CHAPTER 2. Today’s Italian word: Credere (credereh) 1. Believe. As in,
“Can you believe Rick Mahorn and the Pope are in the same town?”

ROME — Whhhrrrrooooooooomm!

I am chasing the green BMW down a curving, tree-lined road that should, ideally, be taken by bicycle, permitting me to sniff the yellow and lavender flowers which — whoosh! — instead are flying past me at warp speed as my foot is jammed on the accelerator in a desperate attempt to keep up with the
— screech! — BMW in front of me — look out! — which is now — ohmigod, he’s gotta be — curling around a Volvo — kidding me! — and whipping back into the lane as he — no way, no way! — wants me to follow or lose him forever — hit the gas! — so here I go, like an idiot, around this narrow Italian curve and here comes a — WHOA! — truck in the same lane — CUT, CUT! — and I — rrrrRRROOOM! — swerve and miss him by inches — “IDIOTA!” — and, shaking now, I downshift quickly and look ahead to that green BMW to catch a rear view of Rick Mahorn, the original Bad Boy, slapping the dashboard in hysterics.

Nothing changes. Some NBA players come to Italy and try to adjust quietly, tiptoe around the language problem, write letters home, hope the paychecks come on time.

And others bust down the door and say, “I’M HERE, DAMN IT. WHERE’S MY SPORTS CAR?”

Ladies and gentlemen:

Rickey does Rome. Food? Just make it fast

“First of all, I hate pasta, all right? You can have it with that damn pasta. I don’t like spaghetti; only thing I like in the spaghetti group is lasagna, and my wife can make that, so no more pasta, OK?”

The spaghetti group?

“Another thing. They have these team meals before the game, like five hours before the game? What the bleep for? They want us to be together or something,

but they’re eating all these cold vegetables, and I’m not with cold vegetables, you understand? They’re like, ‘Rickey, why you no like Italian food?’ I’m like, ‘Italian food, bleep! Just gimme my chicken subito’ — that means fast, subito — and I’m outta there.”

Subito?

“And here’s another thing. The whole damn country closes for three hours a day for lunch. Three hours! And then when you’re at the store after lunch, and it’s not open yet but it’s supposed to be open, they got the nerve to look at you with an attitude, like you’re doing something wrong. I’m like, ‘Bleep this bleep!’ “

He pauses.

He grins.

Obviously, Rickey is adjusting well.

We are sitting in his suburban villa in a sprawling green golf course development, miles from the noise and exhaust fumes of Rome. This was the house Michael Cooper lived in when he played with Mahorn’s current team, Il Messaggero — which also once employed Danny Ferry and Brian Shaw — and the place is magnificent, balconies and terra-cotta floors and high ceilings and a sunken living room. The birds sing, the dogs romp in the yard, and the only time Mahorn meets any neighbors is when the woman next door complains that her

Mercedes is being doused by his sprinklers.

Did I mention Rickey’s new Mercedes?

Yes. He didn’t like the BMW. Too small. The team said no problem, we’ll replace it. This is how some American stars are treated here in Italy, where basketball is the second most popular sport — soccer, a religion, is first —

and teams have an insatiable lust for the newest NBA guy to get off the airplane. Mahorn is even more of a prize, because, unlike many of his American counterparts, he said ciao to the NBA before it said ciao to him. Mahorn, 33, could have signed back with the Philadelphia 76ers. But then, they weren’t going to give him a Mercedes instead of a BMW, were they?

Nor were they going to provide this villa, or the maid service, or the furniture or the satellite dish or the stereo system or the silverware or the bedsheets or the utility bills, all of which are paid for as long as Mahorn stays in Italy.

Oh, yes. He gets a salary, too. Around $2 million this season.

For playing once a week.

I could learn to like pasta for that.

“Hey, it’s good over here,” Mahorn admits, sliding into the couch as he eyes his CD collection. “But you know, you gotta put up with a lot. . . .” Big team, big pay

That depends on where you are. Adrian Dantley, whom we visited with yesterday, is earning one-fourth the money Mahorn is making, and is living in an apartment outside of Milan where the sink is so low, he has to sit to wash

dishes. Bob McAdoo, a legend in Italy for six years, has now been relegated to the minor town of Forli, where he collects a minor paycheck compared to Mahorn’s. Meanwhile, Tony Kukoc, the Yugoslav star who has never played a minute in the NBA, is earning more than all of them, nearly $4 million playing

for a team in Treviso.

Here is the biggest embarrassment in the Italian pro league — besides the way they dribble — and its biggest problem: no financial balance. No rules. No salary cap. The Haves have it all. The Have-Nots can choke and die.

So while Dantley and his teammates, who play for a small, independently owned franchise, practice at a local community center where old men play cards just outside the door, big teams like Il Messaggero Roma or Benetton Treviso
(owned by Benetton, the clothing giant) can dish out fortunes, season after season. Here, have a Mercedes.

“This is our worst problem because it’s an ego thing for the big teams,” says Dan Peterson, an Italian TV commentator who was a successful coach for years. “Teams like Benetton sign the biggest Americans. They don’t care if they lose money — of course, they’re going to lose money with those kinds of salaries, their arena only seats 4,000 or so — but it’s an image thing. If they win, they have the right image. That’s all that counts.”

Speaking of image . . . Keeping ’em guessing

“GET YOUR FAT BLEEPING BUTT OFFA ME, YOU DUMB ITALIAN BLEEP.”

“Oh, ho, Reeeky. You are Bad Boy, no?”

“BAD BOY, MY A–, YOU MOLTO STUPIDO.”

“Ha-ha, Reeeky. OK, Reeeky.”

“BLEEP ALL YOU DUMB BLEEPS.”

“Reeeky? Why you say?”

“BLEEP Y’ALL!”

As you can see, practice is going well. We are at the Palaoir, the large arena where Il Messaggero plays, and the guys are on center court, doing drills, racing back and forth. Mahorn, in a white T-shirt, the beefiest guy out there, is also the focus. You immediately notice a difference in his style of play versus the Italians. Although they can shoot extremely well, they are stiff, mechanical, lacking the fluid movement of an NBA guy like Mahorn. And Mahorn is hardly the most fluid man on Earth.

I attribute this to the lack of playground basketball in Italy. Believe it or not, for all the sport’s popularity, most kids who play in Italy do so in controlled environments from the age of 7 or 8. They have coaches. They join club teams. There is no high school or college basketball, just this club stuff, so they get used to playing at scheduled times, under supervision, kind

of like swim teams at a local Y.

No wonder they can’t improvise.

As opposed to Mahorn–

“TOUCH ME AGAIN AND I’LL KICK YOUR NASTY BUTT ALL ACROSS THIS FLOOR, YOU DUMB ITALIAN BLEEP!”

I should say right here that nearly every curse that comes from Mahorn’s lips — which is about every other word — is released with a smile. Which only further confuses his teammates. Is he serious? Is he joking? Does he know any words that don’t start with “F”?

They have no idea. So they tiptoe around him, like Lilliputians around a sleeping Gulliver, they laugh when he laughs, curse when he curses, run away when he gets mad. Mahorn keeps them guessing. Since arriving in September, he has been embroiled in several controversies: His first coach, the venerable Valerio Bianchini, winner of virtually every championship you can win in Italy, quit midway through the season because he just couldn’t cope with
“these foreigners and their attitudes.” Mahorn was also suspended for one game

after kicking an opposing player. (“He kicked me first, so I kicked the bleep out of him, the bleep.”) Once, during practice, Mahorn lost his temper and hollered at a teammate: “I’ll beat the bleep out of you and every other one of you bleeps, right now!” They had to send him home to cool down.

And yet, at the same time, the onetime King of the Bad Boys has indeed mellowed here in the Italian suburbs. He is married now, has a new baby daughter (born in Italy, with dual citizenship) and another child due this fall. He is home for meals, he cleans the garage, he washes clothes, he talks about coaching one day — heaven help us — and enjoying this slow life-style. If he returns to the NBA in 1993, when his Italian contract is up, it will be hard to resume the pace. “I’m definitely more mature now,” he says.

Well . . . then again, he did pull that stunt when I was driving. And not long ago, he and teammate Dino Radja, a former Yugoslav star, snuck up behind some Italian workers who were standing by a gas truck, and lit these firecrackers, and the workers fell to the ground in a sheer panic, figuring the truck was exploding.

And Rickey and Dino ran away laughing.

So he’s not that mature.

“Reeeky is a good guy; ever’body like him deep down,” Radja says, after practice, rubbing the blond stubble on his face.

“BLEEP YOU, DINO!” Mahorn yells.

It’s a friendship thing. Brace yourself, Vatican

Mahorn on Italian hygiene: “I’ve seen people here wear the same pair of jeans for a week; you throw ’em in the corner, they stand up on their own! And

they have the nerve to give us Americans bleep about hygiene? Why? Just because we don’t wash our butts in those buttoners they got over here?”

Buttoners?

“As far as sightseeing is concerned, I haven’t been down to the Vatican yet. I ride by it, look out the window. When the season’s over, we’ll take a big family trip down there.”

Great. I bet the Pope can’t wait.

In the meantime, Mahorn goes on, attending daily practices, playing one game a week, cultivating the mystery that has always been his calling card, Big Man, Big Mouth, yet with an underlying kindness that keeps you coming back to him, because you’re sure there’s a decent guy underneath all that bluster.

In a few days, he will play against former Piston Darryl Dawkins at the Palaoir, in a nationally televised game. He will push through triple coverage and fall over teammates and take their passes over his head. He will be cheered for a rebound, cheered when he dribbles up court, jeered when he misses a shot. Oh, and there will be a confrontation, between him and Dawkins, where they start to . . .

Later for that. For now, things are molto bello in the suburbs, the soft couch in the sunken living room with the color TV and the satellite channels.

I ask whether he has any messages for his old Pistons teammates. Mahorn thinks, then flashes that gap-tooth smile.

“Yeah. Tell John Salley to get a job.”

I look out the window, at the hills, at the birds and the sprinklers and the BMW, and I wonder where you go to get a job like this.

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