It's been pouring rain off and on in Beijing for a few hours, and the cleverly named Olympic Basketball Gymnasium is turning sloppy. Workers are patrolling the concourses with mops, fans are shedding ponchos, and the floor is squeaking.
But there's a buzz in the air, a buzz that was certainly missing from, say, the Spain-Greece game a few hours ago. There were three scheduled basketball sessions today of two games each, and we're now in opening game of the third session. Australia is playing Croatia, but the stands are filling up with China flags and red-white-and-blue in anticipation of the nightcap, USA-China. Some Chinese fans have called tonight's meeting the most anticipated event of the Games.
It's probably a close contest between Kobe Bryant and Yao for most popular jersey in the building, but there are also jerseys for former NBA stars Gary Payton and Alex English, to give just two examples. Also, for British soccer star Frank Lampard.
Concession workers are doing a brisk business in hot-dogs-on-sticks (for about $1.25) and yogurt, while other workers are roaming the concourses selling Chinese flag capes for $15 or so, sheets of temporary China tattoos for about $2, and smaller wavable Chinese flags for about $1.50. Oh, and you can get a beer for less than a buck.
Some fans are evidently torn; 13-year old Kendrick Holmes from Hong Kong, for example, wore a Kobe Bryant jersey with Chinese flags on his face. "We're a little bit of a mix and match right now," explained his sister, 17-year old Caitlin, when asked which team they were rooting for. "We're thinking about it."
Two huge sections of the lower bowl are reserved for the media, and those media seats are almost all filled, meaning there are easily four or five hundred media people here, not counting the back-stage crews. And that's with two hours to go before tip-off. The media folks do stuff not commonly seen at U.S. games, like clap along with the cheerleaders and drink beer. Dozens of big-name American columnists are here; the Chicago Sun-Times's Jay Mariotti is wandering around looking for a seat. Late-arriving media are stading around the balconies.
There are still hundreds of empty seats in the stands, but they're disappearing quickly. Narrow rows and barriers everywhere in the stands make it difficult to get out once you've sat down, so the upper concourse is virtually deserted.
Coach K, his assistants and Kobe Bryant emerged during one of the earlier sessions to watch some of the action; the focus of the entire arena turned to them, with flashbulbs popping. But for Croatia-Australia, the biggest cheers are for the inflatable mascots and cheerleaders. That will probably change once warmups begin for the main event.
August 10, 2008; 8:29 AM ET
Categories: NBA , Olympics
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