By KYSER LOUGH • Murray Ledger and Times

Outside a gym slightly smaller than Racer Arena, in a city roughly twice the population of Calloway County, fans await the opening of the gates for the final game of the season for the Giorgio Tesi Group Pistoia Eurobasket team in Pistoia, Italy.

They’ve arrived early as most of the gym is general admission and they want the prime seats. Everyone is decked out in the team’s bright red color, whether in team jackets or scarves, and many carry giant flags and banners. There’s excitement in the air as more and more arrive. The arena only seats 4,000 but it will be standing room only once everyone packs in.

The game holds special significance- if the team, who just this season moved up to the top-tier Italian Lega Basket Serie A league and was not expected to finish well, beats the visiting Pasta Reggia JuveCaserta team, they will claim the eighth and final playoff spot. If they lose, JuveCaserta will instead be in the playoffs.

The game holds even more special significance as two former Racer basketball players are on the rosters and now taking the court for opposing teams. Ed Daniel, class of 2013, starts as a forward for Pistoia and Tony Easley, class of 2010, starts at power forward/center for JuveCaserta. This is Daniel’s first season abroad, Easley’s fourth (he spent his first year in Poland before coming to Italy for three seasons).

As a faculty member on a Murray State University study abroad program to Italy and Greece, combined with a lucky schedule and an excellent Italian train system, I am able to make the trip to Pistoia for the game. The team staff are very welcoming and provide press credentials. After being escorted in by Francesco Petrucci, who handled media relations, I am seated next Alessandro Conti, who writes for the team website and social media accounts. He and Marta Colombo, the team photographer, work hard the entire game covering the event and being patient as I ask a million questions.

Due to the frantic schedule, I am not able to meet up with Daniel or Easley to talk about life in Italy, but get to chat with them briefly before the game as they visit with each other during warm-ups. It was a very out-of-place feeling to see the familiar afro of Ed and giant grin of Easley, but in the middle of Italy.

I wondered about what the transition must have been like to life abroad, in a nation that speaks an entirely different language. It was jarring to be surrounded by chanting fans and a whole lot of official-looking people bustling around chattering away in Italian. But then I grabbed my camera, adjusted the strap around my wrist and began checking the light and dialing in my settings. Suddenly it was comfortable. I was in my element- taking photos. The thought instantly occurred to me that maybe it was the same for Daniel and Easley. Maybe just as photography became a universal “language” for me, basketball was their language and once they stepped onto the court it suddenly didn’t seem so foreign anymore. Indeed, Daniel was not an isolated American basketball player, he was interacting with the other players, making jokes, talking and making plays.

The team itself is composed of a mixture of Italians and foreigners. Daniel is joined by Deron Wasthington, JaJuan Johnson, Brad Wanamaker and Kyle Gibson from America, along with five Italian players. The local favorite is power forward/center Giacomo Galanda, who served as team captain for Italy’s 2004 silver medal Olympic team and who recently announced his upcoming retirement.

The fans were another story, however. Being a fan of Eurobasket is like speaking an entirely different language than what we are used to at the CFSB Center. The entire west end zone was filled with a cheering section that was rarely quiet throughout the entire night. If they weren’t cheering, they were chanting. If they weren’t chanting, they were singing. Most of the time there was synchronized clapping (complemented by the front rows beating on the plexiglass barricade). Two fans with megaphones, I call them the “general” and the “captain,” kept a close eye on the game and would shout instructions to the fans on which thing to yell, chant or sing next. Others waved enormous flags or stretched out giant banners with Pistoia slogans and logos. There was rarely seen a fan without some sort of red in their clothing. It was impressive, to say the very least.

Along the long sides of the court, fans were less rabid, but still very vocal and would join in most of the cheers. If a call didn’t go Pistoia’s way, the response was as one would expect- only instead of booing, most of the fans would stand up and let loose a string of Italian dissent while punctuating each inflection with sharp hand motions. Deep on the other side of the court sat roughly 500 JuveCaserta fans, who made a five-hour trip to Pistoia for the match. Like something out of a children’s movie, the visiting team color was a villainous black and the fans played the bad guy well. Pirate flags flew, banners were unfurled and they had their own chants, cheers and songs that would at times drown out the home team.

This served very contrary to what I was expecting. In preparation for the visit to Pistoia, I did a little research into the team and found that it was very rare for anyone but the local media to cover the team. While the fans were all decked out in team attire, there is no brick-and-mortar team store in the gym- everything is done online or in small shops around town. But then stepping into the gym it feels like there is nothing else that matters at that moment, only Pistoia basketball. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

Watching Ed and Tony on the court was like the good ol’ days when they were Racers. In fact, for Ed especially it looked like Italy has been good for him. I saw a new hustle, as he ran down the court and viciously denied a JuveCaserta basket just as easily as he would cut to the rim for his own points. We were treated to the trademark Ed dunk, which really got the crowd pumped up, especially the ones wearing giant wigs to match his signature hairstyle.

Pistoia had a very back-and-forth performance during the four quarters, both trailing and leading by double digits. Daniel and Easley both had significant minutes, and would guard each other at times. Pistoia was down two at the half, but used a 30-18 run in the third quarter to push ahead. As the final minutes ticked away, Pistoia managed to hold onto their lead and win 73-68, securing the final spot in the playoffs.

The fans, as expected, went nuts. They didn’t rush the court, but stayed around a long time as the players visited with them and celebrated. Daniel is certainly a part of Pistoia now, as he was frequently called over for photos and autographs. He hopped up into the stands and was immediately surrounded.

Overall, the opportunity to witness not only Eurobasket but to see Daniel and Easley take the court again was priceless. Admittedly, I have often thought of playing basketball abroad as a compromise or “lesser” opportunity for athletes versus getting picked up by an NBA team. This is definitely not the case anymore. Just one look at the sweat on Easley’s forehead, the camaraderie between Daniel and his teammates, the passion of the fans and the hard work of the staff was enough for me to see this is a tremendous opportunity for any athlete lucky and skilled enough to find a spot on the roster. My only regret is to not be returning to America with a Pistoia scarf or jacket, and to have missed out on cramming into a streetside café with Daniel and Easley to sip espresso and talk about life in Italy. Maybe next time.

Forza Pistoia!