TODAY’S ITALIAN LESSON:
Dove (doveh) 1. Where. As in “Where the hell is the exit?” FORLI, Italy — Well now, here’s something you don’t see every day at a basketball game. A smoke bomb. Yep. The man with the balding black hair just lit the sucker and — whooosh! — it exploded like a volcano in his hand, gushing fire and pink smoke into the rafters of this thunderous arena, which is already swaying like some Holy Rollers revival, screams and hollers and horns and whistles and chants and howls and yelps and death threats. Someone will be sacrificed before they’re done tonight, that’s what I figure, a human sacrifice, tossed to the lions, eaten alive, maybe me, that’s the kind of crowd it is. They bite their hands and leap onto seats, stomping their feet like schoolkids throwing a tantrum. They sing about the referee’s anatomy, they bang drums and pop balloons and chant like zealots. “AYYYAAYAYA! AYYYAYAYA!” It’s a union riot, an anticommunist rally — but no, it is just another basketball game here in the Land of Antipasto, Italian professional basketball, every Sunday evening, that’s all they play, once a week, which, by the looks of it, gives these folks way too much time to fire up. “AYAAAYAYA! AYAAAYAYA!” Such noise! Young, old, middle-aged, teenaged, in camel-hair jackets and olive- green sweaters and denim pants and tight black skirts and cigarette smoke and bad breath and . . .
. . . what’s that smell?
Salami. Amidst all this insanity, two minutes left in the game, and the guy next to me pops out a huge salami sandwich, and he clamps his thick lips around it and chomps down, the bread crust spreading the corners of his mouth, and then, suddenly, he screams in mid-bite, because his team has scored —
“AWIPIPEEE!” — and that half-eaten salami is kind of between here and there and . . . wait, now the guy with the kettle drum, his legs draped over the edge of the balcony, his team has scored, and it’s ahead by two points, and he’s pounding like Buddy Rich, BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM!, right in my ears, the seats are shaking, rattling, rumbling, and I can’t help it, my reaction — and this is just one way I differ from the average Italian basketball fan — my reaction is to hose these people down.
Their reaction is to light up another smoke bomb.
So now we have — whoosh! — two smoke bombs and one salami sandwich, and the upper deck is starting to look like a birthday cake in an Italian deli, sparks and fire spritzing over our heads, and I notice all this pink smoke is spilling down from the rafters to the lower level, onto the men in alligator loafers and the women with dyed-blond hair, onto the radio announcers who are screaming into their microphones, onto the coaches who are slapping their foreheads — “Buffone! Che fa?!!” — and now the pink smoke hovers over the court and the players out there in this championship game, six Italians, four Americans — believe me, you can tell the difference — shooting and running and shooting and running, like lab rats, up and down they race, as if the next basket might save us all from Armageddon. . . .
. . . And it might, because I now see the blue-suited security police in full riot gear, helmets and visors and nightsticks and uh-oh, something’s up. I’ve heard stories about crowds attacking at the buzzer, chasing the players and trapping them in the locker room, smashing the windows, poking their heads through the glass and hollering, “Morte! Morte!” until the only safe exit is the back of a paddy wagon, and I can only hope the right team wins tonight, because that kind of stuff just happens here.
Here being Italy.
Which is where I am.
How did I get here again?
And someone lights another smoke bomb.
Whooooosh! . . .
Whooooosh! The cars whip past the darkened front of Lido di Milano, a sports complex, and I peer into the passing windows, looking for Adrian Dantley. This is where it all begins, a week ago, this whole crazy Arrivederci Adventure. Dantley, one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, is why I have come. Dantley and players like him, former Pistons Rick Mahorn, Darryl Dawkins, Bob McAdoo, Mark Hughes — and NBA missing persons like Alex English, Reggie Theus, Darren Daye, Dave Corzine — all of these guys are in Italy, scattered from Sicily to Venice, filling designated “foreigner” spots on team rosters. Some have been coming for years.
Have you ever wondered why?
This is The Afterlife for American basketball. A place you can go when the NBA spits you out or your agent says, “Better Rome than Minnesota.” Italy, where the roads were built by Caesar and the Pope takes his daily prayers. Italy, where strangers kiss twice on the cheek. Italy, Land of Art and Arguments. Italy, come play for us, Americano, we give you a big contract and a house and a car, come play for us . . .
They come. They don’t know a word of Italian. They can’t find the country on a map. But they come, some of them, anyhow, to be reborn, to prove themselves, almost always to get rich. Some succeed. Some are complete washouts, even good NBA players. The fact is, life overseas is not for everyone. A lot of players arrive figuring this will be one big vacation. Then they discover the bathroom.
But wait. Here comes Dantley, driving a modest gray Fiat. He brakes. I hop in. Dantley, I should say, kind of unknowingly sold me on this story with one word, when I called him from the U.S.
“Adrian?” I said.
“Si?” he said.
Adrian Dantley speaking Italian? Come on. Say no to that.
“Yo,” he says now as I shut the car door. He rolls his eyes and smiles. He seems genuinely glad to see me — so I know these guys must really be lonely.
“It’s weird over here,” he begins.
Yeah. They have a different word for everything. Love that ice
An hour later, we are sitting in a lobby of a suburban hotel, which looks a little like a Ramada Inn in Iowa that I remember, green couches and gold ash trays. People pass, unaffected by Adrian’s presence. This is my first clue that Italy is not the NBA. No autograph hounds. Nobody staring. A handful of men stand in the bar, crowded around a wooden-frame TV set. They are watching soccer.
“I like this hotel,” Adrian says.
“It has ice.”
Already I have heard how the team had no ice for his knees when Adrian got here, and how they practice at night, and how the washing machine in his apartment is in the bathroom, near the bidet. (The bidet?) I have heard how players travel by bus to nearly all the road games, and how Dantley’s teammates watch videos of his old NBA All-Star games, and when he scores, they yell, “Adriano! You make basket! Adriano!”
I have heard about his coach, who is only 38 years old and also, conveniently, owns the team, and how he doesn’t speak English, but this morning, after a weekend defeat, he told his assistants to tell Dantley that if things don’t get better fast he’s going to cut him — even though Dantley is one of two players on the roster who can make a lay-up without instructions.
“Hey, that’s how it is over here,” sighs Dantley, who is averaging 28 points a game and shooting 63 percent. “I just accept it. I mean, when I came over, they made me try out for two games before they signed me. Can you believe that?”
He laughs, and it is kind of funny. Dantley had just left the NBA, where he scored more than 23,000 points. What’s he gonna do, forget how to shoot?
“Man, I haven’t tried out for a team since junior high. I got off the plane, had lunch and played that night. I scored 30, and I wasn’t even in shape . . . “
He shakes his head. “This place is unbelievable.”
Dantley is earning around $500,000 this season for Breeze Milano (that’s Breeze, as in Breeze deodorant, which is the sponsor of the team; most of the teams here are named after their sponsors, including my favorite, Kleenex Pistoia). Anyhow, Breeze Milano is a team in the A2 Division. There is A1, the best and the richest, with 16 teams, and there’s A2, a lower level, also with 16 teams. Each year the top two teams from A2 move up to A1, which is cause for celebration, and each year the bottom two teams from A1 fall to A2, which could mean millions of dollars lost in sponsorship money. When that happens, “You might as well jump off a bridge,” Bob McAdoo will tell me.
Each team is permitted two foreign players, usually Americans, and they pay whatever they want to get them. No salary cap. Dantley’s money is decent for an American player here, but not as much as, say, Rickey Mahorn, who is making nearly $2 million for an A1 team and living like an emperor in Rome. But hey. This is Italy. You take what you can get, and you hope the dryer isn’t in the bathroom, too.
“Ain’t got no dryer,” Dantley says.
Back to the hotel. I notice Adrian is carrying a red notebook, and I ask what’s inside. He opens it and grins. There are pages full of Italian phrases, all neatly written in his penmanship. Adrian is studying the language. His way. Which is unique. Here are some of the phrases in his notebook:
“Bad call, ref.”
“I’m not touching the ball.”
“Where is the bathroom?”
“You better get your hand out of my face.”
“I’m going to hurt him, ref.”
“Get me, I’m open.”
Dantley sighs, and closes the notebook. He looks at the men watching the soccer game.
“You gotta learn the language,” he says. “It’s their country.” Try another somersault
Let me tell you about the Breeze practice. Dantley said it was kind of a joke, and I see what he means. It is Tuesday, and we are in the Centro Culturale Sportivo Aresino, which Adrian can walk to from his apartment. That is its best feature. How can I describe the place? Think of an Elks Lodge, only less fancy, with a gym. And at the moment, the gym is occupied by teenage girls, trying to do aerobics.
“Guess we got to wait,” Dantley says. And we sit in the bleachers, behind a green net. There are two baskets, and one rim seems bent. I point at it. Dantley shrugs. It’s a long way from the NBA. Out on the court, a fat girl in lavender sweats tries a somersault. She flops with a thud.
“Too much pasta,” Dantley whispers.
Soon, the rest of his teammates wander in. I know this because Adrian says, “That guy’s on the team . . . that guy’s on the team . . .” Otherwise, I would have thought they were picking up their daughters from aerobics. I won’t say these guys do not look like pro basketball players. I will say one of them is wearing Bermuda shorts. And another is carrying his car radio under his arm. Also, I think the last weight they lifted was the pot of stew their mother was cooking.
“Ciao, Adriano,” they say.
“Ciao,” Adrian says.
He looks at me proudly. Hey! He’s speaking Italian.
Fat girl tries another somersault. A Barnaby break
We will come back to Adrian in a little bit. Back to his teammates, who, unfortunately, have trouble hanging onto the basketball when it hits them in the hands, and back to his apartment in the suburbs, where he has learned to hang his clothes out to dry, and back to his daily schedule, in which he has memorized the exact time Barnaby Jones comes on the English TV channel . . .
But let’s move along now, down the coast, past Genoa, past Pisa, down to Rome, where we hear — “BLEEP YOU, YOU STUPID ITALIAN BLEEP” — another American voice, a familiar voice that — “AND BLEEP YOUR FAT UGLY ITALIAN BUTT” — harkens back to the good old days in Detroit, the Bad Boy days.
I’ll give you three guesses.
“AW, SPEAK ENGLISH, YOU BLEEP!”
Make that two . . . TOMORROW: Rickey Mahorn and the Pope.