There will be three star attractions at the NBA’s annual London game in January — the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics and Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving.
Irving has been at the centre of basketball’s biggest pre-season storyline during the summer, a mirror image of the transfer of Neymar from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain that captured the footballing world’s attention.
Just as Neymar left one of Europe’s very best teams in order to emerge from Lionel Messi’s shadow, Irving left his role as supporting act to LeBron James at the Cleveland Cavaliers to take a starring role at the Boston Celtics.
For Celtics president Rich Gotham, Irving possesses the kind of pull that will grab the attention of fans in the capital.
“The visibility of a team benefits from having those star quality players,” Gotham told City A.M.
“When I got off the plane in London the customs agent saw I was from Boston and said ‘Oh, you guys have got Kyrie Irving now’. He’s one of those players who’s known globally, he’s got that charisma and style in his game much like those Premier League players who are recognised around the world and attract fans.
“Back when we were here in 2007, we had great players like Kevin Garnett but they weren’t as familiar to average fans because social media hadn’t yet exploded, content wasn’t quite as available, individuals weren’t as branded.”
Building an international following off the back of star power is nothing new for the Celtics.
Gotham believes that the sell-out O2 Arena crowd wearing the franchise’s distinctive green jersey that greeted the team on their last visit a decade ago was thanks to the exploits of megastars such as Larry Bird, who led them to numerous championships and starred on the world stage.
“We have this long championship tradition in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s and the explosion of basketball globally tied to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the [United States] ‘Dream Team’,” said Gotham.
“We’ve got global stars now like Kyrie Irving, but I do think it goes back to those 80s teams who captured a lot of fans with the way they played the game and the success they had.”
Irving, a relentless points scorer, is the new face of the Celtics yet Gotham insists it was still visions of silverware — not social media hits — that motivated the signing.
The NBA’s 2012 Rookie of the Year is seen as the kind of talent who can elevate the Celtics from Conference finalists to NBA Champions.
“It’s an ancillary benefit if you have a player who’s got that much name and face recognition and global following that it feeds some of your metrics from a business standpoint, but that’s not a starting point,” he says.
“We would never acquire a player based on their fame. We acquire them based on their talent and their ability to help us win.
“But we haven’t really seen this team yet. So there’s a bit of intrigue not only for fans but for us on the inside too.”
On 11 January, London gets its own chance to see whether the Irving effect has worked.