For one day, at least, the World Cup has a rival for the attention of the planet's sport fans.Game 7. The NBA Finals. Tonight, in Los Angeles. A championship-deciding game for the elite professional league representing one the world's most popular team sports. The contest pits the Boston Celtics against the Los Angeles Lakers, the two most decorated clubs in NBA history, winners of 32 championships between them. Soon to become 33. The count currently stands 17-15 in the Celtics' favour, with 10 of their championships coming at the expense of the Lakers.
The teams represent the greatest rivalry in American professional sport, one handed down over generations. Think Real Madrid and Barcelona or Inter and AC Milan and you begin to grasp the significance of this grudge match. Something disturbingly close to hate animates the emotions of these clubs' supporters. When Kendrick Perkins, one of the Celtics' best players, was seriously injured in Game 6 in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Lakers fans cheered lustily as he was carried off the court. A few days earlier, Boston fans chanted "no means no!" at Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' best player, who was arrested on charges of sexual assault in 2003 - a case eventually dropped but not forgotten in Boston. Equally unkind: a chant of "ugly sister!" aimed at the Lakers' Lamar Odom, adjudged by impolite Boston society to have married the least attractive of the Kardashian sisters, US pop culture divas.
The NBA may seem inaccessible, almost alien creatures to many, but the league seems to be gaining traction internationally. According to the NBA, 83 non-Americans were in the league this season, representing nearly 25 per cent of all players. Half of the 32 nations in the current World Cup, from Brazil to Cameroon to Australia, are represented by at least one player in the NBA, and 35 per cent of NBA-branded merchandise is sold outside the US. In China, home to 1.3 billion people, including NBA star Yao Ming, basketball is thought to be gaining fast on football as their most popular sport.
The NBA also has made an impressive push for global television accessibility. The league claims that these NBA Finals have been available, via television or streaming video, in 200 countries and territories. The NBA has launched websites in both Arabic and Hindi, and its English-language homepage reportedly has more visitors from outside the US than inside it. This growing global audience will be rewarded tonight with a sort of ultra game, the Celtics and Lakers settling things after each clawing out three victories in the best-of-seven series. Several of the best in basketball are involved, including Pau Gasol, Ron Artest and Bryant for the Lakers, and Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo for the Celtics.
Anyone watching on TV is sure to be rewarded with candid shots of the celebrities who flock to games in Los Angeles. Among the attendees at Game 6: Jack Nicholson, Spike Lee, Christina Aguilera, Andy Garcia, Diddy, Snoop Dogg and Michelle Obama, the First Lady. Los Angeles loves to see glitterati in the expensive seats; workaday Boston fans find it artificial and repulsive. Of course. A Game 7 in the NBA Finals is not particularly common; this is only the second since 1994.
Home teams have won 13 of the previous 16 Game 7s in NBA history. But the Celtics are 4-0 in Game 7s against the Lakers. Something has to give, and by tomorrow morning many of the globe's basketball fans will be ecstatic ... or dejected. Me? I am from Los Angeles, and I have lived through every one of those 10 Lakers defeats to the Celtics. If the Lakers lose, I may not get out of bed. Ever again.