Fri, 14 Aug 2020

When SuperSport last showed live NBA matches, LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers achieved the impossible.Since then, basketball has continued influencing SA popular culture.However, the sport's popularity pales in comparison to soccer, rugby and cricket.

Kyrie Irving hit the shot, but LeBron James owned the moment.

The last time SuperSport showed live NBA games coincided with one of the sport's most memorable moments - the comeback to end all comebacks.

Irving hit a three-point shot over Steph Curry with less than a minute left on the clock, and James hit the free-throw that took the 2016 NBA finals Game 7 out of Golden State's reach and the Larry O'Brien trophy into Cleveland's hands.

It was James' third and arguably most seminal championship.

Legend has it, Michael Jordan made the call to approve the making of the after seeing James bring Cleveland its first NBA title and scale his way into the greatest of all-time debate.

Americans, the best sports content creators and hype generators on the planet, regaled us with the story of the Cavaliers' comeback from 1-3 down to the Warriors, the first team to do so in NBA finals history, and what it meant to, pretty much, existence.

It had a prequel to it: The story of this kid from Akron, Ohio, who grew up in a single parent household, with just him and his mother, Gloria James, moving from rough suburb to tough suburb just to make a decent life for themselves, mesmerised those enthralled by famine to fortune tales.

For South Africans, who had been used to waking up at odd hours, ESPN's 2013 departure and the NBA's in 2016, marked the sad suspension of NBA live action.

It was as if our relationship with James (or Curry, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Dwayne Wade) hit an indefinite pause button.

Sure, Soweto TV licenced some finals matches the following year and NBA Africa's YouTube channel showed some free-to-air live games last year, and ETV also dabbled in this form of late-night fun. But it was sporadic, clumsy, and bereft of the kind of content and analysis needed to get South Africans immersed in the largely foreign delight.

Basketball has always had a voyeuristic, cultish following in South Africa.

It has never gone mainstream. It's also part of its appeal; the exclusivity of it.

From the NBA Inside Stuff programme of the 1990s and the "Grant Hill drinks Sprite?" adverts, 'ball has kept hold of a niche but very loyal following.

Even in the lean years - both for SA's NBA coverage and James' championships - since 2016, basketball has influenced popular culture in South Africa.

LA Lakers, Golden State Warriors and Cavaliers jerseys are all the rage in fashion. You can find a throwback team jersey of your choosing just as quickly and as easily as you can get a Springbok, Proteas or Bafana Bafana jersey.

Even without fans at the big live games, ESPN has some of the best storytellers around.

The iconic 30-For-30 documentary series is the hallmark of what sporting visual chronology should be. And Jordan's , at least for five weeks, made people forget about the global pandemic that had stopped the earth from turning.

The channel returns not a moment too soon.

Sport-starved South Africans can get another glimpse into what basketball greatness looks like when James resumes his quest for a fourth ring to tie Shaquille O'Neil, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on the all-time championship winners list.

That James' Lakers face LA rivals the Clippers in the opening restart night of the "NBA Bubble" has added to the intrigue.

Kawhi Leonard's Clippers were meant to be the biggest threat to James' pursuit of a fourth ring, but in-camp issues have plagued LA's stepchild team.

The biggest threat could come out of the Eastern Conference, where Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks, defending champions Toronto Raptors and Jason Taytum's exciting Bolton Celtics will fight it out for the honour to face whoever comes out of the West.

Regardless of spectators no longer filling out arenas, South Africans could again bear witness to 'Bron James greatness.

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