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Adam Himmelsbach

Celtics’ global reach was easy to spot in Spain

Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck posed for a photo with a group of Celtics supporters at the team's preseason game vs. Real Madrid in Spain.
Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck posed for a photo with a group of Celtics supporters at the team's preseason game vs. Real Madrid in Spain.Wyc Grousbeck

MADRID — If you grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., winters offered two fundamental choices: You could stare out your window at snowdrifts or you could root for Syracuse basketball. I chose the latter.

When I was in eighth grade, my father took me to the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. It was the first time I’d watched Syracuse play outside of Syracuse, and there was something communal about seeing other Orange fans there. It made you realize that the shared support stretched beyond city limits.

Of course, in this case, we had simply traveled from one place in New York to another place in New York.

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But during the Celtics’ European trip this week, it was remarkable to see how a truly global franchise has touched so many people in so many places.

There were large swaths of green at the games in both Milan and Madrid. Fans wore jerseys and T-shirts and hats, and if you squinted, you could probably see executives back at the NBA’s corporate offices in New York nodding in approval.

I was expecting to meet some Americans who had traveled here, or some who were transplants seeking a slice of home. I wasn’t expecting the masses who had arrived from all corners of Europe.

I met Celtics fans from France and Italy and Greece, and more from England and Spain and Portugal. There were so many others, presumably from so many other places, more than a thousand at each game, I’d estimate.

So how did the fandom metastasize this way? How did this happen?

In the 1980s, a weekly NBA game was broadcast in much of Europe. There was no Internet then, so whatever teams were spoon-fed to the people became the teams the people liked.

Franchises such as the Clippers and Nuggets were almost fictitious. The spotlight was squarely on the Lakers, the Celtics and, as Michael Jordan blossomed, the Bulls. So it was best to choose one.

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“So I start to read in the newspaper about the Celtics tradition,” said Nicola Bogani, who drives a taxi through the streets of Milan when he is not watching or writing about the Celtics. “Like most Europeans, I like history, and the Celtics were such fascinating stories. And there was this guy I chose named Bird.”

So many fans chose the guy named Bird.

At the games in Milan and Madrid this week, Larry Bird No. 33 jerseys were more visible than all others combined. And it wasn’t even close.

Several people here told me Bird was the Celtics gateway for many Europeans. His daring, enchanting style lured them in, and then they just wanted to dig deeper into the franchise’s past.

“My first Celtics T-shirt was Larry Bird, with his face on it, shooting,” said Nikos Kostalas of Greece, whose fiancée bought him tickets to Tuesday’s game against Olimpia Milano for his 40th birthday. “I started following them very closely, especially because my brother liked the Lakers, so I chose the opposite. And to be here today is exciting, breathtaking, very emotional.”

Today, though, global NBA fans have access to the entire league. With a click of a mouse or a tap of an iPhone, they can watch LeBron James in Cleveland or Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City or whomever they want wherever they want, really.

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These Celtics do not quite generate the same emotions as Bird’s teams did, and it is partly because there are now other options. Still, there is a sense that the worldwide support for this franchise will endure, and if you’ve ever cheered for a team that your father cheered for, you’ll understand why.

“I watch the Celtics games with my daughter, and she likes it,” Bogani said. “I take her to futbol, or soccer, and she does not.”

There also were large pockets of young fans here without their fathers or Larry Bird jerseys. Some said they were lured by the era of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and are now just waiting — like fans in Boston — for the team to recapture that success.

Outside the Barclaycard Center in Madrid, many 20-somethings in Boston colors sat and sipped beers at breezy cervecerias, a classy kind of tailgate. Inside, one group of about 40 college-aged fans ignited numerous “Let’s go, Celtics” chants from the lower bowl.

Miguel Matas of Madrid was sitting on the opposite side of the arena wearing a Marcus Smart jersey, and he said Jared Sullinger is his favorite player.

“I very much like Boston,” Matas said. “I like the team. I like the city.”

Two days earlier, in Milan, brothers Guilhem and Bertand Chevalier of Toulouse, France, sat together in their fifth-row seats, their Celtics shirts on and their eyes wide. Bertand flew to Italy with a connecting flight in Paris. And that was nothing compared with his brother’s journey.

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“I take a bus, and go 19 hours of bus just to be here,” Guilhem said. “I am not a very big fan of sport, but one night I come to the house and my brother showed me a Celtics match, and I find it incredible. Wow. So, yes, 19 hours and I am here.”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.