By Ian Thomsen
January 31, 2008

MILAN, Italy -- Players like his son used to be the enemy to Vittorio Gallinari. For nine years he was an Italian teammate of Mike D'Antoni's (including one season when Bob McAdoo joined them) on the championship teams of Milan, and Vittorio was their defensive stopper, their hit man.

When fans speak of the Gallinari who plays for Milan today, the one with all the offensive ability, they use terms that bear zero resemblance to Vittorio. That he of all people is the father of the scorer who figures to be the top international pick in the draft is of no small pride or irony. His son, the 6-foot-9 Danilo Gallinari, may be the most skilled player chosen by the NBA in the 2008 draft.

"That's the story of life,'' Vittorio says. "Everything is changed.''

Meet the newest Gallinari, who likely will spend the next dozen years in the NBA trying to outwit the defensive tactics that used to be applied by his father.

"I think he's the No. 1 pick,'' an NBA scout says of Danilo.

The first player picked overseas?

"I think he's the best player in the draft,'' says the European-based scout, whose strong opinion of the 19-year-old Gallinari is in the minority but not without merit. "He has so much character, he's a big, strong kid with a special combination of skills, and he's going to be a matchup nightmare whether he's playing small forward or power forward.''

"He's the best player on his team at his age, which is saying something,'' says another NBA scout in Europe. "He can go outside, he can play one-on-one and he can go to the rim -- as opposed to his father, who couldn't put the ball in the ocean.''

"He is exactly the kind of player his father used to stop,'' a third scout says.

While Danilo declines to commit to the June draft for now, claiming that he prefers not to look past next week, his father sounds more optimistic.

"He won't decide until the end of February, but I think he will try,'' Vittorio says. "I think he is going to go.''

Danilo acknowledges working before and after practice on drills to improve his agility and leaping, which are above average. His PR agency, Reset Communication of Milan, has already commissioned a logo of a rooster, or gallo in Italian, which has been Gallinari's obvious nickname for several years. Reebok is vesting him with a signature pair of shoes to be on the market soon.

Gallinari is the rare teenager with the maturity to be the best player of a major club. With 14.9 points in 31.7 minutes, he is the leading Euroleague scorer for Armani Jeans Milano (3-10 in the exclusive league), which has undergone two wholesale roster changes while firing both its general manager and coach since last summer. But Milan's newest Gallinari is showing leadership after his early-season absence resulted in an 0-5 start in the Serie A: The team has gone 10-5 since while returning to contention for the Italian league playoffs.

It is a proud old club with three European championships dating back to 1965-66, when Bill Bradley, while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford,would fly down to play with Milan once a week to remain in shape. The club's 31-year-old media director, Matteo Mantica, who grew up rooting for Danilo's father, leads a tour of the team offices in a tall converted residential home that is almost too narrow for its collection of trophies and memorabilia, including the numerous photos of D'Antoni as well as Vittorio, who bears a grinning resemblance to his son.

"He started to come to my games and to my practices when he was very young,'' Vittorio says. "When he was 5 or 6 years old, after my game I go to take the shower, and he goes on the court to start shooting. People would look at him and say he is so little [to be able to] score and dribble. We realized when he was really young that he can do everything easy.

"In my hometown, where we would live in the summer, there is a garden with a basket outside the house. He would stay all day to play basketball, and I didn't have to worry. I have another son -- he is 10 now -- and all of the time he's saying, 'Hey Dad, come play with me, come play with me!' But Danilo was not like that. Because he had basketball, I never had to worry about him.''

The story of Vittorio's career has a short but amazing introduction. He grew up in a town of 2,000 people 30 miles from Milan, and one day when he was 15, a man associated with the Milan team asked if he would like to play basketball.

"To tell the truth, I didn't know nothing about basketball,'' says Vittorio, who had never played. "That's why I was a defender. I had no time to learn to score or to shoot. Then I played for 15 years.''

He played at the highest professional level outside America because he had a low center of gravity that, in combination with his intelligence, enabled him at 6-9 to physically neutralize the most prolific scorers whether they were small forwards or centers. When two experts of European basketball tell me that Vittorio's grasp of the dirty work did not preclude the occasional punch to the throat or stomach, they say it with admiration. The Milanese loved Vittorio for his mind and his heart. As underscored by his career average of 1.8 points, he was the Italian Dennis Rodman in an era free of tattoos, piercings and green hair.

Were this a next-generation version of Field of Dreams in which son and father were to connect on a basketball court, Danilo might limp away doubled over with his nose bleeding. Or perhaps he would be too clever for his father. Because of enlightened youth coaches who started him at point guard despite his being the tallest player on his teams, Danilo has turned into a perimeter shooter with three-point range and a playmaker's vision of the court. Which makes him the Italian version of Larry Bird, in further difference to his father.

"When he was about 13 or 14, he started to see a video about Michael Jordan, and he watched this video many times,'' Vittorio says. "I try to explain to him that I like Larry Bird ...''

"Michael Jordan,'' Danilo says when asked who is the better player. "No comparison.''

Danilo is also capable of slashing to the basket and finishing more than occasionally with a spectacular dunk. To further outdo his father, he is trying to master both ends of the floor by learning to play capable defense even when matched up against the 30-year-olds who dominate the Serie A and Euroleague. They, of course, try to dominate him physically.

"Every time,'' says Danilo, adding with a smile: "But they are not doing good at that.

"Defense is only about concentration and wanting to play defense,'' he says. "There is not a particular technique, and nobody can teach you. If you want to play defense, you play defense no matter what.''

It might be easy for strangers to presume a rivalry between the son who has and the father who had not. In fact, both parties recognize that everything done by the father was meant to create opportunities for the son. Vittorio has even become Danilo's agent. When the NBA tries to negotiate with Danilo, it will have to go through Vittorio.

"When he was young, he always played with the older players,'' says proud Vittorio in acclaim of his client. "That is why he always plays under control. He looks like he can play easy against a little guy or a big guy.''

But when I ask Danilo about his agent, this is what he says: "I am not interested in his work, and we never talk about his work.''

Sounds like your typical father-son relationship.

You May Like