ROME - Visiting the Colosseum yesterday for a team picture and tour, the Celtics did not stop traffic for the first time since arriving in Rome a week ago. The two-motorcycle police escort and half-dozen security officials who accompanied the team throughout its stay could not keep mopeds, Smart cars, and buses from passing through the team picture frame. Police and security also could not stop curious tourists from snapping two-for-one shots of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce in front of the ancient stadium. It wasn't long before the players got into the act, snapping pictures with the famous archways as backdrop.
As the Celtics and staff made their way toward the Colosseum entrance in the heat and humidity, a handful of players thought about returning to the hotel to rest before last night's 89-85 victory over the Toronto Raptors at the sold-out PalaLottomatica, but they didn't want to miss another opportunity to see Rome with teammates. After Rajon Rondo purchased Colosseum-themed gifts at a souvenir stand and Pierce posed with costumed gladiators wearing an ancient replica helmet and led players in chanting "Hoo-rah!," the team entered the monument.
Hearing tales of ancient gladiators in a stadium that could seat 50,000 people left the players with a new perspective on sports entertainment. There were some jokes about which players could take on a lion or tiger, and some disbelief among team executives when the tour guide announced that tickets to gladiator games were free. The players also marveled at how much the stadium looked and once functioned like the arenas with which they are more familiar.
"This is crazy," said Glen "Big Baby" Davis as he walked around the lower tier of the Colosseum.
It was also a fitting description of the week that was for the Celtics in Rome.
Judging from the Celtics' comments after their first practice abroad, the importance of maintaining focus and avoiding abundant distractions in Rome was drilled by the coaching staff and veterans as much as any offensive set. The players said they wanted to make the most of the opportunity ahead, and that was not a reference to the nightlife around trendy Campo de' Fiori or the high-end fashion stores along Via dei Condotti. With championship expectations coming from every direction, the Celtics knew time spent on the practice court at the Palafonte would be the most valuable part of their Roman holiday.
"We have to practice at a certain level and there can't be any days off," said Pierce. "There's going to be a target on our back and we understand that. As far as planning to hang out, this is not a vacation."
But with historic attractions around every corner and modern-day life centered around leisurely multicourse dinners, Rome has a way of captivating even the most business-focused visitors. It wasn't long before the Celtics took advantage of the unique training camp setting, dining near the Spanish Steps on their first night in the city. The meal would be the first of many for a team bonding at every turn, since coach Doc Rivers mandated players leave friends or family at home for the Rome leg of the trip.
"You have to always use this as a foundation, a building block," said Allen. "We need to remember how we build this team and how we started it. We have to all remember the bond that we have from being in Rome. Remember Rome."
Added Garnett: "We're trying to create continuity and cohesiveness here. We're trying to form some chemistry. Paul was our host since he's been here before [a few months ago]. We went to the Trevi Fountain. We've been walking around, just being together, not force-fed.
"Usually, when you have situations like this, it comes off commercial, but this has been cool. It's just happened. My highlight of the trip is how well we've already jelled and connected early. You can't teach guys naturally bonding."
That said, there was one big night of pre-planned bonding that took place during a private after-hours VIP tour of the Vatican followed by a four-course meal at Casina Valadier, a restaurant at the edge of the Borghese Gardens with sweeping views of Rome. Players and coaches only. As expected, the Sistine Chapel was the show-stopper on the Vatican tour, which the players and coaches enjoyed as a group without the usual crowds packed inside.
Garnett and Allen walked away from the experience talking about the vivid colors Michelangelo used. Eddie House filmed as much of the chapel as he could. Kendrick Perkins said he hopes to return with his churchgoing grandparents.
"It's one of the wonders of the world," said Pierce. "It was amazing when I walked in there and I looked at it. Then, I looked at everybody else's eyes and everybody had their mouths open and everybody had their cameras pointed up to the sky. I was like, 'It doesn't get any better than this.' Everything we've been doing has been together. That's something that we'll build off the court that is going to carry on the court. I'm loving every second that I'm around these guys."
Dinner at Casina Valadier devolved into a three-hour joke fest with Davis keeping the team laughing as he helped fellow rookie Jackie Manuel down octopus salad. Davis took one for the team as part of rookie duty.
"Perk makes sure [Davis] gets the rarities when he's here, that he's diversifying his food groups," said Garnett.
Perhaps it was a wise move considering Tony Allen said restaurants around the city were "pasta-ing me to death." Rondo figured once he returns to the US, it will be a couple months before he will consider eating another plate of pasta.
With the private team dinner presenting a scheduling conflict, players who hoped to attend a soccer match between Lazio Roma and Real Madrid missed the opportunity. But the Celtics, particularly soccer aficionado Garnett, managed to get a futbol fix in the form of 5-foot-8-inch Juventus striker Alessandro Del Piero. The player described as the "Italian Beckham" to the Celtics (and some soccer-challenged members of the American media) traveled to practice earlier in the week largely to meet Garnett.
Del Piero, Garnett, House, Davis, Ray Allen, and Esteban Batista formed a circle and began juggling the ball. Allen, who spent time growing up in England and Germany, impressed teammates and Del Piero with his soccer skills. Pierce, meanwhile, narrowly missed hitting Garnett in the face with a ball he kicked.
After quietly admitting he was a Lakers fan, Del Piero looked slightly starstruck as he talked with Garnett. But the seven-time Italian league champion and Juventus's all-time leading scorer was far from the only starstuck observer at practice that day. As one of three Italian referees brought in to officiate scrimmages, Emanuele Aronne, a lifelong Celtics fan, could not believe his good fortune. A few questionable traveling calls could probably be attributed to nerves.
"It was spectacular," said Aronne. "When I was younger, they were my favorite team. I saw Danny Ainge and it was a miracle for me."
Some might argue that "miracle" better described the fact that a red-helmeted Ray Allen survived his rental moped adventures unscathed by maniacal Roman drivers speeding along narrow streets. What started out as a search for more film turned into a speedy tour of the city that included a brief scolding from Italian police at the Presidential Palace.
"I got a rental scooter, hopped on it and, I swear, I was around Rome in 10 minutes," said Allen. "I took pictures at every monument, at every thing to see. It was perfect. It was a beautiful day. I got down roads that I wouldn't have gotten down in a car. That's the way to see Rome. I was taking my time. I wasn't doing anything dangerous. Danny and I talked about it and he was like, 'Don't hurt yourself.' I was cautious."
On his moped tour of Rome, Allen almost literally ran into teammates Scot Pollard, Leon Powe, Brian Scalabrine, and Batista. The foursome was enjoying a leisurely guided walking tour. But moments when players ventured off alone or in small groups were rare, unless you count Garnett surprising security, leaving the team bus and sprinting toward a woman begging for money outside the Colosseum. Garnett dropped in a donation, then returned to the bus for the ride back to the hotel.
"I needed a jog," he said.
Not surprisingly, when it came to game time, Garnett and the rest of the Celtics had plenty left to give Rome and the Raptors.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.