They Got Game. In Several Languages.

Vonteego Cummings, left, of Maccabi Elite Tel-Aviv drives past AJ Milano's Melvin Booker during their Euroleague basketball game last month in Tel Aviv.
Vonteego Cummings, left, of Maccabi Elite Tel-Aviv drives past AJ Milano's Melvin Booker during their Euroleague basketball game last month in Tel Aviv. (Gil Cohen Magen/reuters)
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By Tim Warren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

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.

* * *

While most people know that soccer is Europe's main 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.

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.

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