November 21 2009
If you are a sporting fanatic for whom the thought of Christmas in the UK fails to inspire, consider a yuletide visit to the US. There may be next to no competitive action in Britain on December 25 but Christmas Day Stateside features no fewer than five NBA basketball games, all of them screened live on network TV. This year’s seasonal treat for Slam Dunk fans begins with the Miami Heat taking on the New York Knicks, continues with the famed Boston Celtics against the Orlando Magic (runners-up in the 2009 NBA Finals), and climaxes with the LA Lakers – the reigning NBA champions and the Manchester United or Real Madrid of basketball – playing at home against arch rivals the Cleveland Cavaliers. Armchair enthusiasts can feast on up to 12 hours of uninterrupted coverage – though it’s always more fun to be there, especially if you can rustle up a ticket to the big game in LA.
This is a contest that brings together some of the best, most highly paid and impossibly cool athletes in the US, including three Olympic gold medallists. Leading for the “run and gun” Lakers will be the 31-year-old Kobe Bryant, 6ft 6in tall and nicknamed the Black Mamba. Facing him will be the 7ft 1in man-mountain Shaquille O’Neal, known universally as “Shaq” and once Bryant’s Lakers teammate and friend, but now his sworn enemy. Alongside Shaq will be the 6ft 8in LeBron James, known as “King James”, who was voted MVP or most valuable player of the 2009 season. The phenomenally talented 24-year-old signed a shoe contract with Nike thought to be worth over $90m before he’d even made his professional debut and, in March 2008, became only the third man, after Richard Gere and George Clooney, to appear on the front cover of US Vogue.
Everything these players wear and endorse – from their decidedly long shorts to their choice of tattoos (James has one on his back proclaiming him the “Chosen 1”, which makes him sound like José Mourinho) – becomes part of a fashion statement for their adoring public. But the Christmas Day rumble in the 19,097-seater Staples Center in downtown LA will be no hip-hop party. The antagonism between the sides is for real and, after losing both home and away to the Lakers last season, the Cavaliers will be out for revenge. They reached the 2009 playoffs in June but have yet to get to the finals, let alone win one, whereas LA’s victory over Orlando was their 30th appearance in basketball’s equivalent of the World Series.
In the US the Lakers are regarded as glamour boys, a bit like the New York Yankees; elsewhere people either love or loathe them. The franchise was originally based in Minneapolis but in 1960 the Lakers’ then owner, Bob Short, followed the example of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and moved his side to the West Coast. Some of basketball’s biggest names have worn the Lakers’ purple and gold shirt since then, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-1989) and Magic Johnson (1979-1991 and 1996), and their many Hollywood supporters include a fiercely loyal Jack Nicholson, who has been a season-ticket holder since 1970 and is a regular front-row presence at home games. The club presented him with a special 70th birthday cake, complete with purple and gold icing, at half time during a match in April 2007.
Covered basketball courts are self-evidently smaller and more intimate than a football or rugby pitch, and watching a professional game in somewhere like LA or Boston, with all the attendant noise and drama, can be an electrifying experience. Seats can be booked online from the UK and, while the biggest match-ups tend to sell out far in advance, a first-hand visit is strongly recommended.
Odds on the big festive showdown will be available next month but at the time of writing the Lakers were trading at 12-5 with Blue Square to win back-to-back finals, with Cleveland on offer at 15-4 with the same firm. The hugely talented LeBron James, who has the potential to be as big both on and off the court as basketball legend Michael Jordan, may win a second MVP award at 2-1 with Stan James.