The NBA circus was in town and so were the clowns, Dictaphones cocked like hooters, bodies six deep in the mêlée.
And as the New York Knicks made the art of swishing a regulation-sized basketball into an 18-inch steel rim from distance look as easy as a Sunday morning stroll, the film director Spike Lee was shooting the breeze from court side.
"You've going to see many buckets against the Pistons," predicted the film director, whose orange Cossack hat was so luminous it could have lit up the O2 Arena by itself. "Carmelo might get 40 points. The last time I saw a Knicks team this good Patrick Ewing was playing. It's been a lot of years. We haven't won an NBA championship since 1972-73."
Carmelo is Carmelo Anthony – Melo for short, 6ft 8in and 230lb of muscle, ink and supreme shooting power. Last August he was part of the US Olympic basketball team that sauntered to gold at the London 2012 Games, breaking the team's record for most points in a single game – 37 against Nigeria – form he has continued into the NBA, where he is ranked second for scoring.
And before the Knicks' match against the Detroit Pistons on Thursday night Anthony was happy to have the smell of east London in his nostrils again. "Do you remember the Olympics?" he was asked. "How could I forget?" he responded with incredulity, the tattoos on his left arm – the ones saying Terminator, Melo and showing five aces – twitching, before he continued more serenely: "It was a special time in my life. And now I'm excited to be back in London. We're trying to expand the game of basketball and this is a very big moment."
That might be overstating it but the desire of the NBA to expand into fertile new territories is overt. Earlier this week the league's commissioner, David Stern, predicted that there would be multiple international teams playing in the NBA in 20 years' time, including in Europe. Given the Pistons versus Knicks match sold out in four days, that may not be such a pipe dream. Indeed the veteran New York Post beat writer Marc Berman, surveying the sides practise on Wednesday said: "It feels a bit like the NBA finals. You have hundreds of media from across Europe here. Players realise it's a big event."
It should be an intriguing match-up. The Knicks have an average age of more than 32, the oldest roster in the NBA, while the Pistons have only two players over 30: Tayshaun Prince and Corey Maggette. They also have a 14-24 record, one of the worst in the league, and the memory of recent flesh wounds against the Knicks.
As Detroit's head coach, Lawrence Frank, said: "It's great exposure for our young team to come to a beautiful city and play in front of international fans. But the last time we played the Knicks they made 17 three-pointers as we gave up 121 points. They are No1 in the league for three-points made and they have a very talented roster, so in a sense we have to choose our poison. But we can't let that happen again if we want to win the game."
Those going on Thursday night will get what Benjamin Morel, the NBA's senior vice-president in Europe, calls the "authentic NBA experience", with Pistons cheerleaders, mascots bounding and crowd-participation events, such as kiss-cam, to break up the dead time between timeouts – everything, in short, to make North Greenwich feel a little closer to Greenwich Village.
"The schedule has been deliberately stretched, with the NBA legends – including former New York Knicks player John Starks – and the cheerleaders flying to London earlier in the week to maximise media opportunities," said Morel.
"Our audience is one of teenagers and young adults, so we also focus on social media as the way to generate buzz," he added. "A lot of our players and legends tweet. We have coaching clinics. We have a court built in Sky Sports Studios where we can showcase basketball activity."
The capacity crowd at the O2 will be there mostly to see Anthony, who on Sunday night announced he had ended a 15-day fast – "no meats, no carbs" – which he had undergone "to clear everything out" after his numbers dipped and he felt low on energy. It was perhaps no coincidence that over the same period New York, who had raced to 18-5, slipped back. Still they have the second-best record in the NBA Eastern Conference behind the Miami Heat, the reigning champions.
One would have thought that Anthony might have learnt his lesson. Two years ago he tried the Daniel Fast – taken from Daniel 10.2-3 – "I ate no choice food, no meat or wine touched my lips and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over" – with similarly weak results.
Daniel was a prophet who succeeded in foreign lands. Anthony will be expecting to do the same on Thursday night.
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