LONDON (Reuters) - For Washington Wizards center Ian Mahinmi, Thursday’s sell-out NBA clash with New York Knicks in London is about as close as he’ll ever get to playing in his own backyard.
The 32-year-old from the French city of Rouen has had a long NBA career since being drafted by San Antonio Spurs in 2005, but his family usually have to watch from afar.
Not this week, however, as the Wizards and Knicks contest the ninth regular season game to be played at London’s O2 Arena.
“Of course it’s a big deal for me, coming from France, it’s like a homecoming,” Mahinmi told Reuters after a Wizards practice session in central London on Wednesday.
“I’ve been waiting for a game like this close to home for a long time, so I’m not going to lie to you, I have 50 people coming. Family, friends, people I care for.
“It’s a privilege and I can’t wait.”
Such is the globalization of the NBA that the 2018-19 rosters featured 108 international players from 42 countries, including 65 from Europe.
Thursday’s game will be beamed live to 200 nations and tickets have been sold to fans from 39 countries.
Not so long ago those figures would have been unthinkable, especially considering it was only in 1984 when Frenchman Herve Dubuisson became the first European-born player to sport an NBA jersey, joining the New Jersey Nets.
The trickle became a flood and this week the Wizards and Knicks will feature players from France, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Latvia.
“I don’t think where you’re from matters, if you have the skills to play in this league you should have the opportunity,” Wizards smallforward Trevor Ariza told Reuters.
“Wherever you are from, it’s about the best skill. There is skill all around the world and we wouldn’t be here today in London right now if the game had not grown the way it has.”
The NBA and NFL regularly stage games in London and in June a regular season MLB game will take place at the former Olympic Stadium between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Similar attempts to move English Premier League soccer matches overseas are met with derision by fans, but according to Wizards smallforward Sam Dekker globalising the NBA is crucial.
“We’re trying to grow basketball and it is growing faster than nearly every other sport that’s because of the initiatives the NBA has taken across the globe,” he said.
Dekker was hoping to squeeze in some sightseeing and a fish and chip dinner with his wife while in London, but come game day the routine will be the same as at home.
“We have to treat this like a road game, just a little further away. Once we get to game time it’s easy to lock in.”
Mahinmi agreed, despite the temptation to treat the hop back across the pond as a family reunion.
“This is a business trip. We come here to play hard and leave with a result,” he said.
One player who will not be in action on Thursday is Knicks’ Turkish center Enes Kanter who refused to travel to London, saying he feared for his life because of his opposition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“It’s very sad, it’s a big hit for us,” Knicks’ Croatian smallforward Mario Hezonga told Reuters.
“He’s an amazing guy to be around so it’s extremely sad. We support him and we have his back.”
Hezonga said he hoped other European cities could host regular NBA games — perhaps even a franchise.
“Why not?” he said. “A flight here is the same as a flight from LA to New York.”
The Knicks are playing their third regular season game at the O2 having beaten the Detroit Pistons in 2013 and lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2015.
In a season in which they have labored to 10 wins and 33 losses, they will hope a change of scene brings a change of fortune.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis