CHAPTER 5: Finito.
ROME — There are two moments of truth for the American basketball player who crosses the sea to find fame, glory and a paycheck in The Land of Pasta. Here are those moments of truth:
1) The first time he goes to a public bathroom and discovers the Italian answer to the toilet which, and I am being polite here, can only be described as a hole in the ground with two grated places to put your feet, like a Twister board, and he takes one look at this and says, “Oh no, no, nonononono” and comes running out and yells to his teammates, “Hey, hey, there’s something really wrong in there! Someone stole the toil–“
And they stare at him, blankly.
2) The games.
The first time you play a game in the Italian League, especially if you are used to, say, The Forum in Los Angeles, or The Palace of Auburn Hills, you are in for a shock. And I don’t just mean the zone defenses, which collapse on every American as if he were giving out money. And I don’t just mean the two referees (vs. three in the NBA), neither of whom seems to have a clue as to what they’re doing. And I don’t just mean the crazy coaches who, during their one time-out per half — that’s all they get; a good idea, if you ask me — scream at you rapid-fire even though you don’t speak Italian, so it all sounds like “uuuseee iibii dibbi TINO! TITO! JERMAINE! — OK, SI?”
No. I am talking about the atmosphere of the games, which ranges from the thunderous, murderous, ear-rattling, drum- beating, screaming, spitting, smoke bomb-tossing sold-out crowds when the championships are played — where riot police line up courtside, brandishing their nightsticks, and things have gotten so out of hand that they actually give an award each year, The Discipline Cup, to the best behaved fans, in hopes of getting them to abandon certain unnecessary behavior, such as strangling the opposing team — to arenas where the crowd is so sparse and thin and quiet, you’d think it was a Girl Scout bake sale.
Both are pretty weird.
“The NBA player is not just a part of the train over here. He’s the locomotive. He’s supposed to put the team on his shoulders and go.” Dan Peterson, Italian broadcaster and former coach
I see two games in my last 24 hours here. The first is in Rome, a nationally televised contest, in which Darryl Dawkins, a former Piston now of the planet Lovetron and also playing for Phillips Milan, does battle with Rick Mahorn, a former Piston now of the planet “SHUTTHEHELLUP” and also playing for Il Messaggero. Darryl’s team against Rickey’s team. This is how the American players refer to it. The Italians, meanwhile, call the teams by city — Milan, Treviso, Livorno, Forli. And the sponsors, who pay millions to get their names on the uniforms, want you only to remember them, so you might one day say, “Hey, Ralph. I got tickets to Glaxo Pharmaceutical against Scavolini Kitchen Appliances. Wanna go?”
But back to the game.
Mahorn and Dawkins are all over one another, pushing, grabbing, dunking. One time Mahorn gets past, sinking a short jump shot. Another time, Dawkins barrels through for a vicious dunk. They laugh, exchange words at the free throw line. They seem to enjoy playing someone from the old country. Unfortunately, there are other guys out there, too, Italian players, some of whom don’t seem to want to give the ball up, particularly to the ex-NBAers. There are, by the way, a handful of very good Italian players in this league, but most are, at best, medium college level by U.S standards. They do a lot of outside shooting, and they shoot quickly and with form. Extend the arm, follow through. Good shooters.
Dribbling, on the other hand . . .
“FOUL? AIN’T NO DAMN FOUL! COME ON!” I see Mahorn screaming at a ref. I see it, but I can’t hear it, because the fans are whistling and hooting so loud I think the glass backboards will shatter. The arena is large, and in the upper deck there is an entire section on its feet, waving banners calling themselves “DESPERADOS.” They chant this same deafening phrase: “CHI NON SALTA, E’ MILANESE!”
Which means, “He who doesn’t jump is from Milan!”
(OK. So it’s not what Desperados would yell in America. What do you want? I’m in Italy.)
. . . And now I am in Milan, a small place called Palalido, where Adrian Dantley’s team, Breeze Milano (also known as 1. Adrian’s team 2. Milano 3. Breeze Deodorant!) is playing the team from Sardegna. This is the other end of the spectrum. While Dawkins and Mahorn play for A1 level teams, Dantley plays in A2, where you often get crowds like this; three-quarters empty in a small, sunken gym, the noise echoing in the rafters. It is very strange to see Dantley, one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA, taking the ball at the top of the key and doing that old spin move past one, two, three, four defenders, weaving his way through the zone like a snake weaving through a bush, finally finding the basket and banking it in to small applause. Sometimes he looks so superior, you wonder what he’s doing with these guys.
But other times, too many times, it seems, he is pulled down by the level of play around him. Passes arrive too high or too low, there is little defensive switching, he seems awkward, lost, sometimes even more so than his Italian teammates. It brings to mind a lesson nearly every ex-NBA player has told me over here: “One man will not carry a team.” Bob McAdoo, stuck with a bad supporting cast in Forli, put it best: “I don’t care if you bring Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. You stick them with bad teammates and zone defenses,
they’ll just get dragged down like everyone else.”
And Dantley has some bad teammates. Their shots clank off the rim. Their passes are off the mark. They play no defense. Dantley’s coach is a 38-year-old man who also happens to own the team and I’m not sure what his strategy is, but with the squad falling helplessly behind, and the crowd thinning even more, he sits Dantley down, even though Adrian is the only guy able to score consistently.
“Oh, boy,” sighs Dantley’s wife, Dinitri, who is sitting next to me in the stands. She holds her baby daughter, Kalani, in her lap. Her son, Cameron, plays in the aisle. The scoreboard flashes. It is old and cheap. A man walks around selling candy bars from plastic bags. We are, I realize, in little more than a glorified high school gym, a strange place for a man who once started in the NBA Finals. I ask if this is just an off-night crowd and Dinitri says,
“No, unfortunately, it’s typical.”
I watch her. I watch her husband on the bench. I watch the clock run down. I know Dantley is making nice money over here, but it’s hard not to feel kind of sad.
“All I knew about Italy before I came here was ‘The Godfather.’ ” Rick Mahorn
Nobody thinks about The Afterlife in sports. Not when they’re coming up. There is always a higher level to go to, from high school to college, from college to the NBA, from a rookie contract to a free-agent contract. More status, more money, more fame.
But what happens when the parabola peaks? What happens when you still want to play and there are suddenly no NBA takers? What happens is Italy. Or France. Or Greece. What happens is a level of game you thought you passed a long time ago. What happens is you start down the other side of that parabola, and sometimes it can be embarrassing even if it keeps you wealthy. “I’m not worried about what people think,” Dantley told me this week. “I can still play. And I got a family to support. How many jobs you can think of pay me half-a-million dollars a year?”
Fair enough. And other players make even more. So maybe they don’t get the good passes, and maybe they can’t understand the plays, and maybe the lockers are chintzy and the showers are low and the apartments they give you come with a washing machine in the bathroom. Hey. You grin and bear it, or you leave.
Of course, a few survival tips might help. Here, from my week in “Lega A,” are the things players most often suggested to make it:
1. Learn Italian.
2. Learn to play zone defense.
3. Bring a friend, preferably one who can dribble.
4. Buy lots of videotapes. (By the way, without exception, the TV was every player’s favorite companion. I think this is a shame, given all the culture you could take in here. Also, I flipped through the channels, and even with Satellite TV, this is pretty much all you get:
CHANNEL 1: Movie in Italian.
CHANNEL 2: Talk show in Italian.
CHANNEL 3: Fuzzy picture.
CHANNEL 4: British documentary on grasshoppers.
CHANNEL 5: “Barnaby Jones” rerun.
CHANNEL 6: Fuzzy picture.
CHANNEL 7: CNN.
You mean to tell me you can’t live without that?
5. If at all possible, play for a big team in a big city.
6. Use an Italian attorney.
7. Try to avoid public bathrooms (see above).
Conosco i miei polli (I know my chickens). Italian way of saying I know what I’m talking about.
The first famous American to play in Italy was Bill Bradley in the mid-’60s. He did it as a Rhodes Scholar. He wore red sneakers and helped the country in the European championships, and they adored him.
A lot has changed since then, including the multi-million- dollar contracts, the two-player per team foreigner limit, the huge corporate sponsorship, and the interest by NBA players not only old but young (i.e., Brian Shaw, Danny Ferry, Darren Daye).
Still, if I learned anything from this week, it is that this whole crazy deal is simply what you make it. Remember that great summer you spent backpacking across Europe? It can be like that. Remember that summer you spent in the worst job of your life? It can be like that, too.
These are the images I take from my avventura Italiana: Vinnie Del Negro, the former N.C. State guard, being hailed as “paisan” after helping his team to a victory; Bob McAdoo, who has been here six years, telling me he still drives once a week to Switzerland, just to get his letters mailed reliably; Dantley, now living in a modest three-bedroom apartment, saying, “I told my wife the other day that we have a 10,000- square-foot home in Washington, D.C., and after living here, I realize we don’t need anything that big”; Dawkins turning heads as he walks from the gym; the community centers where some of the less-wealthy teams practice, even as old men play cards outside; the cab driver who insisted that the arena where Dantley’s team plays “was closed down years ago”; the meal that the Il Messagerro guys had together five hours before their game, a lavish spread of pasta and meat and salad and desert, after which they all went upstairs to their hotel rooms for a team nap; an Italian point guard named Franceso Anchisi telling me, “It is time for me to retire. My daughter goes to school and when they ask her what her father does for work she says, ‘He plays basketball,’ and they say, ‘No, not for fun. What does he do for work?’ “
Once-a-week games, zone defenses, 30-second clock, big contracts, enormous pressure, lasagna, the Vatican, exhaust fumes. . . .
And this is what it all boils down to: You can have a job, you can have an adventure. But after all the noise and the smells and the sauces, what playing in Italy means to American athletes is this: a chance. Still having a chance. And you know what? For most of them, that makes it worthwhile. Trust me on this. I know my chickens.