USA expects bigger crowds for games

By Brian Mahoney The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS – Kobe Bryant regards Las Vegas as Lakers country. So where were all his fans on opening night of the FIBA Americas tournament?

Not at the Thomas ‘ Mack Center, where the Americans debuted before a crowd that was less than half what they drew last month for a scrimmage game.

The United States was back on the court Thursday night against the U.S. Virgin Islands, hoping to see a few more faces in an arena that was roughly two-thirds empty for the opener.

“I think as the scene picks up a little bit, maybe the crowds will start picking up a little bit, too,” Bryant said.

The Americans beat Venezuela 112-69 on Wednesday night before an announced crowd of 6,537. That couldn’t have been the home-court advantage USA Basketball was hoping for when it won the right to bring the regional Olympic qualifier to the States.

“I thought it was going to be more packed,” Carmelo Anthony said. “I thought it was going to be a sellout crowd, but I’m pretty sure they’ll get that throughout the tournament.”

Venezuela was originally slated to be the home team as the host country. But when the Venezuelans missed their payment deadline, FIBA Americas reopened the bidding. The United States, by then having been forced to qualify for the Olympics after not winning the world championships, decided to bid and beat San Juan, Puerto Rico by committing to pay FIBA Americas more than $3 million.

And yet, it still felt a bit like a road game.

“I almost forgot we were in the United States for a minute, we’re so used to playing overseas in these kinds of tournaments,” Anthony said.

The quiet atmosphere may have contributed to the slow start for the Americans, who didn’t pull away until the second quarter.

Las Vegas has a large basketball fan base, but maybe it’s already seen enough this year. The city hosted the NBA’s All-Star festivities in February, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant made their first pro appearances here in summer league, and the U.S. team closed its minicamp last month at Thomas ‘ Mack by drawing 15,132 fans for an intrasquad game.

Bryant made the game-winning shot that night, continuing a big year in Vegas that saw him win MVP honors at the All-Star game. He was one of the few players that weekend to say he was against the city getting an NBA team, joking that the Lakers, who regularly make preseason appearances here, already have all their fans.

“This is like home away from home,” he said after Wednesday’s game. “We come here so much and the fans don’t have a team here, so they’re all Lakers fans and we had the opportunity to be with each other since my first year in the NBA.”

Perhaps fans just didn’t feel the need to rush to see the U.S. team, knowing they have plenty of time thanks to the longer-than-necessary tournament format. Assuming the Americans reach the championship game, they will have played 10 games in 12 days.

Crowds were tiny at the other three games on opening day, with few seats in the top level of the 18,000-seat arena being occupied. The UNLV ticket office said there are still plenty of tickets available for every day of the tournament, which ends Sept. 2.

U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t going to complain about the crowd. After receiving some scattered boos during games here the past two years – likely stemming from Duke’s victory over unbeaten UNLV in the 1991 Final Four – he’ll take whatever support he can get.

“They were a very vocal and appreciative crowd. I think because there are four games in and 10 games in 12 days and it’s summer,” he said. “We appreciate the fan support and it was a televised game and that has something to do with it I’m sure. I think the fans were very appreciative of both teams.”