The arrival of the Final Four in London is probably a little different for me than for any of your other Euroleague announcers. Guys like Mick Bett and Roy Birch have had coaching careers on these shores and have been part of the UK basketball scene for many years, while Liam Canny had a rich basketball upbringing in the United States. My time following this great sport stretches back into my early teens, but my discovery of European basketball is much more recent.
I grew up, as most in England, in a football culture. Football is the sport everyone talked about at school, played on lunch break, and then played again at the park about three minutes after the school bus dropped us back home!
But, from a young age, I was also infatuated by three of the big four American sports. (Baseball was the exception; for some reason my brain only reacts to sports that involve two teams going from one end of a playing surface to another!) As I experimented with these options, basketball quickly emerged as the clear front-runner. I was captivated by the swings of momentum, the sense of drama as a close game unfolded, and the buzz of a big shot dropping in as the seconds wound down. There was a relentlessness, a tenacity about it that perhaps is missing from all but the biggest of football matches.
The only problem was, none of my friends watched it. Football, rugby and cricket were, and still are, such an entwined part of the fabric of this country that finding followers of other sports seemed, at a young age, like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.
In the absence of a proper basketball friend to share my love of the game with, I settled for watching American television broadcasts of the sport (predominantly in the middle of the night and by myself!), shooting a few hoops in the back yard, and challenging friends to basketball contests on the computer. From time to time, I managed to hook the odd friend into the idea of staying up late with me to watch a big game, but, as my fascination with the game grew, theirs would invariably wane. The commitment of regularly spending late nights to follow a sport that they could talk about to only me, balanced against the obligation to stay up-to-date with all the latest football, rugby and cricket news, was a challenge to which each would succumb after a week or two.
Even watching games on TV by myself was harder than you might believe. TV rights in the UK constantly switched channels. They would move from one satellite station to another, and then from satellite to terrestrial, with no station apparently willing to give the sport the big push that I felt it deserved! There were times when coverage disappeared from our airwaves completely. Mid-season, it just stopped. There were times when I’d accepted the fact that nobody was broadcasting basketball this year, and then, towards the end of a season, it just appeared again!
I have fond memories of living in a flat above my parents’ garage with my brother, and convincing him to stay up late for a game (not that he had much choice; it was a tiny studio flat and I was going to be cheering loudly!). We would make cheese, lettuce and mayo sandwiches in our limited kitchen, put on a pot of coffee, and, in the absence of TV coverage, find an internet radio station that was covering the big game. It would be three in the morning - we had to be up for school in four hours! The 32 kbps internet connection meant the radio station was cutting in and out as the game drew to a dramatic conclusion. Inevitably, my brother has fallen asleep by this point, and I am hanging on every single one of the commentator’s words. Just me and the game. Up goes the final shot... out goes the internet connection!
“Did he make it?”... “Come on, come on, work damn it!”... “Did that go in?”
My brother is now awake again, thanks to all of the shouting.
“Yes... it’s good!”
I once jumped off the flat’s balcony into the back garden when somebody hit a game-winning three pointer at the buzzer! Try going to sleep straight away with that adrenaline pumping through your veins. I’d be at school just a few hours later, dreary-eyed and with nobody to talk to about what had been a sporting classic. Nobody else even knew.
I feel robbed of basketball history that at no point in those years did I ever discover the Euroleague. Sadly, I never came across it on TV, and I had nobody to tell me it existed. It pains me to think of all the "balcony-jumping moments" that I've missed in a competition I now consider to be the world's greatest.
It took travelling to the United States to find people to really "talk basketball" with. I've made many good friends in the States through many years of journeying across the pond to watch basketball at all different levels. After a decade of long haul flights, just a few years ago, I finally stumbled across this tournament called the Euroleague. "Hang on! They play this sport on my continent too?"
I had been to a few local British games, but had not become hooked on the atmosphere or the competition. Now, I had found this incredible basketball tournament a few paces from my doorstep. How had I missed it? My basketball stars must have aligned, because soon after that discovery, my agent asked if I could commentate on basketball: I rejoiced! The job was Euroleague TV.
At the start of last season, my very first game announcing was also the competition debut of Unics Kazan, with Henry Domercant inspiring in defeat against his former club, Montepaschi Siena. From Domercant’s career-high 30 points to Milan Macvan's weekly MVP performance in a raucous Belgrade victory against former club, Maccabi, even the regular season produced personal highlights for me as an announcer.
In the Top 16, I called Roko Ukic’s buzzer beater against Unics last season to send the game into overtime, where Fenerbahce won by 7 to maintain its playoffs hopes. The roof had barely been on the brand new Ulker Sports Arena before 12,000 basketball-mad fans almost blew it off again! More recently, I had the pleasure of calling one of the key games to close the newly-extended and hugely-dramatic Top 16. Caja Laboral Vitoria's laser-focused performance under huge pressure against Siena was a joy to behold.
It is my distinct privilege to watch the best competition in the world as part of my job. All of those years lacking anybody to share my love of the game with are over. Now, I get to talk to Euroleague fans each week through the microphone. During this stop on the road to London, the playoffs, my love for this sport – and this competition – could not be greater. I am delighted to say that the Turkish Airlines Euroleague has replaced any American league – in any sport – on my schedule. I believe that the Euroleague has more passion, excitement and, of course, devotion, than any other basketball competition in the world. There is no better encapsulation of that than the Final Four – elite professional basketball's only four-team, single-elimination final weekend.
To see such an engrossing spectacle arrive in London is confirmation that I've found what I was looking for all of those years. I fully intend to be seated in The O2 on the evening of May 12, this season's title game. When I look around at the grandeur and splendour of the arena, bathed in all the different colours of European basketball's best, I'll think about all those late nights I had to sit and watch basketball by myself.
With 16,000 other die-hard fans with me at The O2, I am sure that I will never have felt more at home.