This is why I love European basketball:
An American player I got to know in Italy told me that after his team got off to a bad start, the officers of the fan club asked to meet with the players. They were told that since they stank so bad, the fans would not cheer or sing for them. The boosters would go to the games, yes, but not waste their energy singing for such underachievers.
"We will cheer for the shirts, not the players," the players were told.
A few months later, this player was transferred to another team, which also started playing badly. Again, the fan club's officers met with the players. Again, they were told that, as undeserving blockheads, they didn't merit cheering. But the team somehow started winning, and the fans announced they would sing again. "That's Italy," the player told me with a shrug.
It's an Italy I encountered during a two-week trip early last year, full of serendipitous moments you'd never experience if you just followed the guidebook. When it was over, I realized that it had been, perhaps, my most satisfying European trip. After all, I'd discovered that two passions — travel and watching hoops — could be combined in a way that satisfied not only the tourist in me but the sports fan as well.
Sustaining the fervor
Though most people know that soccer is Europe's main sports event, many Americans don't realize that basketball is a close second in many countries. In Spain, in Greece, in Lithuania and Serbia and Italy, the game is followed with extraordinary fervor. Fans fill gymnasiums, singing and chanting and cheering on their favorites with a zeal that seems right out of small-town Indiana. A game is an exhilarating spectacle, just the right counterpoint to a quiet day of visiting cathedrals and art galleries.
You're reminded of something else: Museums and old buildings can tell you a lot about a country, but there are other ways to learn what a place and its people are all about.
During my trip, I balanced a day in Venice with an Italian league game in nearby Treviso, where I saw Benetton, one of the best clubs in Europe, play. I spent a week in Bologna, gorging not only on the tortellini and mortadella of that food-mad city but also on the basketball played by its two teams, Virtus and Fortitudo. Each team has its hard-core followers — the Forever Boys for Virtus, and the Fossa dei Leoni (Lion's Den) for Fortitudo — and the commotion generated by the cheering sections at first seemed unsustainable for all two hours of the game.
But there they were at game's end, still bellowing.
Then it was on to Naples, where after a day trip to Capri I unwound by attending a game between Benetton and the local team. Here the regional rivalry produced a veritable morality play — North vs. South, the Haves vs. the Have-Nots — and the members of the rough-and-tumble cheering section Forza Napoli yelled themselves hoarse. Although the Naples team lost a close one, afterward I had my pick of offers to go get a beer from some guys from Forza Napoli.
A long tradition
By this time, I'd seen that European fans, and Italian fans in particular, operate a little differently. For one thing, they take things much more personally: A bad call by the referee can only mean he has a pathological hatred for the home team or region. "But of course they didn't want a team from Naples to win," my newfound friends assured me.
But Italians aren't alone in their fervor. Headed to Greece? The country is nuts about the sport, and the top club team on the Continent is Athens' Panathinaikos. Hoops fans can simply set up shop for the winter in Spain, which features perhaps the best professional league in the world after the National Basketball Association.
You could even toss in Israel; its national team plays in the European championships and its club teams compete against European squads. No team has a more passionate following than Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv, whose two European club championships a few years ago set off national celebrations.
Though the casual NBA fan is well aware of European players who have become stars in the States — Dirk Nowitzki of Germany, Tony Parker of France — European leagues offer a bonanza of talent. In Lithuania and Serbia, the sport has been big since before World War II, and you see in the fluid way that players perform that basketball is in their DNA. Spain and Italy have had professional leagues for decades, and the rosters of their teams are filled with ex-U.S. college players, former NBA players and skilled Europeans.
To see the best ball, though, catch a Euroleague game. The top 16 teams each year qualify for the monthslong Euroleague competition, culminating with the Final Four in the spring. Leading Euroleague teams such as CSKA Moscow and FC Barcelona have beaten NBA teams in exhibition games, an indication of the caliber of play.
A different approach
So what's the difference between seeing a game here . . . and there?
Don't expect to replicate the NBA experience. The arenas are considerably smaller, often holding no more than 5,000 to 7,000 spectators. With few exceptions, you don't see those plush palaces with their corporate suites and pricey concessions; even at the biggest games, the culinary fare might be a simple ham-and-cheese sub and some mystery snack in a bag. European games are shorter and the pace is faster; no silly TV timeouts here. And the playing style is fan-friendly, with an emphasis on passing and good shooting.
Tickets are also much cheaper, often going for less than $20. Though an NBA game has become an expensive event, a game in Europe is, well, a game. It doesn't take long to appreciate the difference.
And since most of the European season is played during the winter, you can plan a cheap(er) trip, as airfares, hotel rates and other costs are lower. Many big tourist destinations, such as Madrid and Rome, are not nearly as crowded, so that trip to the Prado or the Vatican can actually be a pleasant experience. Even in Venice, which I usually avoid because it's so crowded, I was able to walk right into St. Mark's Cathedral.
Because nearly all teams and leagues have Web sites, you can look at schedules, check rosters for familiar names and get tickets. If you can't buy them online, your hotel can often do that for you. In most cases, you should be able to buy a ticket on game day.
Ultimately, though, the biggest payoff is meeting Europeans in a different way. Travel often can lack the human element, but not so when you're among thousands of fans standing throughout a game, singing and chanting — with their faces painted in their team colors.