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Utah Jazz: Hoops is huge in Spain, but in London it hasn't quite caught on yet

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

MADRID — They went from a British city where basketball still is as foreign to many as driving on the wrong side of the road to one in Spain where the game is not just familiar but actually rather popular.

It was quite a global wake-up call for the Jazz, who as part of the NBA's EuropeLive tour 2009 narrowly lost a preseason game Tuesday to the Chicago Bulls at London's O2 Arena and easily won an exhibition with Spanish League power Real Madrid on Thursday at Palacio de Deportes here in Madrid.

Ask a cabbie here to take you where Real plays, and you'll wind up at massive Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for football — or soccer to those back in Utah — and not the 15,000-seat Palace.

Still ...

"I know the Spanish people love basketball," said the Jazz's Deron Williams, a gold medal-winning United States Olympian in 2008 who this past summer made a quick visit to Madrid to promote Thursday's game.

"They've been one of the best countries in basketball for a while," Williams added with reference to FIBA's reigning European and World champions. "We (the U.S.) finally, winning the gold medal, got back to the top. But I think they're probably our strongest competition."

Contrast that to Great Britain, where efforts to build basketball still remain very much at the grassroots level.

Courts are few and far between in the United Kingdom, taking a backseat to cricket in a place where you're just as likely to catch a darts match on ESPN as anything involving a hoop.

When the Jazz went there, in fact, they really did feel like ambassadors.

"Basketball is not that popular in London, in England," said the Jazz's Andrei Kirilenko, a star on the Russian national team, "so we have to show them what basketball at the highest level is."

The visit — along with a 100-game NBA package on television in England for the upcoming season, which is certainly better than none — seems to be paying dividends, too.

"I try to watch (the NBA) on TV as much as I can — if I'm up that late," said Robert Dent, a Hayes Londoner who was wearing a Williams No. 8 Jazz jersey while holding a beer at the ha ha pub at The O2 Arena prior to Thursday's game. "I think it's good to market it (in London), because it increases merchandising as well. ... I think the more exhibition games they have over here, the more popular it's gonna get."

Great Britain's national program remains under construction too, and should be better with the addition of NBA standout Ben Gordon, a dual citizen, to a roster that already features Sudanese political refugee and naturalized British citizen Luol Deng of the Bulls.

The British Basketball League, though, is nowhere near big or competitive enough to be mentioned in the same breath as those in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, Greece, Israel, Turkey and, well, the list goes on.

"In London, they don't really have a league, do they?" said Real Madrid small forward Travis Hansen, who knows.

"Spain's big. ... Russia (basketball is) huge too," added Hansen, the former Mountain View, Utah Valley State, BYU and Atlanta Hawks player who spent the last three years with Moscow Dynamo in Russia. "You can tell by the amount of money teams put behind them, and the amount of fans. I mean, here they get 15,000 a night (a sellout) every game."

Before playing for Dynamo and transferring earlier this year to Real Madrid, Hansen — now paid handsomely in the millions — played two years for another Spanish team, Tau Ceramica.

Both Madrid and Tau compete in the Spanish ACB league, which is Europe's biggest in terms of attendance and — arguably — its best as far as competition goes.

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