by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CHAPTER 4: Leggenda. 1.A legend.

FORLI, Italy- They all wanted a piece of Bob McAdoo, all those people outside the bus, screaming and waving and cheering in Italian. Through the window he saw them, and thought to himself, “I better watch my wallet.” So he slipped it in the pocket of his gym bag and…

“BOB!” They were all over him. Hugging him. Slapping his shoulders.

He was Elvis at the Louisiana Hayride, Tom Jones at the Sahara. They hugged him and kissed him and hoisted him on their shoulders, laughing and singing as if a long-lost brother had come home from the war. When he finally escaped to a quiet corner, he saw that his bag had been ripped open and everything inside was gone for souvenirs. Everything, except …

They left him his wallet.

That was the best of times for Bob McAdoo, the year he won his first championship here in Italy, the year he took the country by storm. Il Americano! Such talent! Right here in The Land Of Pasta! Other big name NBA players would follow him across the sea, Joe Barry Carroll, Albert King, Michael Cooper, Danny Ferry, Rick Mahorn. But back in the mid-80’s, he was the hottest American import. Hey, Bob! Ciao BOB! The best of times.

And these are the worst.

When they own your rights in Italy, they really own your rights. Young Italian players are “purchased” as early as their teens, with the money going to whichever local sports club they play for (remember, there is no high school or college basketball here.) American players who ink the big contracts find it works the same way. The first team you sign with owns your rights, and another Italian team can only acquire you if your original team agrees to sell.

Bob McAdoo was a hero in Milan for four years. In his very first season, his team won everything there is to win in Italy, the league championship, the Italian Cup championship, the European Cup championship. McAdoo had a great attitude, played hard, didn’t just show up asking for his check. The Italian fans loved him.

But good times burn like rocket fuel here, where owners show terrible impatience for success. Just a few seasons after those championships, Milan shook up its roster — players getting too old, they said — and, despite his 30 point-per- game average, McAdoo was let go.

OK, he figured. Other teams are interested. But Milan wanted to make sure he didn’t go to a team that could challenge them. So they kept passing up offers for his rights, until the team from Forli, a small town not far from the Adriatic Sea, made a bid.

Forli was no threat. It was way down in the standings. The deal was made.

And McAdoo, somewhat of a legend in Italy, was given an apartment in a strange town and told, at age 40, to go prove himself again.

I am sitting in that apartment right now, looking at the photos that hang on the wall. Outside, a dense fog hovers over the rooftops, making the whole town — with its colored concrete walls and small bridges — seem surreal. It is very quiet. The oak furniture is neatly kept, American magazines are set in perfect precision on the coffee table. All around are snapshots of McAdoo’s children, one inside a frame that reads “I Love My Daddy.”

They used to come with him to Italy. That was before his wife, Charlina, died shortly before last Christmas. She was 33.

“Cancer,” McAdoo says, not eager to discuss the subject. “I flew back and forth four straight weeks when it got really bad. In fact, I had just returned here when they called and said she died.”

How did the team react?

“Oh, they were understanding — for about a day. Then they asked if I could fly back from the funeral in time for that Sunday’s game.”

He shakes his head, with the sigh of a man who has seen it all. McAdoo looks nearly the same as he did during those explosive NBA days, when he dropped baskets as if shelling fish, winning an MVP award and three scoring titles. He still has the mustache and the easy grin, a little bit of Chuck Berry in his face. The lanky 6-foot-9 frame seems remarkably athletic for a man who turned 41 last September.

Yet there is a quiet edge to McAdoo now, a loneliness that is both apparent and understandable. A typewriter sits on the table, which he uses to write letters to his children. “Letters, rent a video, go to eat, that’s about all I do here,” he says. “This town’s a lot smaller than Milan.”

“You eat in restaurants by yourself?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” he answers, as if that were a given.

At practice later that afternoon, it is apparent why Milan felt secure in sending McAdoo to Forli. His teammates are, to be generous, average. One guy wears his white shorts so high, I think he’s going to choke himself. Another comes out in a cotton sports shirt, with the collar turned up, as if he’s going for a cruise on a yacht. He picks up a ball and starts to shoot.

McAdoo slides into three-on-three drills, drills he probably ran harder back in high school. “PRESSA! PRESSA!” his coach screams. As they move up the floor, I notice some players seem reluctant to pass to McAdoo, choosing not to look his way. It suggests a common problem between the highly paid American stars and the everyday Italian players.

The salary gap is enormous: U.S. players average between $300,000-$500,000
(some exceed $2 million a year), while the natives, on average, earn less than
$80,000. “There’s jealousy, no doubt,” McAdoo admits. I have heard the same thing from Adrian Dantley, Rick Mahorn and Darryl Dawkins. This, of course, puts the Americans in an odd situation: They are expected to chalk up tremendous statistics to justify their salaries, yet teammates often do not want to get them the ball. “Sometimes,” Dantley told me privately, “I just go and get it.”

After practice, McAdoo comes from the shower shaking his head. He seems a little embarrassed by the level of play he is now working at. His team is in the worst situation, the bottom of the A1 standings. Every year, the lowest two teams in A1 fall to the A2 league, where the sponsorship money dries up. Everyone here is nervous.

“Hey,” McAdoo says, looking down at me, “I bet you could suit up and play for this team. And I ain’t never even seen you play. You wanna try?”

That night, we go to the big arena in town where, by coincidence, the finals of the Italia Cuppa are being played. Four of the Italy’s best teams are here, as are thousands of fans and basketball types. When we enter the arena, you can feel the electricity. The rafters shake with noise, foot stomping, whistles. It is everything McAdoo once had here, back when they ripped the bag off his shoulder. He seems energized by the excitement. He slides into the gym with his hands dug into his pockets. On the court, the players are racing up and down. Soon people begin to recognize McAdoo.

“Hey, Bob! . . . Ciao Bob! . . . OK, Bob!”

A reporter steps up with a small tape recorder. He shoves it in McAdoo’s face. “Bob McAdoo, can you tell what you think about the great Americano Vinny Del Negro? . . . “

McAdoo allows a sarcastic grin before answering. Del Negro, the former N.C. State point guard, is a new face, and Italians love new American faces in their league. Nobody tonight gives McAdoo credit for taking the big leap in the 80’s, for coming to this country and making good and sticking around for six years. Tonight, they want to know about Del Negro.

It occurs to me that McAdoo, who played for seven different teams in the NBA has been facing such adjustments his whole career. Getting too old. Sliding to another level. Still, he keeps playing. He keeps scoring. He scored nearly 19,000 points in the NBA, won two championship rings. Now he is inside an arena near the Adriatic Sea.

Later, I ask if he ever feels forgotten.

“I don’t worry about being forgotten anymore,” he says. “This is my job, that’s all.

“Hey, I have a son who doesn’t even know who Wilt Chamberlain is, and Wilt was maybe the greatest player of all time. And I have younger son,” — he laughs — “and he probably won’t even remember who Bob McAdoo was.”

He looks back at the court. “Everybody gets forgotten.”

The hour grows late. I have a long drive to Rome. I thank McAdoo for his time. “All right,” he says, turning. “You sure you don’t wanna stick around here, maybe have dinner after the game or something?”

I say thanks anyhow. We shake hands. As I reach the outside doors, I look back over my shoulder at one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA, standing by himself, leaning against the bleachers. I step outside, and see the fog has gotten worse.

FRIDAY: The Finito!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!