NBA Fan Voice: The NBA Bug, An International Perspective

I haven't written anything of note, here or elsewhere, for quite a few months now. There's an obvious reason for that, and it's the same for most people: apathy has well and truly set in now as far as the NBA is concerned.

Some will suggest that the bleak future of the Suns contributes to that apathy - the realisation that the Nash Era is all but dead and that chances of a championship are almost certainly gone now. It is a little depressing, considering the several talented rosters that, in my eyes, were good enough to win it all. There's no denying that.

But I dismiss that suggestion. It's been a while since the Suns have had a truly awful team, so I may regret saying this: so long as the Suns are playing, I'm satisfied.

Not necessarily satisfied with the team's achievements and performances, no, but satisfied with the presence of the NBA and a Phoenix Suns team to avidly follow. That's something I've been doing pretty much all my life, ever since I was bitten by the NBA bug at about 8 years old. I imagine for many of you reading this, you're the same - you followed the Suns (or any other NBA team) from a young age and have continued through to this day.

Here's the thing though - I'm British.

I can't stress enough how much of a non factor basketball and the NBA is in Britain. We are a nation of mostly football, rugby and cricket lovers (the latter two of which are awfully boring, yes). In recent years there's been a growth in interest, but nothing overly significant. Luol Deng put the spotlight on basketball a little, and with Britain hosting the 2012 Olympics (along with a Team GB competing in the basketball) there has been a bit of a lift.
However, there's no NBA shown on domestic television, and about a game a week aired on our adaptation of ESPN, if you subscribe to that. The NBA have tried their best with a few NBA preseason and then regular season games played in London, but really, there's a long, long way to go.

Growing up, I was blessed to move abroad, and that's where I got a taste of the NBA. I'll never forget the first NBA game I saw, the Suns vs the Supersonics some time around 1993. That memory stuck with me forever. Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Shawn Kemp...I vividly remember seeing them on my TV.

From that moment, I was hooked, despite not really knowing what was happening. It was less than a week before I had my dad installing a basketball hoop outside. For hours each day after school, I'd be practicing the moves I'd seen on TV. In case you're wondering: I struggled with some of Kemp's dunks, but managed to get the hang of Sir Charles' free throw routine.

The NBA bug had bitten me, and it changed my childhood.

That's the power that the NBA can have. It's a powerful product which can bring so much joy and excitement to people all across the globe, people from non-basketball surroundings like myself who would be totally oblivious to the NBA otherwise.

Fast forward almost 20 years, and I'm still well and truly an NBA fan. I'm batshit insane enough to wake up around 3am every other day to watch the Suns live via International League Pass. On top of that, last season I flew all the way over there to take in a 5 game homestand, pretty much a childhood dream of mine since...forever.

I'm obviously not the only one with these kind of commitments, I'm sure. There'll be plenty of international fans who make the same crazy commitments, both time wise and financially, to follow their NBA team. That's despite maybe not having any real connection to the team, city or state of their chosen franchises.

And this is what pisses me right off - that utter comtempt shown by the league to us fans, international or otherwise, who go through so much to support the teams and league. Breaking through to new markets like Britain and growing the game here, the NBA needs its fanbase, even if it is currently tiny. And yet, they couldn't give a shit.

There's been no apology (if there has been, I've missed it), no acknowledgement of us fans, and in my eyes there's been no real effort early on to try and avoid this. It's like they wanted it to happen. Hunter says he saw this coming years ago, so why not do something then? How many weeks and months since the lockout actually began before these guys even bothered to have significant meetings? It's been too little, too late. They couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery, and it pisses me off.

They know we love the league. They know it's almost like a religion for some of us, so they know we'll be back. And I won't kid anyone, I surely will be back. I need it back. That said, if the league thinks they can treat us in this way without repercussions, they should probably think again. I hope I'm not in the minority of people planning to drastically cut back their financial spend on NBA merchandise and such. We may be powerless now, but once the season eventually starts, we can make ourselves heard. Not happy with this lockout? Then don't give them your money, it's that simple.

Perhaps when the owners and players have finally agreed on how to divide their billions of dollars, they'll start seeing that there'll actually be a few less billions (well, millions) to divide when they treat fans this way. Not just because of any backlash, but also because they have totally shot themselves in the foot with the timing of this lockout. From an international perspective, here's why.

All through this lockout all I can think of is my childhood years discovering the NBA and the way it changed me. That was in the early 90's though. This is 2011. Consider that there'll now be what, ten times, twenty times the number of kids in far flung international places getting bitten by the NBA bug like I did? So many future fans will be lost through this disaster.

The explosion of the internet and social media means it's a lot easier to get hooked nowadays than it used to be. To illustrate this point, I used to follow the NBA in the early to mid 90's through weekly episodes of NBA Action that would be broadcast, along with reading a tiny scores report in one of the back pages of the papers, along with a game or so a week which I'd tape and watch numerous times. Even if it was the Lakers.

Then the internet arrived. Oh boy. Another vivid memory of mine is sitting there at around 8am in the morning, dialing up with a 56k modem, loading up Netscape Navigator (sigh) and going on to see if the Suns had beat the SuperSonics in the playoffs. It was just a box score that needed to be refreshed, but I sat there clicking away nonstop. The Suns were down 3 and there were only seconds left. Then it was tied. Rex Chapman hit that shot.

It was just numbers on a screen, but it was as exciting as anything for me. Hell, I even persuaded my parents to pay for a Fastbreak magazine subscription (remember that?), even though only about 1 in 3 copies ever made it to my mailbox. That's what it was like back then, a real effort.

Now? I subscribe to International League Pass, so I have NBA games on tap. There's plenty of top quality websites, this one included, to get my NBA fix. Then there's social media like Twitter, where I'm able to 1. follow the Suns and half their roster on Twitter, even interacting with some of them from time to time, 2. interact and discuss with fellow fans and get to know some great people. In other words, a truly amazing, enhanced fan experience, nothing like back in the day where the best you could do is submit questions to online chats (even though I remember the time John "Hot Rod" Williams answered one of my questions and it made my week).

All of this combined means this is a great new era in which to follow the NBA, regardless of age. They are blessed with a product which is incredibly strong in terms of internet and media presence. They cover social media better than any other sport. And obviously, the league is more popular than ever, even if it's not terribly competitive and equal. If ever there was a time to have a league up and running, it's now.

Fans will be lost, I've no doubt. In the 1998 lockout, I lost interest in the NBA so much that I actually started to get hooked on the NHL instead for a good 6 months or so. Of course, I always had my football (English Premier League), but after being hooked on one American sport, that's what you do at that age. You find something similar to fill the void. The 1998 NBA lockout is the only reason I know of Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk.

Lost revenue, lost fans, lost faith and lost respect. The damage they're doing to themselves internationally can't be underestimated. More fool them.

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