Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

It might take the heat off if Alex Ferguson copied nakedness shown in the US

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 03: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat dunks the ball against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 3, 2013 in New York City
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 03: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat dunks the ball against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 3, 2013 in New York City

Basketball has never really done it for me, something about the obvious nature of the end-to-end rhythms inherent in the piece.

When I told one veteran of the American sportswriting business that I was making my NBA debut at the Miami Heat last Friday night, he said in a baked-on Boston accent redolent of Jimmy Cagney: "Turn up for the last two minutes. You won't have missed anything."

It is an affront to the towering genius of LeBron James, who could probably apply that 6ft 8in, 18st frame in any sporting context, and to an indoor audience numbering 20,000 to dismiss the sport thus. I would agree that for three of the four quarters the game seemed to be about doing just enough to keep pace with the opposition. Only in the last quarter did the dynamic shift, lifting the Heat into a new dimension. Only then did the holy trinity of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh take the match beyond the Philadelphia 76ers.

In other respects a night under the American Airlines Arena roof went a long way to explain the American attitude to sport, an approach which accommodates the passion required to make the night swing while maintaining a proper perspective. The fans, nearly all of whom are home supporters, given the vast distances separating the teams, show their love while maintaining only a comic hatred of the opposition. An essential civility is assured because at the heart of the event is the idea that sport is entertainment, to be enjoyed, not lived.

At half-time, with the players milling about, a mock athletics mat was rolled on to the court. It was split into five lanes and extended no more than five metres long. It was time for the "Baby Races". Yep, on to the blocks crawled five tiny tots. With parents egging them on, the shuffling superstars of tomorrow made their way chaotically to the other end, stopping as they pleased, veering across lanes and generally bringing the house down with their failure to comprehend the task.

During the myriad timeouts, mascots would be dispensed into the galleries to initiate T-shirt time, which amounts to the ad hoc distribution of merchandising by mascots hoist on barriers; dancing girls would flood the playing surface; percussionists in Elvis suits would bang out a ditty high in the stands. The place frothed with trivial distractions that helped cast the evening as sporting panto. In this atmosphere it is impossible to foster the hostility that dominates the football-watching experience at home. There were no vile chants in this house, no sense of danger, no sinister undertows.

This has a consequence, too, for those professionally engaged. The players and coaches have a proper respect for the officials and relations with the media are accepted as necessary rather than intrusive, evidenced by the access afforded before and after games.

James is arguably the greatest player of this generation. He earns a reported $18m (£12m) a year in the service of the Eastern Conference giants. That is roughly the same as Wayne Rooney, whose future at Manchester United came under such scrutiny last week.

In his time Rooney has been as important to United as LeBron is to the Heat. But, as far as I'm aware, he has never conducted an interview in his pants and socks. Apart from speaking to MUTV, and rights broadcasters in the Premier and Champions League, Rooney is not required to say a dicky bird, clothed or otherwise. James stood in front of his locker bold as brass in his boxers to account for his role in another thumping victory that confirmed the Heat's place in this season's play-offs with 17 fixtures to spare. The 102-93 drubbing was their 17th win on the spin, a "streak" that has had Miami in a lather all week.

James was not alone in addressing the media half-naked. Wade and Bosh delivered their testimony with only towels hiding their jewels. All three spoke as well as they played, giving considered answers to legitimate questions probing every aspect of their night's work. Those whose views were not sought simply went about their personal grooming as they would in their bathrooms at home.

This is not how it is in England, particularly at our foremost footballing institution, where Sir Alex Ferguson seeks to control the environment at Manchester United by keeping the media out as far as he can. The experience in Miami is proof that the best way to control the news environment is to allow the media in, to permit qualified access before and after games.

Sir Alex would argue that routine openness on this scale can't happen in today's overexposed, social media-saturated world. The experience in Miami last Friday proves otherwise. Throw open your doors, Sir Alex. You never know, LeBron might walk in. Towels optional.

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