LONDON — Those high-flying slam dunks and long-distance 3-pointers are going to mean a lot more to the London crowd next year when the NBA plays its first regular-season games in Europe.
NBA commissioner David Stern announced Monday that the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets will face each other March 4 and 5 at the O2 Arena, the same venue that has hosted preseason games over the last several years.
"It's going to make basketball shine as a sport of passion, intensity, teamwork," Stern said on a conference call.
The NBA has been looking to expand overseas for years, and Stern has said in the past he would like to play a meaningful game in London before the city hosts the Olympics in 2012.
"This, to us, is really within the context of giving as much support as we can to the sport of basketball for the 2012 Olympics," Stern said. "In Beijing (at the 2008 Olympics), basketball was the hottest ticket. We don't necessarily expect that to be the case in London, although ... I think that there's a good possibility that basketball will assume a role that folks in the United Kingdom might never have anticipated."
In the early 1990s, the NBA played some regular-season games in Japan – the only ones ever held outside North America. They've also played in Mexico City.
Although the NBA is finally making the jump to play meaningful games in Europe, Stern was hesitant to say if the league would make it an annual occurrence.
"We would rather not make a promise that we couldn't fulfill. We'll need to assess how we do in March, what the impact is, and we're going to go from there," Stern said. "It would not surprise me if this became an annual event."
Before this season opens, the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves will each play two games in the fifth installment of the NBA's preseason Europe Live Tour. The champion Lakers will face the Timberwolves at the O2 Arena on Oct. 4 and then play Barcelona in Spain three days later. The Knicks will play an Italian team in Milan on Oct. 3 and the Timberwolves three days later in Paris.
The NFL will be playing a regular-season game in London for the fourth straight season when the San Francisco 49ers face the Denver Broncos on Oct. 31 at Wembley Stadium. The NHL has also played regular-season games in London, and still does so in other European cities.
London was given the honor of hosting the first regular-season NBA games because of its financial drawing power, Stern said. Tickets for the two games are to go on sale Sept. 1.
Stern said both the Nets and Raptors expressed interest in playing overseas, and he noted that their combined rosters could include players from France, Italy, Spain, Brazil and Lithuania.
"And this is going to demonstrate to us ... the global representation in the sport and give fans an appreciation of what globalization has meant to us and how the sport itself has captured the imagination of youngsters all over the world," Stern said.
He noted that the Raptors play in Canada and the Nets are owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.
"When he bought the team, (he) made it clear he would like very much to travel," Stern said of the Nets owner, who will also send his team to China for a pair of preseason games against the Houston Rockets in Beijing and Guangzhou in October.
Stern also spoke about the possibility of having NBA franchises based in Europe.
"I think one franchise doesn't work. It needs to be multiple franchises in new buildings or good buildings," Stern said. "We need more buildings. And we need owners, and frankly, we need good television, and we need a better economy. And so I don't see that happening anytime soon, but I think it certainly is something that I and my successors will be considering."