Back when Michael Jordan was a college player at North Carolina, his legendary coach Dean Smith would give his players some perspective if he found that they were worked up too much about a big game or defeat: “Just remember, there are more than a billion people in China who don’t know or care that we’re playing.”
These days in China they care about basketball. Over 200 million Chinese watched Yao Ming’s NBA debut. Over 350 million play the game. It was estimated in 2010 that there was at least one basketball court in every village and 800,000 nationwide, including, as Bishop amazingly discovered, even one on the top of the magnificent Mt Huangshan.
For Bishop the sight of a man in a business suit playing hoops at the top of one of the country’s most famous tourist attractions was “so China” but it was typical of basketball’s global appeal too.
A week like this brings home just how wide some sports have spread and yet how lost they can also be.
Last weekend Milan hosted the Euroleague basketball Final Four, climaxing with a terrific final and underdog story the night before last.
This Saturday, from your couch, you’ll be able to watch the Heineken Cup final and the Champions League final back-to-back. One continent, one week, three European Cup finals.
In this part of the world the basketball final will have had distinctly the lowest profile but anyone who was channel-hopping last Sunday night between the Euroleague final and Game One of the Indiana Pacers-Miami Heat series will have been taken by the quality, drama and passion the action from Milan generated.
One of the protagonists was Real Madrid. They are to basketball what they are to football, aristocrats and leaders of the European roll of honour, although they’ve had to wait to add to their trophy count; just as Casillas and company have been stuck on nine titles since 2002, in basketball the Madridistas have remained on eight since 1995. They even form a deadly rivalry with Barcelona, whom they thumped in Friday night’s semi-final by 38 points, leaving it a rough weekend all round for those who follow both sports played in the Camp Nou complex.
But, as it turned out, Madrid themselves wouldn’t get their hands on the prize, losing the final for a second year straight. This time they were foiled in overtime, 98-86, by plucky outsiders Maccabi Tel Aviv. The Israeli club were expected to be dumped out in the semi-final by CSKA Moscow, only to take the lead for the first time with six seconds to go. Unlike Madrid or even previous Maccabi sides, they had no stars on their roster, but what they had was fanatical support. Basketball fans in Europe are a lot more like their soccer counterparts than their NBA counterparts — they light flares, chant obscenities, prop up monstrous flags — and outside of Greece there are no Euroleague fans as fanatical as Maccabi’s. Somehow 10,000 of them managed to get their hands on tickets. In short, they did a Munster on it.
Their final victory triggered scenes straight from Munster too, only their red army was all decked out in yellow.
The streets of Tel Aviv were thronged, fountains were jumped, political leaders leaped in too.
“Your team fought like lions and won,” Shimon Peres would tell head coach David Blatt in his congratulatory phonecall.
“I nearly had a heart attack but you are heroes and have brought incredible pride to Israel.”
Even if not all of Europe is watching, it feels as if it is.
If a couple of results had gone another way, we could have had another all-Ireland Heineken Cup final, bringing the country to another standstill. Instead, people will only be keeping a cursory eye on the action from Cardiff: Toulon against Saracens is hardly Leinster-Ulster or Munster.
Instead we will be revving up for Brian O’Driscoll’s last game in the RaboDirect Pro12 final, assuming again Euroleague cities like Berlin and Istanbul and Athens and Madrid are all watching when instead they are oblivious to the talent of one of our all-time great sportsmen.
Football is different. In Munster they may be ignorant of Maccabi’s feats just as in Tel Aviv they do not know Paul O’Connell. But everyone knows Roy Keane, Ronaldo, Bale, and now, Diego Costa and Diego Simeone. Berlin and Istanbul will watch on.
Atletico-Real may be a tale of one city but it is as global as club sport can get.
Yet if Simeone finds the prospect of another act of giant-killing is getting a little heavy for his players, he need only remind them of how Maccabi’s David slayed the Madridistas’ Goliath and maybe how there’s a guy in a business suit on the top of Mt Huangshan who doesn’t even know they are playing.