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This Sporting Life: A Brit Learns to Love the Basket

At first, I didn’t have a clue what was going on at this Celtics game. By the end, I still didn’t have much more of a clue -- but I was hooked, anyway.

Of all the sports I’ve played, there’s none I’ve despised as much as basketball. It doesn’t help that at 5′ 8″ and lacking in all the key (and minor) attributes on court I could never be more than an inadequate player. It’s not entirely the fault of basketball that I came to hate it so. I blame my lazy PE teachers (that’s “gym” to Americans). Going outside to play sports required too much effort. Instead, we’d make the 10ft walk from the changing rooms to the gym, and were forced to play out quick games while the teachers leaned on a wall and chatted.

I used to do what I could to stay out of the action. I’d stroll around avoiding the ball, always making sure to remain in the back court whenever my team attacked. Football (Americans may well call it “soccer”, I never will) was what I really wanted to play, but that required going outside and the teachers had no desire to put that much effort into the job. Tennis would have been OK as well, were it not for the fact that I attended a terrible state school. Tennis nets rarely lasted long, and the outside hard courts were usually covered in broken glass.

This, and the fact that a bunch of kids used to stand at one end of the gym kicking basketballs at everyone trying to get to the exit, didn’t exactly endear the sport to me. There’s more to it than just unpleasant childhood memories, though. Basketball is too end-to-end, too non-stop. There’s no ebb and flow, just flow. I realize that’s what a lot of people love about it, but I’m all for the grinding midfield battles that break out in games of football and rugby, or the sheer fatigue that comes courtesy of a five-day cricket test match. I like my sports gruelling, and basketball is all a little fast and easy. If you miss a basket, it doesn’t matter too much. You’ll get another go in 30 seconds. Miss a chance in football and you could lose the entire game.

This preamble is a long-winded way of saying I’ve never cared for basketball, and held little hope it would change on moving to America. Still, you rock up in a new city and you have to sample the local delights, which in Boston pretty much means sport. They have their bases covered (yes, America’s sporting lexicon infects us Brits) across baseball, American football, ice hockey and of course, basketball. There’s also an impressive amount of cross-selling going on. To be fair that’s easy enough between basketball and ice hockey, given the Celtics and Bruins play in the same arena. They still make sure to include Patriots and Red Sox gear, though. You support one, you support them all.

That’s a new one to me, but maybe it’s a city size thing. I’m a football fan supporting a London team. In Boston you have one local team, in London there are many, and they happen to be arch rivals. It’s not London against the rest, it’s Arsenal against them all. At least my new home makes things simple. No need to work out if I’m on the right side of the river to support a certain team. There’s only one side of the river. Somewhere like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles with multiple teams competing in the same competition would have been far more confusing.

As infectious as home team fanaticism is, I assumed it would do little to convince me that basketball was worthy of my time. I booked tickets for the Boston Celtics against the Utah Jazz because my brother was in town and it seemed like something I should do. When in Rome as they say. I’d like to point out I’m not a complete novice. I’d even seen an NBA game once, a few years back in New York. I assume it was the Knicks because who else could it have been at Madison Square Garden? The game was part of the fun surrounding a friend’s wedding in the Big Apple. I can’t tell you who the Knicks played or who won. I remember almost nothing about the experience other than the strict rules on where you can consume alcohol. Strict after they’d sold it to you, that is.

I have one other basketball experience behind me, at the 2012 Olympics in London. I went a little mad and bought tickets for 21 events, a couple of which were basketball. I really only wanted to get a look in the arena. Even worse than the Knicks game, at the Olympics I couldn’t tell you who played, or if it was the men’s or women’s competition. Maybe it was both. Luckily out of the three people who came with me, one happened to like basketball. His reward for taking me along was subjecting himself to my endless questions. Not that I remember what the questions were, or any of the answers. So I have played basketball and I hated it, and I’ve watched it live and it made almost no impression. All did not bode well for my venture into the world of the Celtics.

I needn’t have worried, though. For a start, I’m a sucker for live sport in general. I reckon most people are. There’s something contagious about thousands of people gathered in a confined space cheering on their team. I could feel it on the way to the TD Garden arena, situated directly above a train station. Getting in was a well-oiled process. We followed signs, went through a metal detector with minimal fuss, and accidentally walked the wrong way round looking for our seats. The crowd flowed smoothly; no pushing, jostling or aggression. Many were families and a large number had green shirts with “Bird” written on the back.

Knowing nothing about the history of the sport, never mind the specifics surrounding the Celtics, I naively assumed he was their star player. I looked carefully down the team roster handed out for free on the way in and could find no Bird listed. Naturally, I assumed the best player was absent for some reason. I even felt a tinge of disappointment. It was only afterward that I realized Larry Bird retired a long time ago. Isaiah Thomas is the new messiah it seems, a short bundle of twirling energy who somehow manages to dance his way through packed opposition. This was all to come. First we had to find our seats, sit for a while, grow bored because we were very early, and wander off in search of the bar.

Bonus points are awarded for the bar menu, and the number of outlets. At sporting events, I’m used to lengthy queues for overpriced, tepid lager. The sheer number of places selling drinks and food at this stadium kept the queuing to a minimum, and while most outlets had little in the way of range, they each varied slightly. Then there’s the craft beer bar, a magical place that remained mostly empty during our three trips. Sure it cost nearly double what you’d pay in a normal bar, but that’s sports venue pricing for you. At least I could choose to drink something good. Perhaps my overly exuberant joy at finding even the slightest element of choice says more about the dire state of sporting concessions in Britain, but it won me over. Cider satisfactorily in hand, it was time to let the action commence.

First came the national anthem which is a weird experience. In England, we play it before games involving the national team. People stand up, shout the small section they actually know the words to, and dirge done, sit down and pretend it never happened. Not in America. Here everyone gets into it, cheering the singer accompanied by a weird video verging on patriotic parody. Across the jumbotron fluttered images of the flag mixed with a soaring eagle and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. The crowd burst from singing along to celebrate these potent symbols of freedom. It made for an odd mix of sporting event, festival singalong, and forced gymnasium pep rally. At least the young woman who was singing was pretty decent at it.

Things didn’t get any better when the sideshows heated up. It turns out watching basketball is only a small fraction of the entertainment. For some, it seemed an irritating game that pops up briefly to get in the way of the cheerleaders, a man dressed as a leprechaun, the ritual hurling of free t-shirts into the crowd, and a random selection of on-court parlor games involving ticket holders. It’s exhausting, a constant storm of flashing lights, blaring music, and frantic motion. People stood dancing everywhere, all in the hope of featuring briefly on the big screen. There they stood, gyrating mechanically like bobbleheads in the wind. The whole thing felt reminiscent of a Saturday night game show hopped up on coke. It was possible to forget I was actually at a basketball game.

I certainly wasn’t the only one distracted by all this. People wandered in and out freely, no matter what was going on with the game. Even at the end, with only a minute on the clock in a close encounter, a family along the row from me thought it was a good idea to pop out for hotdogs. Everywhere people sat chatting away as if they were at a cricket game (I guess the closest would be baseball for Americans) rather than a short and madcap end-to-end tussle.

I will say this for the atmosphere, though; it’s certainly family friendly. Part of this might be down to the lack of away fans. Given the sheer size of the US, it’s not practical to follow teams across the country. The Jazz had come almost the entire way from the other coast. Most people in the arena were Celtics fans. If they weren’t, that seemed fine as well. It’s not like football where I come from, with designated away fan sections and an intense, electric atmosphere. Watching the Celtics felt flatter as a result, but also more amiable.

What it certainly is, is more regimented. Spontaneous chants and cheeky songs were conspicuous by their absence. When the crowd shouted anything, it was usually “DEFENSE!” over and over, and only because the word flashed up on a screen. There was no give and take with opposing fans, no trading of songs floating above the game. The Celtics attack and we cheer, they defend and we shout the word at them just in case any of the green-clad players were unsure what to do. Then the show grinds to a halt to watch skimpily dressed young women jump about while everyone screams. It was tiring and not particularly fun, all sizzle and no steak. The saving grace, much to my surprise, was the game itself.

At first, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. By the end, I didn’t have much more of a clue, but I was hooked, anyway. The Celtics, I’m going to call them my team now, would charge up, dance around the opposition (mostly Isaiah Thomas, a man who looked far too short for professional basketball and yet still seemed to be the best player out there) and the ball would flash through the hoop. Then everyone runs back the other way and the crowd rises to cheer if the Jazz mess up their attack. It’s simple, but what I’d previously found monotonous turned addictive. The close nature of the game helped. The lead swapped back and forth, extending out against the Celtics before they clawed it back, finally nosing ahead with the clock running down.

We also lucked out with the family next to us. A teenager appeared with his parents and younger brother around the halfway point (where they’d been before I had no idea). He spent the rest of the game explaining what was going on to his sibling. Eavesdropping, this enabled me to at least work out why fouls were being given, who any of the people that weren’t Thomas were, and why some moves were stupid and others were brilliant He could have been talking complete garbage of course, but it sounded convincing, and in the absence of other information sources, I lapped it up.

I even stopped noticing the irritating timeouts after a while, caught up in the squeak of shoes on the court, the thudding sound as the ball bounced off the backboard, the shouting, the cheering, the spectacular three-pointers and rim-rattling near misses. Mixed together, it created a heady, intoxicating atmosphere. My team won, and I went home buzzing. Since then I’ve followed their progress, cursing as they blew out of the playoffs. Now I’m looking forward to the start of the new season. Despite the ridiculous leprechaun pictures, the overbearing razzamatazz and the easily distracted crowd, I think I’m coming to like basketball. It just goes to show anything can happen in this world.