The Celtics arrived in Madrid on Wednesday, Oct. 19, practiced at the Palacio de Desportes on Thursday morning and then were dutifully whisked off to the appearance at the golden arches.
Two hours later the Celtics and a small group of NBA executives were standing in the Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of the city for what some of the players called "the king thing." Actually, they were not going to meet King Juan Carlos but his son, and heir to the throne. Prince Felipe. McHale suspected that the prince would be utterly confused about the meeting—"I can see this guy saying to his assistants, 'Cel-who? Basket-what?' " McHale said—but the trim 20-year-old who emerged to shake hands seemed to be more excited than the Celtics. He was also a striking 6'6"—"small-forward-sized," as Stern put it.
"It is good to be in a room with men taller than me," said the Prince, in English. "In my country, almost everyone is lower." Figuratively, as well as literally, Your Royal Highness.
Stern presented the prince with an NBA jersey that had BORBON 33 on the back: That's the prince's family name and guess whose number, which the prince had requested be on the jersey. Bird gave Prince Felipe a Boston jersey that had BORBON 1 on the back. The Celtics were then bused 25 miles to a castle belonging to the provincial government for another ceremony, at which they wore the look of men being prepped for root canal.
From the coaches and players on the Scavolini team, who were also there, one got a sense of the esteem in which the Celtics and, by extension, other top NBA teams are held in Europe. Matteo Minelli, a feisty Scavolini guard, idolizes Boston's Danny Ainge, yet when he met Ainge he froze and couldn't shake his hand. Larry Drew, a point guard who played eight seasons in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers before signing with Scavolini last month, says he has been "besieged" by information-hungry teammates. "They want to know everything about the Celtics, on and off the court," said Drew. "They hold them on the highest pedestal there is." As does Scavolini coach Valerio Bianchini, who expressed his admiration eloquently: "The Boston Celtics did for basketball in the 1960s what the Beatles did for music. I first saw them by TV, and for coaches like me who were just getting started in basketball, they changed the way to imagine the game."
The Celtics, jet lag perhaps behind them, were in better humor on Friday afternoon as they gathered at El Ayuntamiento, Madrid's city hall, to meet mayor Juan Barranco. After Barranco explained that the building dated to the 16th century, Bird was moved to deadpan in his Hoosier twang, " 'Bout time you built a new one, isn't it?" The mayor cracked up.
The games finally began, to the immense relief of the Celtics, several hours later. Bird praised the Palacio de Desportes's shooting background, rims and lighting. Only Boston rookie Gerald Paddio, who was worried that the hard floor might force him to have "scopeagraphic surgery," expressed any displeasure with the arena. Paddio, who is a UNLV product, has already emerged as a player who does not necessarily have to be in a foreign country to be misunderstood.
The capacity crowds (10,130) were delightfully enthusiastic. Celtic Reggie Lewis got one of the biggest ovations on Friday evening for performing a pre-game, 360-degree mate de tornillo ("dunk of the screw"). There was something strange about the starting lineup announcements, too. Ah, that was it—the name of Danny Ainge did not elicit whistles, the European version of the boo. And to think that Ainge signed his autograph as El Terríble all week.
Yugoslavia's pair of 6'9" lefthanded forwards, Toni Kukoc—"the best amateur forward in the world," according to Soviet coach Aleksandr Gomelsky—and Zarko Paspalj, went around and through the confused Celtics for layups in the early stages of Game 1. But two of the best pro forwards in the world finally figured out the Yugoslavs' unorthodox moves in the second half, and the Celts cruised away from a 53-47 half-time lead to an easy victory over the Olympic silver medalists. Bird had 27 points, many on soft shots off the backboard, while McHale had 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Almost as interesting as the game was veteran Celtic radio announcer Johnny Most's battle with the Yugoslavs' names. His audience back in Boston heard the Yugoslavs referred to, for the most part, as "the lefthander, the young guy, the bearded guy, the old guy and the big guy." The big guy was center Stojan Vrankovic, who is listed as 7'1½" but looks at least 7'3", which is the primary reason the Celtics signed him to a contract on April 29. Alas, his name is also on a contract with Zadar, his club team in Yugoslavia. Volk was still confused about the situation when he left Madrid on Monday, and Vrankovic isn't likely to be seen in Celtic green this season, which will probably not disappoint Most.