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Watching C’s vs. Pacers with Celtics España

For Celtics España, the seeds of fandom were planted in the days of Larry Bird. They’ve hosted their annual CelticsCon weekend in Spain every year since 2012. In 2020, they hope to come to Boston.

VALENCIA, SPAIN — The bocadillos flew off the plates and into the mouths of over thirty hungry Celtics fans awaiting a midnight tip-off. It’s rare to find a Spanish sports bar in the American sense with an abundance of TV’s, so ours doubled as our dinner location and later, a night club.

Imagine Buffalo Wild Wings with a dance floor. Our group, donning Celtics shirts, draping banners, and drinking from green bottles, were quickly surrounded by speakers booming reggaeton when our “sports bar” transformed into a rave in the fourth quarter. Artificial smoke poured into our room like 76ers’ playoff confetti. Flashing lights blinded us while we watched Victor Oladipo flush what became the game-winning 3. This time, Boston didn’t escape with the win, losing 102-101 to Indiana after Gordon Hayward’s final turnover. But even in a loss, solidarity and hugs filled the street with a chorus of “hasta luegos.”

This was Celtics España, a home away from home for this Celtics fan visiting Spain. While I don’t have a return trip planned, they might come to me and bring their annual CelticsCon to Boston in 2020.

Hasta luego indeed.

I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish, so Spain became an obvious destination for my semester abroad from Syracuse University. Over the summer, I occasionally made the Despacho Celtics podcast part of my routine. Spanish and Argentine hosts discuss the C’s for two hours, admittedly speaking too quickly for me to fully understand, but it was good practice for me to prep for my trip to España.

For anybody following me on Twitter since August, I’ve flooded my Twitter timeline with photos of historic sights and Spanish cuisine. A Celtics fan named Luisma Cagigal must’ve found a photo of my paella and invited me to CelticsCon — the yearly gathering of the Spanish Celtics faithful that dates back to 2012.

In 2013, Cagigal visited Boston for the first time and got nominated for Fan of the Game at TD Garden for his “I am a Celtic” tattoo. Two years later, he came face-to-face with Wyc Grousbeck in the streets of Madrid. The Celtics were in town for the team’s exhibition against Real Madrid, a rendition of the same game in 1988 that transformed many Spanish basketball enthusiasts into Celts fans.

The owner of the Celts flashed his phone and took a selfie that brandished Luisma’s face across the team’s social media accounts. With that, Luisma became the de-facto spokesman of Celtics España, a vibrant fan that exists on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. They brave 1 and 2 a.m. start times, listen to broadcasts in their second language, and complain about the referees the same way their counterparts do in Boston.

Last week, I got a chance to witness the seventh CelticsCon in Valencia on Spain’s beautiful east coast. At 8:45 a.m., two of the fans, Pablo Martinez and Nico Azzolini, arrived at my host mom’s apartment in a gold SUV for the three hour ride.

“Sorry for the Spanish,” Pablo said from the driver’s seat as he and Nico adjusted the GPS. “Yo sé un pocito español,” I said back, a phrase I’ve repeated here or there to shift a conversation to Spanish. Despite my shaky pronunciation, speaking every day in school, at restaurants, and with my host mom, my Spanish is at least conversational (I think).

Of course, when the topic turned to basketball, my Spanish flowed much easier. As I started to find out, hoops is a universal language. Nico talked about the jerseys he’s collected with the discount he gets working for Nike, including Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown.

It’s his second CelticsCon following last year’s in Zaragoza. Pablo was attending his first. Only four people have attended all seven, watching Celtics España grow from ten members to a robust 70. The weekend features sightseeing, lunches, bars, a basketball game, and finally a live late-night viewing of the Celtics. It’s the ultimate tailgate.

The original four: Roberto Tobar, Enrique Aquilar, Jose, and Aker Merino (left to right).

As roads, dry terrain, and small towns passed by, Nico laughed about “writing very bad things to other fans” and how Weird Celtics Twitter makes even the most boring games entertaining. Celtics España’s online presence is strong, and filled with plenty of memes. Some fathers I met connected to the US basketball scene through Instagram. Their WhatsApp lights up with hundreds of messages every few minutes.

In a soccer-obsessed country, Larry Bird and Paul Pierce pulled them away from the pitch and to the court. Pablo said he’s one of the older fans in the group and remembered the McDonald’s Championship that the Celtics played against Real Madrid in ‘88. He was amazed by Larry Bird. “They were rusty,” he said, “but not Larry.”

Nico grew up in Argentina, where he always loved and played fútbol, but ESPN delivered him basketball in 2008. He connected with that championship team, then moved to Spain ten years ago. His jersey collection is noticeably missing a Lakers jersey, but includes a # 11 Jayson Tatum he particularly treasures.

“Remember when they called them (Tatum and Brown) 7/11?”

Pablo loved how advanced stats figure into these conversations now. Working in IT and data for the company that owns Guinness, he says numbers in basketball mixes his job and passion. But it’s not all offensive rating and box score plus-minus for Pablo. He’s afraid to show his 13-year-old son video of LeBron James Jr. and how advanced he is at the same age.

The Trailblazers also hold a sentimental spot in their hearts. Since Spanish star Fernando Martín briefly played there in 1986. From then on, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio and others became household names in the NBA coming out of Spain.

The ride to Valencia became our bar in the car. The topics flowed seamlessly and cultures aligned over a love of basketball. We couldn’t agree on if the NBA should eliminate conferences, but we shared excitement for the event now just an hour away.

Rubén, Pablo, me and Iker (left to right).

“CelticsCon is a family,” Nico said.

“You’re going to feel the same. All the people are for the same thing. The love of the Celtics,” he continued. “Today is amazing, you only enjoy the moment ... singing with your friends ‘let’s go, Celtics!’ in the bar.”

The thought of jumping into a basketball game for the first time in months excited me most about Saturday’s schedule. The staple of CelticsCon is the four-day weekend’s “single vs. married” game or “solteros y casados.”

Nico asked me about my skill set and I responded with rebounding, defense, and an inconsistent shot.

“Oh you’re Smart? We’re all Smarts on the singles’ team,” he said. “With one Kyrie.”

When we arrived, I met a sea of fans, tall and short, sporting jerseys, shirts and hats by the reflecting pool outside of the aquarium in Valencia. A flurry of hugs and a chant hit me as I tried to remember about thirty names instantaneously.

A “Bob-by-Mann-ing” chant made me think the group was probably going too far on Luisma’s promise to take good care of me.

Onlookers must have been confused as this group, wearing the logo of a team 3,584 miles away, making a scene yelling “let’s go Celtics.”

We left for lunch, while Tomás Martín, standing several inches above my 6’2” height, recalled a clinic he attended in his youth where they showed him video of Larry Bird. Tomás played professionally in Spain, before his rodilla and tobillo — knee and ankle — got the best of him.

Physical post players like him still figure into the European game. Goaltending is allowed. Dribbling and fundamentals hold immense value. Everybody plays off the bench. The fans sing, chant and bang drums throughout the games.

One thing that the two continents have come to agree on though, is to let it fly from behind the three-point line.

“But, when are they going to call traveling (in the NBA)?”

Jose and me.

Before chowing down two plates of paella, one of the fans, Jose, gifted me a promotional poster of a Real Madrid-Celtics exhibition I totally had forgotten about, played on October 8th, 2015. Boston won 111-96. Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Smart stand across from Rudy Fernandez, Felipe Reyes and Sergio Llull on the cover.

We reminisced on that Thomas-led Celts team, hoping “ él mejora” with the Nuggets. In retrospect, that Madrid roster intrigued me, featuring former and future NBA players. Llull got drafted by the Rockets in 2009; they still await his NBA arrival. Willy Hernangomez plays with the Hornets now and — at 16 years old — the youngest player suiting up in that exhibition was future Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic.

After my solteros downed the married team 46-36, we arrived at our final destination for the night. FC Barcelona turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win in the final two minutes, but the real game was just about to start. Everybody locked in, faced their seats in the same direction, and moved together to one side of the bar. Celtics vs. Pacers was starting.

We counted the amount of threes Boston unloaded during their opening scoring drought, losing count at eight in a row. A 7-0 deficit quieted our early fervor, but with Boston leading at 16-11, Tatum blocked Oladipo from behind and got everybody rowdy.

As Mike Gorman and Brian Scalabrine rattled off commentary, someone yelled for me to translate. I wasn’t quite ready for that task. The C’s seemed ready for theirs, receiving their loudest response from us when Irving dove for a loose ball and Hayward caught an alley-oop. When they settled for jumpers, hands landed in faces. Mid-range jumpers are hated the world over.

A close game finished with Irving and Oladipo trading threes, but Oladipo hit last after Irving’s botched layup to seal it. If there was much to say when Hayward’s final in-bounds pass landed in Thad Young’s hands, the blasting speakers made it impossible to hear.

Carre, Pucho and López. Pucho organized much of CelticsCon Valencia.

However, the game’s sour end couldn’t spoil a day of good food, friends, competition, and connections that provided more evidence that the Celtics fan base is strong across countries and cultures.

Luisma told me on Sunday to join the rest of them in buying lottery tickets, an annual Christmas tradition. They always play 06646, symbolizing June, 6, 1946: the day Walter A. Brown founded the Boston Celtics.

If one of us wins, there’ll be an entire luxury box of Spanish Celtics fans at TD Garden someday.

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