The biggest basketball spectacle for this hoop-crazy nation has begun.
Two star-studded teams, along with an array of the sport’s living legends, arrived in Manila Monday as the National Basketball Association (NBA) stages a preseason game for the first time in Southeast Asia.
The Houston Rockets and the Indiana Pacers clash at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena in Pasay City, where an overflow crowd is expected, as over 16,000 tickets have already been sold.
NBA superstar center Dwight Howard flew in at 10 a.m. Monday via a chartered flight together with his Rockets teammates, led by Taiwanese-American sensation Jeremy Lin and James Harden.
Bannered by rising stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert, the Pacers arrived at 6:55 a.m., also via a chartered flight.
The Pacers, the Eastern Conference finalists last season, came with one of basketball’s all-time greatest, Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics icon who’s now the president of the Pacer franchise.
Ron Harper, the five-time NBA champion who won titles with Michael Jordan in Chicago and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, arrived last weekend as one of the NBA Global Games ambassadors.
“We’re just excited to come over to play the game and give Filipinos a great show,” Harden said.
Other greats drumming up the blockbuster event are hardcourt legends Robert Horry, Clyde Drexler and Jalen Rose. They also arrived on Monday with a big delegation of league personnel and officials, led by NBA vice president for basketball operations Ernest Maurice “Kiki” Vandeweghe.
The NBA has said many times over that the Philippines tops the list of countries outside the United States that follow the NBA on various platforms, including its website and social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Record sale of tickets
“It’s exciting to see the love that the Philippine people have for basketball,” Horry told a media conference at Sofitel Manila. Horry won seven NBA championships with three different teams.
“I’m really excited for the game,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a packed house and there’s going to be craziness. I’m just excited [about] how many people will come out for the game.”
Nicole Deato, marketing and sponsorship head of MOA Arena and SM Tickets, said a record P19 million worth of tickets were sold on the first day of release last June 16.
Tickets ranged from as low as P550 to as high as P32,300 for premium seats.
“It’s a pleasure to have the NBA in Manila. When you put the two together, it spells a great time,” said Drexler, who starred for the Rockets and the Portland Trailblazers in the 1980s and ’90s.
The Global Games ambassadors said the Filipinos should brace for a high-caliber match.
“This is the first preseason game we’re having here and we have two good, young and exciting teams,” Harper said. “We expect a lot from them this year.”
“These are two great teams who can eventually be foes in the NBA Finals,” Drexler added. “That’s how good I think these teams are. They are on their way to become among the best NBA franchises.”
The game is part of the NBA’s comprehensive global schedule that will have eight teams play in eight cities in six countries this October. After Manila, the Rockets and Pacers will play in Taipei on Sunday.
In the Global Games series, there’ll be 12 teams playing outside the United States and Canada, the most ever, and the league will play regular season games in two countries beyond those for the first time.
There are stops in old standbys and first-time trips to cities in Brazil and Spain that will be hosting major international competitions in the next few years.
Worth the pricey tickets
The Philippines tops the list of countries following the NBA on Facebook and Twitter outside the United States, organizers said.
Additionally, the NBA conducts each year local events in the Philippines, including the Jr. NBA program, which has reached more than 60,000 students, parents and coaches over the past five years, and NBA 3X, the league’s global fan event.
NBA Asia country manager Carlo Singson said Filipino fans should expect a “real NBA experience” that’s worth the pricey tickets.
“The atmosphere in an NBA game is different from anything you’ve experienced before, if you haven’t been into one,” Singson said in an earlier interview. “It’s nonstop entertainment and action.”
Focus on Lin
Before Thursday’s historic showdown, the NBA players, legends and team officials will also grace various NBA Cares activities in schools and selected neighborhood basketball courts, and engage Filipino fans in mall events.
A throng of press photographers jostling against security officials for the NBA stars’ arrival bore testament to the intense interest the clash is generating in the Philippines, which this year hosted the FIBA Asia Championship, losing to Iran in the finals.
Much of the focus has been on Lin, the first American-born player of Asian descent in the league, whose breakthrough season in 2012 led to a global following dubbed “Linsanity.”
“Jeremy Lin welcome to the Philippines! Best Asian NBA player,” tweeted fan John Lester Delesmo.
Mark Anthony Marquez, a college student, said he was disappointed he missed out on cheap tickets in the bleachers, which had quickly sold out. “Maybe I will camp out at the arena,” he said.—With reports from AP and AFP