Olympics: Being There – Basketball

Ahead of the Women’s Basketball Gold Medal Match tonight between USA and France, a look back on an evening session at the Olympic Park on Day 7 of The London 2012 Games, when Team GB stole the hearts of the crowd in a thrilling match.

Women’s Basketball, Preliminary Rounds, Basketball Arena, Olympic Park

If an aim of the Olympic Games is to introduce sports to a different audience, it succeeded emphatically with this writer on the first game of a double-header in the evening session on Day 7 of the Games. The women’s British Basketball team produced an excellent performance that captivated the crowd in an all-out-effort to win their first match at an Olympic Games, despite the efforts of organizers who tried to distract spectators with gimmicks from attempts at mass karaoke and needless interventions during tense technical time-outs.

Team GB, up against a physical and more experienced French side who will contest the final against the USA tonight, were every part the equal of their opponents in a pulsating game that was tight throughout and twice had decisive throws scored in the final seconds of first normal time and then extra-time.

Led by their best player, the brilliant Jo Leedham, GB were always in the game, taking an early lead that saw them finish the first ten-minute quarter 13-10 up. In the second quarter the French introduced players from the bench to out-muscle a team that were playing with more purpose and had the vast majority of the crowd behind them at a home Olympics.

There were few empty seats as play started on the Friday evening session, which was the busiest day so far in the Olympics Park, as the Athletics got underway at the Games while Swimming at the Aquatic Centre continued. Most of the crowd had already been buoyed by seeing GB win two more Golds on the big screen in the Park (‘Park Live’) in the hours preceding this Basketball session, with the Men’s Pursuit Team and Victoria Pendleton in the Kerin both winning their finals in the Velodrome next door to the white bubble of this Basketball Arena.

Where accredited places weren’t taken soldiers filled their places, some more keen than others in joining in the tedious attempts by the courtside host with a microphone to get everyone singing and dancing to Y.M.C.A. Before play started it there was lots of that, while many of us with smart phones instead concentrating on watching live coverage of Rebecca Addlington racing in a 1500m final while the screens inside the venue were instead wasted for crowd participation exercises (as at the Beach Volleyball). Unsurprisingly, it was the sport itself that really generated the real atmosphere, with the efforts of Team GB inspiring us to stand and shout with passion more than any backing track or choreographed action ever could.

Leedham, the Captain wearing the British number 13 vest, was integral to it all. Though France led at the end of the second and third quarters, Team GB were always within touching distance, and surged ahead in the final quarter, Leedham’s intelligence and skill on the pitch finding teammates from acute angles and drawing fouls that led to penalty throws. She finished the night having scored a mammoth 29 points herself, and spending the best part of 35 minutes play on court, so important was her presence to the side.

The French fought back at the very end though, committing fouls which forced restarts and allowed them to get the ball, which they made the most of when they needed to, drawing the scores level at the very death at 67 points all. Again in extra-time GB got themselves into a winning position with less than a minute to go when France turned it round to take a three point lead, 80-77, with just two seconds to go. GB called a technical time-out and then from the restart in two moves they got the ball in the hoop from outside the area which would have given them three-points to draw level had the loud sound donating the end of play not gone in the process of the throw, meaning it was out of time.

A climatic end that left us shattered at the result, an aspect of sport that is the other side of success but just as important. A defeat, but in a manner that left a feeling of pride and won new fans. There were as high a percentage of youngsters in the audience as any of the nine sessions of sport I have been to at the London 2012 Olympic Games and it is a performance like this that will create long-term associations with the women’s British Basketball team.

The second match of the double-header, between the Czech Republic and the US, had a lot to live up to. In between games there were more dancers, gimmicks from the announcer and a skipping spectacular, while outside the queue for food and beer showed most were not leaving before the 10pm start.

When it got underway the Czechs started off well, holding a lead until the end of the first quarter, but in a higher scoring game than the first match, with both teams more prolific when having chances, the USA began to dominate. They ran out comfortable winners in the end, with a final score of 88-61.

Outside the white Basketball Arena was now lit up and even more spectacularly so was the Olympic Stadium and Orbit, which for the first time suddenly looked stunning rather than ugly. On the Bridge crowds gathered outside the BBC studios, their lights shining brightly as they broadcast live while people continued to enjoy themselves with the unique feeling that coming away from London’s Olympic Park has given everyone. An evening at the Basketball continued to show things in a new, positive light and had an immediate legacy of sending some of the crowd to bed with hoop dreams as well as a sense of pride.

MG

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview for free and download for less than a price of  a bottle of beer at the Olympic Park for £4.27 from Amazon and Smashwords. It documents football at the highest level and the journey of travelling around Europe in a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.