LONDON — The Red Lion Pub sits just off the banks of the River Thames and a block from Big Ben. The tidy, three-story space is authentic and enchanting, and everyone from Charles Dickens to Winston Churchill has been served here.
But on this drizzly, gray Thursday, it sort of feels like TD Garden inside, except without the artificial noise, or Kyrie Irving. There are fans in Celtics T-shirts and hoodies, all here to raise a glass to their favorite team before seeing them face the 76ers later in the night.
“And I think we have more coming,” Nicola Bogani says as he excitedly scans the room. “We have a room downstairs just for us when it gets crowded.”
Nicola is from Milan, and that is where I first met him in October 2015, when the Celtics completed a brief preseason trip through Italy and Spain. Nicola graciously ferried me around Italy in his taxi, asking simply for Celtics-related stories in return, and we have stayed in touch since then.
He runs a Celtics blog that has developed a loyal following overseas, and he is the one who organized this gathering in London.
Nicola and his friends are a bit disappointed when I turn down their offer of a beer, and they are even more disappointed when I tell them that Brian Scalabrine probably will not be stopping by. But it takes quite a bit to dishearten this group, and Salvatore D’Amore is the perfect example of this.
Salvatore lives in Rome and purchased a plane ticket to London soon after this game was scheduled.
But when game tickets went on sale, all 19,078 were gobbled up in less than an hour, and Salvatore was not one of the lucky ones. Secondary-market prices were unaffordable, but Salvatore still wanted to see his fellow Boston fans. So he boarded the flight anyway.
Now he is in this English pub wearing a T-shirt that says “I am not South Beach” on the front, and “I am a Celtic” on the back. And as he speaks, his smile never fades.
“I just want be around the atmosphere and my friends,” he said. “Maybe I will buy a shirt. I can just watch the game in a pub like this one. It is OK.”
Then one of his friends patted him on the shoulder in a green-tinted act of solidarity. As this growing group prepared to order another round of pints, I told them I had to be on my way.
Outside, a family of four walked by wearing Celtics gear.
Pablo Sanchez, 38, brought his wife and two young children here from Alicante, a port city on the southeastern coast of Spain. Pablo’s route to Celtics fandom is similar to those of most European fans I’ve met.
“Since I was 8 years old, just looking at Larry Bird, I start loving basketball,” Pablo says.
He said that his 12-year-old son, Pablo Jr., and 9-year-old son, Hector, developed a love for basketball, too. Initially, they were fascinated by other teams, but Boston is trendy again.
“Now,” he said proudly, “I think this is the moment they are sure of the Celtics.”
Pablo then said something in Spanish to his son Hector, who smiled and nodded in the enthusiastic way that only 9-year-olds can. I couldn’t understand all of it, but I could tell it had to do with this day, this game, this team.
During rush hour, the 02 Arena is about a one-hour cab ride from downtown London, which isn’t much fun for anyone (or good for a beat writer’s expense report). But the time and distance clearly didn’t sway anyone here.
In the concourse outside the arena, the presence of Celtics fans was obvious but not overwhelming. Several people have told me that the NBA is still catching up to the NFL’s foothold in England. And sure enough, most of the Boston fans I met were from Italy, Spain, or France.
Matt Craig of Liverpool was wearing a Celtics shirt while sitting on a stoop waiting for a friend, so I walked over to bother him for a moment. He said he became a Celtics fan after his father nearly took a job in Boston, and that his attachment to the city grew even stronger when John Henry — who owns the Globe — purchased the prestigious Liverpool Football Club.
Matt explained that Henry had been good to Liverpool, and we sort of bonded over that. He liked Henry because he has helped his favorite soccer team, and I liked Henry because he has made it possible for me to not live with my parents.
Inside the arena, there were pockets of Celtics fans everywhere. It seemed as though they outnumbered 76ers fans by about 2-1, and there were constant, mildly successful attempts to start “Let’s go, Celtics” chants.
Yoan Tastet took a two-hour flight from Biarritz, France, followed by a two-hour bus ride, and on Friday he was scheduled to do it all over again.
While most of the fandom of the middle-aged crowd is rooted in memories of Bird, Yoan symbolizes the more modern fan.
“I really like Boston because I really like Kyrie Irving,” he said. “And it is so nice to see this in person so we can cheer.”