. I was in the Garden last November when they beat the Jazz and the buzz that went around the arena when the Knicks began to outhustle the visitors in the third quarter was undeniable. The lesson for the 2009/10 season: embrace the moments of inspiration but accept the fact that the Knicks will continue to take a shellacking from the league’s better teams.

2) Make or break for Danilo Gallinari
On the evidence of the 28 games he played last season, Gallinari has many of the tools to succeed in the NBA. Whether his body allows him to realise his potential is another question entirely. Gallo, recently described by D’Antoni as “the best shooter I’ve ever seen”, has recovered from his back problems but has been disappointing in the pre-season games to date. He remains a huge question mark. If injuries curtail his second season in the league, can he ever hope to make a real impact? If he’s at 100 per cent for most of the season, we might get to see just how special he can be as a shooter, defender and facilitator.

3) Showcasing Eddy Curry
Freeing up extra cap space for 2010 by trading Eddy Curry could be the difference between signing one or two marquee free agents for next season. That’s if, and it’s a huge if, two marquee free agents decide they want to play in New York. The only way to get Curry’s contract off the roster is to make another team want him. Which means D’Antoni will have to feature the lumbering center into his quickfire system. Curry has reportedly shed 40lbs of ‘excess baggage’ but is now injured yet again. He has had a tragic time in his personal life and deserves some joy on the court. If he could be incorporated successfully into the system and play well for a month, it might be enough to move him before the trade deadline. And if that fails, there’s always a chance he could end up in Memphis with the rest of the league’s rejects.

4) A season of cohesion
The departure of Stephon Marbury signalled the end of the Knicks as the biggest soap opera in sports. What can the Knicks achieve without controversy and disharmony dragging them down? Probably 35 wins with this roster, but that’s not the point. The Knicks are now a young team. Chandler, Gallo, Hill and Douglas will be Knicks in the 2010/11 season. Lee might be. They will develop together, enjoy each other’s success and form a unit that will be the Knicks’ foundation, regardless of which free agents get signed next summer. Watching them take their first steps together this season will be interesting. If one were to show signs of the genuine leadership the Knicks sorely lack, that would be a huge bonus.

5) The continuing story of Mr Fumbles
This one is personal. Given his inabaility to regularly catch and control even the most basic of passes, I coined the nickname Mr Fumbles for Jared Jeffries. Yes, I know he can defend multiple positions but his offensive game is truly dire. My particular favourite Jeffries move is when he claims a defensive rebound and attempts to drive the length of the floor in transition. I lost count of the number of times he tried this last season. Once he crosses half court and the opposition gets reorganised, a steal or fumble is an inevitably. Everyone in the arena knows this – except Jared. I was keeping tabs on the Knicks pre-season against the Nets a week or so ago and was shocked to see Jeffries scored 11 points in the first half including two treys. Had he been hypnotised into believing he was an offensive threat? If so, watching him this season might be the year’s biggest surprise.

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The end of the enigmatic Steve Harmison era

Durham fast bowler Steve Harmison has been left out of the squad for the England team’s tour of South Africa this winter. The omission of the Geordie paceman will, in all probability, result in him announcing his retirement from international cricket. The South Africa tour now will mark the first time England have toured without either Harmison or his great friend Andrew Flintoff in the last ten years.

If Harmison does choose to retire from the international game, he will leave a bewildering legacy. While he has attracted his fair share of criticism over the years, I feel it’s harsh to say that he never reached his potential. He was once ranked as the world’s number one bowler. He proved his ability at the top level. The problem came when he was never able to sustain the form that made him the most feared bowler in world cricket.

Harmison also incurred the wrath of the national press with his apparent reluctance to tour. Stories of homesickness and turning up for tours out of form and unprepared have dogged him throughout his career. Yet his importance to the England team was never in question. The selectors chose Flintoff over Andrew Strauss as captain for the dismal 2005/6 Ashes tour on the basis that Freddie would get the best out of Harmy. When Kevin Pietersen’s brief tenure as skipper began, his first move was to coax the Geordie out of one day international retirement to unleash some Grievous Bodily Harmison on the South African tourists.

So, how did a bowler with the height, pace and bounce to terrorise batsmen all over the world only realise his full potential in a golden 12-month period in 2003/4? The key to the mercurial Harmison lies in the circumstances in which the paceman produced his best performances for his country and offers a possible window into the character of a cricketer who will end his career with a creditable record but ultimately could have done so much more.

Harmison’s most memorable bowling spells came when conditions were in his favour. In 2004, he demolished the West Indies with a devastating burst of seven for 12 on a pacy wicket in Kingston, Jamaica, reducing the hosts to 47 all out and propelling England to a famous win. With his confidence up, he went on to take 23 wickets at 14.87 on that tour and was named man of the series. In July 2006, Harmison took full advantage of a quick and uneven Old Trafford surface to return match figures of 11 for 76 as England skittled Pakistan.

Yet against better teams, Harmison’s bowling figures were nowhere near as impressive. On the 2004/5 tour to South Africa, he took just nine wickets at an average of 73 and later admitted being affected by homesickness. Were his performances purely reliant on self-confidence? Was he only able to produce his best form when everything was in his favour? Do these stats reveal a character unable to raise his game when it truly mattered?

I can see why people would answer yes to these questions but I’d ultimately disagree. It’s easy to forget Harmison travelled to Bangladesh with England and took nine for 79 on a flat wicket in stiffling conditions. He also set the tone for the 2005 Ashes when he roughed Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting on that electric first morning at Lord’s. In the same series, he produced the ball of the series, his slower ball that bowled Michael Clarke on the third evening at Edgbaston. He even joined a South African state side so he could prepare for England’s 2007 tour to India, something he would not have done if, as suggested by some, he didn’t care about representing his country.

Yet despite these efforts, Harmison’s poor performances seem to provoke greater interest than his most memorable ones. He’ll probably never live down bowling the first ball of the 2006 Ashes to his mate Flintoff at second slip. Yes, it was one of the biggest wides anyone had ever seen but it was just one ball. Surely match-winning spells are more important? Struggling on flat wickets and bad luck afflict every bowler but, when they hurt Harmison’s figures, eyes were rolled and tutting eminated from pavilions. Why was he judged more harshly than  other bowlers?

The answer lies in the glimpses of brilliance scattered throughout his long career. Every England fan rememebered Harmison destroying the West Indies or making Ricky Ponting bleed. Maybe they expected him to do that every time he bowled. That’s unrealistic for any bowler, especially on the flat wickets that seem to dominate test cricket. It was the promise of what Harmison might do in any given spell that made people so disappointed when he didn’t deliver. No other England bowler has had to endure such weight of expectation.

In some ways, Harmison’s bowling career mirrors the batting career of Michael Vaughan. The former England skipper enjoyed his own purple patch where he stroked a steady stream of centuries that propelled him to the top of the world batting rankings. Yet after that, possibly due to his injuries and the pressure of captaincy, he understandably could not sustain that level of form. There were at least three occasions where Vaughan, amid heavy criticism over his lack of runs, produced centuries to put an end to the debate. But, like Harmison’s 10-for against Pakistan, they were sporadic echoes of a golden period of form he would never consistently regain.

If Harmison’s omission from the South Africa tour does indeed signal the end of his international career, I hope people look beyond his statistics and, at the very least, concentrate on what he did achieve rather than focus on the things he failed to do. Look at the last thirty years of England bowling, only Bob Willis matched Harmison’s pace and ferocity. Yes, he could have done more. But who couldn’t? There’s no need to judge him more harshly than his peers. Briefly, he was the world’s best bowler. He played in two Ashes winning teams. Sometimes his bowling won test matches for England. Sometimes he failed to perform. He answered England’s call for a genuine fast bowler. He is counted.

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Basketball in Britain mirrors soccer in the States

In two short hours, the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz will tip-off at London’s 02 Arena in front of a sell-out crowd. It’s the third successive year that an NBA pre-season game has taken place in London and, for the third year in a row, all the tickets were snapped up months before the game.

Although the league has only taken tentative steps in the UK, interest in the NBA here is definitely rising. With the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, we have a competitive national team, a couple of recognisable faces playing significant minutes for NBA teams and some TV commitment from Channel 5 and possibly ESPN.

Basketball is starting to gain traction in the UK in exactly the same way the English Premier League (EPL) is enjoying increasing popularity in the States. Why? Because people want to see the best. The British Basketball League (BBL) can’t boast players of the same calibre as the NBA just as Major League Soccer can’t compare to the quality of play in the EPL, La Liga or Serie A. Forget patriotism, fans want the spectacle, the stars and the big crowds that come with the top sports products.

Thanks to satellite TV and the Internet, US soccer fans and British NBA fans now have easy access to sports that were previously all but inaccessible. Two seasons ago, I survived on one NBA game a week and got my basketball fix by going to a few BBL games. Last season, I subscribed to NBA League Pass Broadband and was watching 20-25 games a week.

The same thing is happening with soccer in the US now. Major League Soccer, boosted by the David Beckham hype machine, draws decent crowds but, beyond the die-hards, has no impact on American sporting culture. It’s visibly an inferior product. However, once ESPN began showing the UEFA Champions League and the EPL in the States, people sat up and took notice.

With the likes of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard appearing on American screens, the interest started to grow. NBA writer Mark Stein revealed himself to be a long-time Manchester City fan who makes an annual trip to Britain to watch games. The Champions League was discussed semi-regularly on PTI. Even Bill “I don’t do British” Simmons, opined on his methods of selecting a Premier League team to root for. As a lifelong West Ham fan, it absolutely killed me he, just like Steve Nash, picked our arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

What else do Americans get from watching English soccer? I think the crowds play an enormous part. I’ve been to NBA and MLB games in the States and there’s definitely a vibe of enforced participation. it’s easy to tune out snatches of music, organ riffs and instructions to clap your hands and become a silent spectator. Imagine if this is your traditional experience of live sport and then you see, say, a Liverpool vs Manchester United game with unprompted full-on chanting and singing for the entire 90 minutes. Surely you’d be hooked, or at least want to experience that for yourself in person.

So, how will basketball capture the imagination of British sports fans? The American emphasis on each game being an “event” will definitely help. The draft adds to the impression that any team is capable of winning a championship. There’s a lot of jaded football fans in Britain tired of a league that only two or three teams can win. What’s the point in paying throught the nose for a season ticket when the best your team can realistically do is finish 11th? I’ve followed the New York Knicks for 20 years. The last seven seasons have been awful. But free agency in the NBA gives fans hope. The Premier League can’t say the same.

And with that said, I’m off to the 02 to watch some high quality hoops.

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