The NBA has been expanding to the United Kingdom over the past few years, organizing preseason regular season games in London. Despite the invasion of the NBA, British basketball and the Great Britain national team, led by NBA All-Star Luol Deng, is still struggling to catch up with the rest of the Europe and compete with traditional and internationally well-known British sports, such as soccer, rugby and cricket.
Andrew Sullivan, Great Britain national team captain, has been one of very few Brits who played in top European competitions such as Euroleague and Spanish league. He has also helped his country in two European championships and last year's Olympics. Sullivan, who played collegiately at Villanova, helped his current team, Leicester Riders, win the BBL cup and is arguably the best player playing in Britain.
Sullivan sat down with RealGM to discuss joys and sorrows of the British basketball, his personal career, Great Britain national team, Luol Deng and much more.
RealGM: From your own experiences, what are the main differences between playing in Britain and top basketball countries such as Russia or Spain?
Sullivan: The speed of the game. The size of the players. Of course, I played for England [national team] before, but just doing it week in and week out. Playing against guys, who are a lot bigger. When I was in England, I played as a four [power forward], but there I was more of a three or two. That was one of the biggest differences. Also the physicality of the game. For good or bad, there are loads of fouls called here [in Britain], compared with places such Russia and Spain. They allow you to play physically and to be honest, I enjoyed that. It suits me better. That would be two main things and of course, fan support, professionalism of the team. Everything is first class. It's something we're trying to do over here, but still, we're a number of years behind the rest of Europe.
RealGM: How did you end up playing in Leicester for the Riders?
Sullivan: Last season I was looking for a team and one of friends told me to come and workout here. While I was here, the GM of the team, Russell Levenston, offered me a contract. I've got a family here and I wanted to stay close to them. For me, it was a good situation and especially leading to the Olympics. I didn't want to be sitting on the bench somewhere. For me, it was a really good decision. Obviously, coming this year, I was talking to Russell, who is one of my best friends now, and it was no-brainer not to stay here. Last season wasn't as successful as I wanted, therefore for me it was like unfinished business. That was one of the key reasons why I wanted to sign.
RealGM: Since 2008 there has been no British team in European competitions. In your opinion, what were the main reasons causing that?
Sullivan: It's a financial drain. Playing in a competition like that, there is a lot of traveling. Going to places like Russia, Ukraine, it's a financial drain. Unfortunately, clubs over here don't have resources to do that. Obviously, when you think we don't have resources competing in that league, that also means we don't have resources to pay players you kind of need to be successful over there. It's something I would like to see happening again. Now it wouldn't make any sense doing it because it would bankrupt the team.
RealGM: Could you compare British league before you left Britain and after you came back?
Sullivan: When I left, London Towers were playing in the Euroleague, which was great. We had teams playing in huge arenas like Manchester, Birmingham and so on. Then there was a little bit of a quieter period, when we took a couple steps back. But what is happening now, it's becoming a better and stronger league. It's being built on a really solid basis. You cannot build it quickly; it takes time and a lot of hard work. I think we're on the right way.
RealGM: Britain is known for its football [soccer], rugby or cricket and it should be very hard for basketball to fight for its place under the sun.
Sullivan: That is one of the beauties about this country, but it's also one of the drawbacks. We have an opportunity to put a lot of resources in different sports, but because you have so many mainstream sports, it's hard to promote everything. Obviously, football [soccer], rugby and cricket take the priority, because those are traditional sports in my country. Maybe a hundred years from now basketball will become a traditional sport in our country. It comes back in building things in a right way. There's no point asking for whole lot coverage just for the league as it's going to burn out in ten years time. We got games on Sky TV; the cup final and trophy final, were all live on Sky TV. That's a huge step forward from were we been in the past few years.
RealGM: What was your reaction when you first heard that Luol Deng will likely not play for Team GB in EuroBasket 2013?
Sullivan: To be honest with you, the guy done so much for his national team and he were here from the start. If he decides to take a summer off, who would mind to say no? He has been absolutely servant to this country. When you think about the fact that he wasn't born here, he came here as a refugee. When he comes out and plays for Great Britain, puts that shirt on, you cannot tell he wasn't born here. If he decides to take a summer off, that's a fair play.
RealGM: Sometimes it seems that Luol Deng doesn't get as much attention in Britain as other sport celebrities. Don't you think he's a bit underrated?
Sullivan: I don't think he's underrated in this country. Everyone here fully appreciate it what he is and what he does. I think he's underrated for what he does in the NBA. He's that guy who keeps his team going and that guy who doesn't get under the spotlight and get the whole media attention. He doesn't complain, he goes out and scores 30 [points], and in the next game he has five points, ten rebounds and eight assists. For me that what being an All-Star is, not a guy who just scores loads of points.
RealGM: Every summer there had been many speculation on Ben Gordon and Byron Mullens joining the national team. Does that bother you?
Sullivan: For me, there are no speculations. That has been year after year, they are supposed to play but they haven't. I'm more worried about the guys who've been there and who potentially could be there next year. If Ben and Byron come, it makes our national team much stronger. If they don't, we go with what we got.
RealGM: Do you see yourself playing in EuroBasket 2013?
Sullivan: That's the plan, if I feel healthy. I'm looking forward to this summer. If nothing happens between now and then, the goal is to be back in the Team GB.
RealGM: I don't want to call you a veteran, but as your career comes to an end, what is next in your plans?
Sullivan: That's alright, I'm a veteran, 33 years old (laughing). There's nothing wrong with that. I've been playing professionally for about ten years. I still feel I've got lot left in the tank and I think I've been doing pretty well this season.
RealGM: In your generation, there had been many top players such as Joel Freeland, Robert Archibald and few more. Do you see a new British basketball generation being as good as yours?
Sullivan: Definitely, every summer I've been with the GB team and every summer I felt I had to raise my game. I had to dig a bit deeper for my spot. This summer is going to be the same. Young players, they come and respect us for what we've done before them, but they want our spots. Our job is to defend them. It's not a problem. And I'm very happy that we'll continue to get funding to manage the program and even more so, for future's program because that's going to be a lifeblood for our national team.
RealGM: The NBA is trying to expand its brand in the United Kingdom due to its financial potential, but do you think British basketball really benefits from that?
Sullivan: It definitely helps the NBA. It's nice that people support basketball in general. You hope that if they support NBA and they like basketball, they might find a local team and support them. That's the hope. People buying NBA jerseys… I don't think that makes any difference to the BBL. If all people would be walking around with Leicester Riders, Newcastle and Manchester or Surrey jerseys, that would be nice and that's what we want.