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Q & A With A European Celtics Fan

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italiancelticspride.jpg As you are probably aware, the Celtics will be spending a week of training camp in lovely Italy next year. David Stern has been championing his dream to make the NBA a truly global game (a trend that was essentially started by the late Red Auerbach many years ago). Fans of the NBA are sprouting up all over the world and they are starting to let their voice be heard on blogs.

I had the privilage to exchange emails with Fabio of Italian Celtics Pride. I wanted to get a feel for how Italians (and perhaps by extension all Europeans) view the NBA. The following is a Q&A:

What is it like being a Celtics fan in Europe?

Easier than it was 25 years ago, that’s for sure. Back in the ‘80s you had to be a diehard fan to wake up in the middle of the night, turn on your radio and tune it to the American Forces Network frequencies, but the reward was the scratching voice of Johnny Most telling you the tales of the Green Knights in their perpetual quest for the Holy Trophy. Television networks would only air one NBA game per week, except for the Finals that gained more respect year after year, until they were finally aired live in the mid-eighties. Just in time to provide one of the most thrilling entertainments in the history of the NBA, the famous 7-game series between the Celtics and the Lakers.

Back then there were only a few magazines talking about the NBA, and they would eventually devote a few articles to what was going in the United States, and that kept Euro fans salivating for news and photos. In the ‘90s, with the constant “globalization” of the National Basketball Association and the birth of the World Wide Web, it became easier to feel the pulse of the Boston Celtics.

At first it was the official sites of sports magazines or TV networks, but soon after a plethora of Celtics-related newsletters and sites began quenching the Euro fans’ thirst for news. Fans started gathering in newsletters, and the boldest even provided live play-by-play coverage of the games they could watch living in the proximity of a U.S. military base (in my case that’s Aviano airport).

That’s how we lived the 2002 and 2003 playoff pushes, in a wave of thrill the Celtics fans hadn’t endured in about twenty years. By then it was easy to find tapes (and later DVD’s) of the games. Some fans would buy the games from Pontel and later ship them back and forth to other fans that joined the “net” to see the games and judge what was going on. That’s why when some American friend objects that being a “EuroCeltic” is somewhat lesser than being a Boston-based fan, we answer by saying that being a fan in America is easy. You have the papers, the TIVO, the radio shows, all the commodities.

Here in Europe, people go to sleep at 9 p.m. to wake up at 2 a.m. If we are lucky, we find a way to watch the game in a small blurry window on the computer’s desktop. If we are not, we’ll just lean on the nba.com play-by-play until the wee hours. An American fan may take for granted the opportunity to buy a ticket to go to the TD Banknorth Garden and root for the Green, but for us the banners and the “Mystique” of the “Gahden” represent a far away dream, a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity which will generate some good-natured envy in the rest of the European Celtics community, once we are back to our country.

What do European Celtics fans think about the team now?

There’s a vast majority who would unceremoniously dump Coach Rivers right away. They concede he is good at motivating people and at keeping the boat en route in the worst storms, but they question his rotations, his defence and his capability to lead the team out of the muddy bottom of the standings. They were willing to see something more than what they have seen, even with the hard luck of this season, pointing out that with Paul Pierce in action Boston was still 10-14.

The old cliché of the passionate Latino fan this time suits perfectly, as they seem to consider Rivers’ shortcomings instead of trying to consider the difficulty of coaching a quite unstable roster filled with inexperienced players and marred by in incredible chain of injuries. A portion of the European press immediately attacked Danny Ainge because they didn’t like his aggressive style as a player (extending that judgement to his managerial skills). However, he has regained some credibility with his draft picks. Celtics fans here received a negative imprinting, though, and the lack of signing an impact free agent and a couple of questionable trades that did not improve the team hurt Danny’s cause. Right now, after Al Jefferson has made some strides and with flashes of brilliance shown by some of the other kids European fans are cutting him some slack, but the 2007 draft will be a crucial point in his tenure. In Europe, Paul Pierce is widely considered the only Celtic who is worth the Mystique. Where a lot of U.S. Celtics fans underline his lack of leadership and his being incapable to push the team as Bryant did with the Lakers, in Italy there are only a handful of fans willing to load that burden on the Captain’s shoulders. Pierce is something else, the last icon in a gallery where most of the photographs are black and white, and even the color photos are yellowing because of passing time.

As a matter of fact, most of the European fans don’t speak English well enough to understand the nuances of the forest of NBA-related American sites and blogs. That is the reason for the success of European based portals like the one which gave birth to Italian Celtics Pride, the site I directed for about two years with a good friend of mine, Leonardo Ancilli. Italian NBA magazines are quite reliable; although they have lost most of the impact they had until the early ‘90s when they represented the main source of NBA information. This is because they are obviously bound to print news and comments that are often excelled by many Internet writers. This has created a stir lately both in the U.S.A. (Sam Smith) and in Italy (Franco Montorro, director of the American Superbasket best selling magazine), but instead of putting the obscure work of the web writers at its place, it has implicitly admitted the growth of the importance of the Internet sites.

What are the Euro-Leagues like?

European basketball leagues have a smaller market than the NBA (and less money available) and they are structured in a different way than the U.S. sports. In fact, where in the NBA you only need to be “accepted” by the league to build your own expansion team; here the leagues are structured in a pyramidal environment where the best teams advance to the next level. To make things clear, it would be as if the team that wins the Developmental League was allowed to play in the NBA, while the worst NBA team was demoted to the NBDL until it proves it is worthy of returning to the main show. That’s exactly the way most of the sports leagues are run in Europe.

celtsitaly.jpg Of course, there are no “draft nights” here. The best teams run their own farm teams and gather young talent. The leagues are divided on the basis of age, going from “Minibasket” (for kids 5-12 years old) to the “Juniores” (18 years old). The best players in these farm teams usually make their way to the main team, and the better they are, the sooner they’ll reach it: Drazen Petrovic debuted in his Sibenka first team at the age of 15.

Now, while the NBA was channelling its efforts towards improving the individual marketing and christened even some playing rules to focus on the one-on-one play, the European basketball pyramidal system preserved its team oriented brand of ball because young players continued to join more experienced players who taught them the nuances of the pro ball and helped them to correct the most naïve aspects of their game (that’s why the Nowitzki’s, the Bargnani’s and the Parker’s always seem more experienced than their American counterparts, when they reach the NBA).

Until the early ‘90s, only the best Euro players could have made it to “The Show”, but the watering down of the NBA and the contrast between the European team-oriented game and the rise of the Michael Jordan’s clones in the U.S.A. have created a situation where any NBA General Manager seriously thinks about Euro players to round up his roster, even if success isn’t always guaranteed.

What do Italian fans think of Andrea Bargnani?

Andrea Bargnani here is highly considered but only in the basketball communities, and this does not come as a surprise: Pau Gasol and Jorge Garbajosa in Spain or Tony Parker in France are stars which shine less than their soccer counterparts Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho and Buffon. In Europe soccer is still the biggest game. Soccer is bigger than every other sport and capable of drawing crowds a-la NFL playoffs for 20-25 home games per season, and 10-15 thousand season tickets sold by the best teams.

That’s why even the biggest stars of the NBA have to take the backseat when compared to the soccer greats. The only basketball Euro star whose leverage is as big as his soccer counterparts is Dirk Nowitzki, but Germany has a long tradition of fans being drawn from one sport to another by the heat of the moment as soon as a winner pops up: Boris Becker in tennis and Michael Schumacher in Formula 1 racing are clear examples.

In Italy, the first two NBA players Stefano Rusconi and Vincenzo Esposito didn’t prompt local television stations to air live games of their teams, while German Uwe Blab and Detlef Schrempf managed the feat. Now in Italy there is an undeniable interest towards the Toronto Raptors, but it is a sort of curiosity to see if the young buck can become one of the actors starring under the shiny lights of the “Viva Las Vegas” NBA.

Thanks Fabio! Once again, Fabio’s blog is called Italian Celtics Pride. You can be sure he will be paying attention when the team comes over for a visit during training camp next fall.

(see ESPN story on Andrea Bargnani here)