London Lions 74-73 Sheffield Sharks

It’s easy to miss the Copper Box when walking through the Olympic Park in Stratford. Large but unassuming, the venue fades into the background against other, louder attractions such as the colossal London Stadium, the unique Aquatics Centre, and that big red twisty thing, which resembles more a child’s doodle than modern art – or is there any difference these days?

Look inside the Copper Box however, and there is entertainment to be found within that belies the arena’s modest facade. This is the home of the London Lions, the capital’s only professional basketball team, and the place is abuzz as the Sheffield Sharks, who sit one place above the Lions in the British Basketball League, are in town.

The arena is far from full, with just under a thousand spectators dotted amongst the coloured seats inside the Copper Box. However, those in attendance are just as passionate about their team as the 50,000 who descend upon West Ham’s nearby London Stadium each fortnight. In one corner of the arena, there is a smattering of supporters who can only be described as ‘ultras’, each bedecked in the yellow and purple of the Lions’ uniform, some banging drums and other instruments. As the players warm up on the court, they give a rousing rendition of their go-to chant of ‘Lions, Lions, Lions’, which they’ll alternate throughout the evening with the equally imaginative ‘Defense, Defense, Defense’. This all lends to an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation, though, as the game begins.

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Basketball, to put it mildly, is a minority sport here in the UK. The BBL is comprised mainly of players who haven’t quite made the grade in the United States, and have come to Europe, forced to pursue careers away from the glitz and glam of the NBA. Indeed, the BBL is not viewed as one of Europe’s elite leagues, and so most players seek to use it as a springboard to go on to better things in Spain, France and the like. Failure for these players will likely put an end to their hopes of truly making it as a professional basketball player.

Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so high for these players that the game is so frenetic. Fast paced, blood and thunder, the Sharks race into an early lead but are soon pegged back and overtaken by the Lions, with the speedy Alex Owumi the main architect for the home side, as his three-pointer gives the Lions an 18-16 lead at the first quarter buzzer.

Each play is commentated on by Lions owner Vince Macauley, who takes on commentary duties as the club simply cannot afford to hire someone else to do it. Impartiality is thrown out the window, as Vince delivers quick quips and one liners (‘Traveling called against Wroblicky – you need an Oyster card to do that here, mate’), while wonderfully attempting to convey each player’s internal monologue. Live commentary is one of the BBL’s most unique aspects, and it certainly draws the spectator into the action.

Owumi and Kai Williams continue to impress, the latter hitting a triple just before half-time to give the Lions a 40-32 advantage going into the break. Half-time comes with the added spectacle of seeing four young fans battle it out in a free-throw competition to win tickets to the BBL Finals at the O2. Unfortunately, the two final youngsters’ aim deserts them in the end, and neither can land the winning throw, leaving a rather awkward tie from which both end up winning, thus defeating the purpose of the whole thing in the first place. It was entertaining at least.

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The Sharks come out the sharper side after the break, as the superb Rashawn Rembert, with the help of the equally impressive Malcolm Riley and Tony Wroblicky, began to dominate, and the visitors edge ahead. As the third quarter comes to a close, fans are treated to another routine by the Lions’ resident cheerleaders the ‘Lionesses’ – who in between quarters are allowed to strut their stuff, but for the rest of the game stand awkwardly court-side, occasionally waving their pompoms in support, or perhaps out of boredom.

The real drama unfolds in the final quarter. The Sharks begin to seize control, and look for all the world like continuing their good form which before this game had seen them win seven of their last eight. However, the Lions’ relentless Zaire Taylor has other ideas. The 30 year-old lands a stunning triple to leave the home side trailing by just a single point. With seconds remaining, Taylor again drives to the basket, drawing a foul from the now panicked Sharks, earning the chance to win the game with two free throws. As a deathly hush descends over the Copper Box, Taylor steps up and twice makes no mistake, ensuring a remarkable last second 74-73 triumph for the Lions, sending the aforementioned ‘ultras’ into raptures.

It was a fittingly dramatic end to a game that had swung like a pendulum for its duration, and it felt a shame that so few had witnessed it. Basketball will never usurp the likes of football, rugby and cricket in this country, but the BBL certainly has the potential to gain a lot more fandom than it currently does. Ask a few members of the public in the nearby Westfield shopping centre, and most probably don’t know there is a professional basketball team just a short walk away.

Of course, the BBL is not the NBA. There are no Steph Currys or Kevin Durants. You won’t see Jay-Z and Beyoncé chilling court-side. But what you will see are talented professionals giving their all on a weekly basis, playing not because the pay is great, which it isn’t, but for the love of the sport they grew up playing, perhaps still clinging to the hopes of emulating the greats of their childhood. They play as though their life depends on it, and that kind of passion and commitment, irrespective of quality or skill, is worth turning up for.

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