MILAN — When Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga played for Olimpia Milano during the 2000-01 season, he had risotto with parmesan cheese and meat sauce before almost every game. It was not the most common combination, but it was delicious.
When the Celtics arrived here to prepare to face Olimpia Milano on Tuesday as part of the NBA’s Global Games, the hotel’s spread included the ingredients for Larranaga’s old staple. A few staff members tried it, and the reviews were good.
For some of the Celtics, this six-day European trip is their first time overseas. For Larranaga, it’s a homecoming of sorts. He spent seven seasons playing in Italy, and in addition to thriving on the court, he was quick to embrace the nation’s language, culture and, of course, food.
“I just have a lot of really good memories,” Larranaga said. “A lot of very nice people. I was just lucky I got to play basketball.”
When Larranaga played here, teams could have just two US citizens on their rosters. Larranaga said it would have been difficult to play for a First Division team if he had to fight for one of those two spots. But his dual Irish citizenship made it easier to latch on.
That year, Milano played in front of crowds of about 4,000 in a small arena near their practice court. Now they play in the 13,000-seat Mediolanum Forum. But the growing passion of the fan base was evident to Larranaga.
“My best memories in Italy were when my teams won the most,” he said. “And if you’re not winning, the fans can make life outside of basketball not that enjoyable sometimes, because if they see you on the street, they’re not afraid to ask why you went 1 for 12 yesterday and why you lost.”
Even though Larranaga has not lived in Italy since 2009, he remains a familiar face in this region. He was at the A.C. Milan soccer game Sunday night when he ran into one of the owners of the team he played for in Naples. And during a Celtics practice this weekend, a fan recognized him from his season with Olimpia Milano 15 years ago.
On Monday night, Larranaga planned to bring some Celtics to his favorite restaurant here, Ribot. And during the trip he has been happy to serve as a translator for players in need of basic assistance.
From here, Larranaga’s nostalgia tour will continue, as the Celtics move on to face another one of his former teams, Real Madrid.
Ben Morel, the NBA’s senior vice president and managing director in Europe, said the interest in Tuesday’s game has been strong. The event is sold out and more than 100 media credentials were issued. “There’s definitely a great affinity between our Italian fans and the Boston Celtics,” Morel said. “And I think the whole Celtics organization really enjoyed the last trip and are enjoying this one again. The response has been very good.” Morel said the NBA will continue to expand its global footprint where it makes logistical sense. The Magic and Raptors will play a regular-season game in London this year, and Morel said he could see one being played in a city like Berlin or Paris someday, too.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens hasn’t decided on a starting lineup for Tuesday’s game, but he said it is not worth reading into whatever he chooses. “It’s all experimentation for a while,” Stevens said . . . Forward Evan Turner strained his right knee during Monday’s practice and his status for Tuesday night’s game is unclear. Forward Perry Jones, who missed two practices last week with a sore knee, has been cleared to play.