Basketball: Atmosphere heats up as court moves to Greenwich

Posted at 08/09/12 8:01 AM

LONDON - France's Ronny Turiaf's flagrant foul in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's quarter-final was bad but a chorus of boos from a largely Spanish crowd was unlike anything the London Olympic basketball tournament has seen.

Organisers and MCs have worked hard to raise the temperature during a week of often uncompetitive games in the Olympic Park's temporary basketball arena, but for most pure basketball fans something has been missing.

Maybe it is the ballot system that awarded many Londoners tickets for what is a marginal sport in Britain just to go to the Games, but there are no chants of "De-fence", no noise when players are taking free throws and only the odd awestruck roar for a big dunk.

If not for the hotdogs, half-time kiss-cam and domination of the latest instalment of a U.S. Dream Team packed with National Basketball Association (NBA) stars, one would say it was almost British.

But the switch to the 15,500 seat Greenwich Arena for the knockout stages may be just the tonic, helped by a competitive edge that saw two rough, foul-packed opening games on Wednesday go down to the wire.

"For sure it was a different game now we're in the quarter-finals," Spain's Sergio Rodriguez said after they pulled away from France in the final minute to make the semi-finals.

"We played some great hard defence and so did France. We came off three games where we played really badly and really upped our game."

The first session on Wednesday was dominated by Spanish red and gold flags carried by some of the flood of young Spaniards who have fled to London from a country where half of those under 25 are out of work.

"It was like a little bit of Spain here today," said Luciana Rodriguez, a 29-year old from Madrid, queuing for a burrito on the arena concourse. "We love basketball and I really hope this team has a chance of giving us something at the Olympics."


Initially used as the home of Olympic gymnastics, an army of 300 workers descended on the North Greenwich Arena the moment the last spectator left on Tuesday - tearing out gym apparatus, adding 2,000 extra seats and laying down a basketball court in just over 18 working hours.

The change of venue was cited by some players as a factor in a low-scoring start to the quarter-final round between Lithuania and Russia, where the percentage of successful shots was down on average and a third of free throws went astray.

"It's very complicated when you play in a different gym in such an important game. You saw that both teams in the first half couldn't really make a shot," said Russia's Andrei Kirilenko.

After cruising through the group stage, a powerhouse United States side remain firm favourites to take gold, as well as the tournament's biggest draw by far.

Some of the team's biggest stars including LeBron James and James Harden strolled in to take a seat among the fans and check out the Brazil-Argentina before their game later on Wednesday.

"I follow the NBA quite a lot, so the chance to see all these guys up close is like a dream," said Simon, a 27-year-old who'd travelled down from Bradford in the north of England specially for the game.

"They are just huge." (Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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