Hong Kong might be in the grip of World Cup fever but there was another kind of match taking place this weekend that had me even closer to the edge of my seat.
This game wasn’t happening in a sweaty Brazilian stadium, instead it took place at an indoor arena on the east side of San Antonio, Texas. On Sunday evening in the US, millions of people tuned in for game five of the National Basketball Association (NBA) finals. Having won three games so far in what is a best-of-seven series, last night the San Antonio Spurs sealed an overall victory against the Miami Heat to win this year’s championship for the Texan team. The Spurs have only been defeated at this stage of the competition once before – during last year’s finals against the same opponents.
Being from neither Miami or San Antonio, I have no allegiance to either team (although who really wants to see LeBron James and the Heat win yet again?) but basketball is not simply a game for diehard sports fans. Invented by a PE teacher during the last decade of the 19th century, it’s a game that requires a small amount of space (and people) to play. So while football may have transformed the lives of children playing in Brazilian favelas, basketball has had the same effect on thousands of American underprivileged, inner-city youths who can string up a hoop and train in the street. It’s a game with few complicated rules and one with enough speed and variety that a team trailing by a few points can still triumph in a match's final few minutes.
It’s a sport that has also played an important role for African-Americans and other ethnic minorities in the US. From the actions of players such as Bill Russell during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s through to the role models of the NBA today, the work of professional basketball players happens just metres away from fans. It feels different to those hidden behind helmets on American football fields or players sitting in private baseball dugouts.
But unlike the global phenomenon that is football (or soccer as it’s known in the US), American sports haven’t connected as strongly with with fans overseas. Last year saw both the US’s National Football League (NFL) and the NBA attempt considerable overtures pushing for international expansion. Yet while the NFL has spent millions on exporting a sport marred with controversy concerning brain damage and exploitation, the NBA has a more positive story to tell. With a large number of international players already playing in the NBA such as China’s Yao Ming and US players in established leagues overseas, basketball looks to have a brighter international future. Ming is even opening his own NBA training schools in China.
Being Hong Kong-based and a few hours ahead, time-wise, I’ve actually not seen yesterday’s basketball match yet. But rather than read the highlights while at work, I’m waiting to watch a replay this evening of what is sure to have been a great game. So, if this has convinced anyone to get stuck into what happened between LeBron and Tim Duncan a few hours ago, then please make sure to not tell me.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle's Hong Kong bureau chief.