September 30, 2007
ROME - There is an estimated seven-hour flight from Boston to Rome. There are two foreign cultures to get accustomed to, and numerous off-the-court appearances. Don't forget the traffic, which can make Boston's look light. There will be reminders of championship expectations with each media session. There is an estimated six-hour return flight from London about two weeks later.
Oh yeah, and with 11 new players, the Celtics must focus when they do practice.
The Celtics have all that to endure and much more on this European trip for training camp that begins today in Rome and ends Oct. 10 in London. While there are some concerns as they enter NBA Europe Live, they believe the timing couldn't be better.
"I'm a big proponent of going away for training camp," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We did it the first year when I was here and we had a lot of success that season, so I'm a big fan of getting the group away, especially when there are a lot of changes involved."
The Celtics are scheduled to play the Toronto Raptors in their preseason opener in Rome Saturday. Next up will be a trip to London, where the Celtics and ex-Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett will face Minnesota (and many ex-Celtics) Oct. 10. While most NBA teams will begin training camp Tuesday, the trip allows the Celtics to get a couple of extra practice days, beginning today. "That practice will probably not be our better practice," said Rivers, who also expressed concern about the facilities in Rome and London not having as many baskets as their Waltham practice courts. "But you've got to build a mental toughness, too, with this team. They probably assumed there would be a day off. But we have to build some character and toughness with this group."
Opportunity to bond
The NBA first began sending teams to Europe 20 years ago, when the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Soviet National Team in Italy. The Celtics' only other trip to Europe was in 1988, when they defeated Real Madrid, 111-96, in Madrid. Boston, Toronto, Minnesota, and Memphis are all taking part in NBA Europe Live this time.
"We just decided it's an important market for us and we had to show some continuity there," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "We did it in '06, we're doing '07, and I'm not sure about '08. But we're considering it because we have an opportunity [to showcase the NBA] and to close on that opportunity, you have to have a presence there.
Rivers said his teams left home for training camp during each season of his 13-year NBA career with the Hawks, Clippers, Knicks, and Spurs. He believes that getting away forces players to get to know each other better and jell quicker. While the Celtics are allowed to have family and friends meet them in London, they will have just each other in Rome.
"When you've finished your practices, instead of going home and being with your friends and family, you end up going out to dinner with teammates, etc.," Rivers said. "And before you can start really playing together, I've always thought you've got to know each other a little bit."
Said Celtics forward Paul Pierce, "If we had done [training camp] here [in Boston], guys would have gone to practice and gone on their separate ways. Being out of the country, we'll have a practice and guys will be able to bond with one another once we leave the practice court instead of leaving with their wives or their families afterward.
"It's just going to be just us out there. We're going to have to be together 24/7. It's going to give us a chance to get to know one another and get a feel for one another on and off the court."
But there is a big difference between having training camp in a major international city and having it in tiny Durango, Colo., where the Nuggets trained last year, or in quaint Charleston, S.C., where the Knicks are again this year. This European trip will bring many potential distractions.
Celtics players will have the opportunity to meet the mayor of Rome and the English national soccer team, visit the Roman Colosseum, and make community and party appearances with ex-Celtics great Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. And there's the allure of the renowned nightlife of Rome and London.
"I guess this is, in a lot of ways, a business trip, but I'm definitely going to try to take advantage of some of the historical venues in both cities," said Rivers, who has never been to Rome.
Ex-NBA player Robert Pack, who played two regular-season games with the Nets against Orlando in Japan in 1996, said the time difference affected him more mentally than physically.
"The hardest thing was getting off the plane over there and getting on a schedule to adjust our bodies to practice and play games that were about 3-4 in the morning back in the States," Pack said. "It took a toll on you mentally."
Demands on time
With the bright spotlight surrounding Pierce and newcomers Garnett and Ray Allen, the media demands have been great on the Celtics. Along with local print and television people from Boston, there will be media from ESPN the Magazine and Yahoo! covering the team in Europe, as well as a long list of international media.
The NBA said the Celtics have been extremely accommodating in terms of media requests and community appearances.
"The Celtics have gone out of their way to be very cooperative," said Brian McIntyre, NBA senior vice president of communications. "They have bent over backwards to readjust their schedule to help us with the game and the sport."
The Suns, Spurs, Clippers, and Sixers all took part in training camp in Europe last season. Suns forward Amare Stoudemire and coach Mike D'Antoni viewed their trip to Italy and Germany last year as very enjoyable and fruitful.
"We had a chance to learn a different culture pretty much the whole training camp," Stoudemire said. "Actually, I enjoyed it. We got in shape. As far as training, we were on top of our game the whole time. We were professionals. We are the Phoenix Suns, and we knew what we came there to do - get in better shape and enjoy ourselves."
There is a big difference between those Suns and these Celtics, however: The Suns' roster hadn't been dramatically changed.
"There are distractions," D'Antoni said. "But we are kind of a veteran team. It helps if you are a veteran team. But if you're trying to introduce a lot of new things?
"We had our offense down. We had our defense. It could have been worse if we were a younger team."
Traffic delays were a major problem in Russia for the Clippers. It took them 3-4 hours round-trip on a charter bus from their hotel to practice. The Clippers went from having two-a-day practices to just one to limit their time in traffic. Because of less practice time, said coach Mike Dunleavy, many players came back lethargic and out of shape.
"The traffic was tough," Dunleavy said. "There was a lot of construction. Sometimes it was a two-hour trip to get through the traffic at night and rush hour. We had to change what we do."
Said Stern, "In fairness to the Clippers, the traffic was impossible in Moscow. That had a deleterious effect on them."
Rome and London also bring major traffic concerns; it could take the Celtics an hour to get to practice in Rome.
The NBA has done a lot of research to map out the best routes to the venues for practices and preseason games. In fact, Peter Fink, NBA vice president/events and attractions, said the league has been preparing for 2007 NBA Europe Live for a year and will have as many as 75 staffers involved in travel, transportation, food, security, and other areas.
"I don't think there is anything that will strike us as being unprepared for," Fink said.
Dunleavy said his players were also hampered - especially the ones with back issues - by a 14- to 16-hour flight from Los Angeles to Moscow.
"When you go from East Coast to Europe, it's like going from the East to the West [in the United States]," Dunleavy said. "It's totally different. It's like a West Coast trip."
The Celtics are scheduled to return to Boston Oct. 11. Rivers said he'll wait to determine whether the team will practice Oct. 12 or have another day or more off. The change in time zones will likely affect the Celtics.
"It took us a while to get used to the time," Stoudemire said. "That was the main adjustment, getting back to the main time zone instead of Italy."
To help the Celtics recover, the NBA didn't schedule any of their final six exhibition games outside of the Northeast. The Celtics don't play their third preseason game until Oct. 17 against the Knicks in Boston. The Celtics' European trip has the potential to be exhausting. But if they have the same open-minded attitude in Europe that Stoudemire had, it could be enjoyable and memorable, too.
"Take a tour," said Stoudemire. "Go see the Colosseum. That was amazing when I went to see something built in the year 75 [B.C.] and is still standing. Learn the history of it."