CHAPTER 3. Sopportare. 1. To endure.
MILAN, Italy — With Rick Mahorn’s farewell words ringing in my ears —
“Have a nice trip, bleepface!” — I journey up the autostrasse to Milan. I am thinking about potato chips.
I can’t imagine quitting a job over potato chips. But that supposedly was why one American basketball player left Italy, said arrivederci, baby, went home. Didn’t like the chips. I guess the squid really would have sent him packing.
But that story doesn’t surprise me. For all the money they can make — and for the enviable task of playing one game a week — a lot of former NBAers do not last in the Land of Pasta. Too spoiled. Too unwilling to play against zone defenses. Whatever. Artis Gilmore came and went. Dan Roundfield came and went. Danny Ferry — who was a mediocre player here — came and went.
And then there are the ones who stay.
I am looking at one right now. He is courtside in a massive place called the Forum, home of Phillips Milan, a team once known as the Boston Celtics of Italy, and he is clapping his hands and yelling plays. He wears a loose sweatshirt and a mustache and boyishly cut hair. He yells to his team — eight Italians and two Americans, including former Piston Darryl Dawkins — in two languages. “Si!” Then, “Let’s go!”
And I’m thinking, “I gotta get this guy to order for me in the restaurant.”
His name is Mike D’Antoni, and you probably never heard of him. He played at Marshall, went to the NBA in 1973, lasted three seasons, then got this call from Italy. Back then, the league rule was that Italian-Americans such as D’Antoni didn’t count as “foreigners,” which allowed teams to acquire U.S. players without using their foreign-player limit.
So never mind that D’Antoni, a point guard, was about as Italian as the average kid in West Virginia, where he grew up. “I’m a hillbilly,” he jokes. They offered him $30,000 and a place to live — unlike the millions they give now — and he said, what the heck?
Before he knew it, he was a star. A clash of cultures
“To be truly happy here, you have to learn the language,” he tells me after practice, “and a lot of guys coming over now don’t want to do that. They miss the jokes in the dressing room, they miss the camaraderie of team meals and bus rides. It’s like a college atmosphere over here, and that’s the best part. But if you’re sitting there with your headphones on, it gets old fast.”
I think back over the last few days, to Adrian Dantley, moaning about the practices, and Mahorn, bitching about the food, and Kelly Tripucka, another former Piston who was playing in France and reportedly hated being overseas. All he did was buy USA Today and watch European satellite TV.
Then I think about the treasures here, the art, the language, the sauces on the pasta, and I say to myself: “Are they nuts? I’d take this gig for nothing!”
D’Antoni confirms that. He played 13 years here. Got famous. Taught himself the language, saw every country in Europe, and had a hell of a time.
Never bitched about the chips, either. When the game isn’t fantastic
I ask D’Antoni the biggest difference between the Italian League and the NBA — besides Dennis Rodman’s haircut — and he says, “The pressure here is different, because if you have a really bad year, your team falls into a lower league and it may take years before you win your way back up. That can ruin some franchises.
“And then, of course, there’s the fans . . .”
He recalls one time when his Milan team — with Americans Bob McAdoo and Albert King — won the league championship down in Livorno, on a controversial last-second shot. The fans went so crazy, “we had to hide in the dressing room for hours. They busted a window and hollered, ‘We want that guy!’ They finally had to take us away in police paddy wagons, and even then, the fans threw bricks at us.”
Behavior has since improved — could be worse, could be British soccer fans — but you still feel the heat if the fans don’t like you. They spit. They throw pennies. Italians have high standards for NBA imports. They have an expression that goes: “Does he play for the heart or for the coin?”
Personally, I’d rather play for the former than get hit by the latter.
But if you play hard, they love you, and you can last a long time. D’Antoni finally retired two years ago, and he is now the coach of his old team. When I ask him about coaching Dawkins — something Chuck Daly tried briefly — he laughs and rolls his eyes, which may mean that he needs to learn a third language, whatever they speak on Lovetron.
Then I ask about McAdoo, who was really the first of the big-name NBA stars to go Italian. “It’s too bad about Bob,” D’Antoni said. “They loved him here in Milan, but his rights were sold and now he’s stuck in this small town with a really bad team . . .”
By nightfall, I am on my way there.