London to stage two regular season NBA games in 2011

By Michael Szabo

LONDON (Reuters) - The NBA will play two regular season games in London next March, part of a push to bring professional basketball to the city before it hosts the 2012 Olympics, NBA commissioner David Stern said Monday.

The matches, to be held at London's O2 Arena on March 4 and 5, will feature the Toronto Raptors and the New Jersey Nets and will represent one home date and one away date for both teams, Stern said by phone.

"The staging of our first regular-season games in Europe is a milestone for the NBA and the ongoing development of basketball in the region," Stern said during a teleconference.

The league has played a handful of regular season games outside North America since holding its first in Japan in 1990, but has never played any in Europe.

The two games, to highlight the league's newfound international flavor, fulfill a promise first made by Stern in 2007 to hold regular season games in the English capital.

The Raptors' current 18-man roster lists players from the U.S., Italy, Spain, Lithuania, Slovenia, Australia, Brazil and Nigeria, while the New Jersey Nets were recently bought by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who said he wants to the team to build a global fan base.

"Both teams expressed strong interest in being part of the globalization of our sport," Stern said.

"Toronto is demonstrating that this is no longer just an American sport and Mr. Prokhorov was very interested in having the Nets, who will also be participating in our China games, be part of our global push."

New Jersey will play two pre-season games in China in October, one against Chinese basketball icon Yao Ming and his Houston Rockets and the other against Guangzhou.

The NBA is also playing four pre-season games in Europe in October featuring an October 4 sold-out match at London's O2 Arena with Kobe Bryant and the 2009 league champion Los Angeles Lakers taking on the Minnesota Timberwolves.

(Reporting by Michael Szabo; Editing by Justin Palmer and Pritha Sarkar)