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BASKETBALL ITALIAN STYLE

Jan. 28, 1980
Jan. 28, 1980

Table of Contents
Jan. 28, 1980

Super Bowl XIV
Italian League
Also-Rans
College Basketball
Track & Field
Figure Skating
Horse Racing
Adirondack Park
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

BASKETBALL ITALIAN STYLE

It's not the NBA, but some emigres from the U.S. have found the game in Italy to be their cup of espresso

It may be said that on leaving the mother country the emigrants had, in general, no notion of superiority one over another. The happy and powerful do not go into exile....
—ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE

This is an article from the Jan. 28, 1980 issue Original Layout

It had not been one of the more memorable nights of Steve Green's basketball career, and as he pulled a towel up the back of his neck, over his head and down over his eyes, he wheezed in a way that sounded something like a baby snoring; it was not quite a laugh, rather a mirthless kind of snort. "Preface everything I say about this place," Green muttered darkly, "with the music from The Twilight Zone." Then he bulged his eyes in a way that must have reminded his Italian teammates in the locker room of Pagliacci on a bad day.

The game that evening at the Palazzetto dello Sport—a small dome-shaped arena not far from the great wall guarding the more ancient precincts of Rome—had been close and typically frantic. If it had not been the kind of artistic triumph you'd want to hang in the Villa Borghese, it nonetheless was satisfying to the local fans, the home team, Stella-Azzurra Roma, having won 85-83. In the final five minutes the lead had teetered back and forth between Stella-Azzurra—Green's team—and the visiting Superga-Mestre, much to the delight of the crowd, which had been hearing a selection of eerie-sounding chants from some fans, thus making them sound like a choir of crazed Gregorian monks. In the last 30 seconds of play, this sing-along was suspended in favor of the more resonant Stel-la! Stel-la! Stel-la! It seemed as if Marlon Brando might appear in a T shirt at any moment.

Green, an American who was the star of the 1975 team at Indiana University that went 31-1, finished the game with nine points and nearly as many turnovers. He had been timid about taking open shots and had not played the American-style game, unforgivable shortcomings in the eyes of the Stella adorers. That this reluctance to shoot was not shared by Green's American teammate, 6'9" Center Wilson Washington, a former 76er and Net, only served to make matters worse for Green.

Green had played four seasons of pro basketball in the U.S. and had watched two ABA franchises (the Utah Stars and the Spirits of St. Louis) fold underneath him before being given his release by the Indiana Pacers last summer. When no other NBA team expressed an interest in him, Green decided to play out the final season of his career in Italy, where American players are considered first among equals and where some Americans are more equal than others.

In 1965 the federation that governs Italian basketball granted each of the 28 teams in that country's two highest classifications—A-1 and A-2—the right to hire one foreigner (99% of whom were Americans) to supplement its all-Italian roster. These Americans, at first a mix of the near-great, the not-so-great and the saw-somebody-great-once-on-TV, were to serve as ambassadors from the country where basketball had been invented. So the Italian clubs went after big men who could play forward and center. The idea was for the Americans to teach the game by example—when it came to basketball, Italians thought shirts-and-skins were things you bought at Gucci, Pucci and, if need be, Fiorucci. The experiment was such a success and the game was becoming so popular that in 1977 the Italian federation permitted the addition of a second foreigner on each roster.

The Italians opened their arms to these American Gullivers, not to mention their hearts and, most remarkably, their treasuries. Americans received salaries and perquisites unimagined by their Italian teammates. The U.S. players were given free apartments and free cars, and most were paid upward of $35,000 a year free of Italian taxes. The Italian players usually had to hold down other jobs to support themselves.

For their lire, the Italian club owners expected each American to be a star, and they did little to discourage the development of a caste system. "They want you to score," says Steve Sheppard, formerly of the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, now of Lazio-Eldorado Roma. "I've always got the green light and that's been good for my ego. In the States I was always the one getting yelled at for making a mistake or taking a bad shot. Over here they don't say nothing to me—they yell at the Italians."

Along with the money and the attention came inevitable burdens. "There is pressure on the Americans," says Bob Morse of Pallacanestro Emerson Varese. "If a player has an off game, right away the newspapers start asking, 'Is this the right American for our team?' There are four national sports dailies, and it's a real problem for them to fill up all that space. If you don't score 20 or 30 points fairly consistently, get your share of rebounds and provide leadership, they can be pretty rough on you. In the NBA, a player can specialize in one thing, like defense, and get away with it. Over here he wouldn't last very long if he didn't get his 20 points a game."

Green made the mistake of trying to ignore the star system, and he has paid for it. "It's so difficult to communicate," he says, "but I wanted them to understand the kind of game I play, so I tried having my ideas on the kind of intelligent passing game I like to play translated from English to Italian. Before I knew it, the coach was telling me he considered me the equal of the Italian forwards on the team, which wasn't what I had in mind at all. I should have been cocky and demanding right off like Wilson was. They expect that from Americans."

Like a lot of American players spending their first season abroad, Green frequently finds himself frustrated by the language barrier and has had a hard time adjusting to certain Italian customs. "It took me a while to get used to all the guys on the team kissing each other after a good play," he says. "They don't do that in the NBA. To play over here you have to have patience, you have to have a sense of humor and you have to have an Allman Brothers tape or something to remind you of home."

When Green was cast adrift by the NBA, he contacted Richard Kaner, a New York agent who specializes in placing Americans on European teams. There are several hundred U.S. players performing in foreign countries these days, and many players use someone like Kaner to make the initial overseas contact and negotiate their first foreign contract. After settling in, some of the players then handle their own international affairs, or get a foreign lawyer. The more enterprising Italian clubs send their coaches to the U.S. to recruit players. Harthorne Wingo, for one, was working to hold his spot on the bench of the New York Knicks when he was approached by a coach for Forst-Cantu at the Knicks' training camp in 1976. "That September New York put me on waivers," says Wingo. "I left for Italy the same day."

Wingo is in his fourth season in Italy, playing for Superga-Mestre at the A-1 level, after having spent a year with that club in the A-2 division. For two seasons before that he was our man in Cantu; then Wingo was "changed," or dropped by his team, a fate in Italian basketball tantamount to being told your career sleeps with the fishes. Under Italian rules, an American player must be signed to a contract by the start of the season; once the season is under way the player cannot be cut or traded. If, however, he is released during the off-season, he must either move down to an A-2 team or play in another country for a year. In Italy, Americans are changed about as casually as socks. "They say, 'We don't want you anymore,'" says Wingo." 'You're a nice guy, but we're going to change Americans.' Then they tell you your plane ticket back to the States is waiting at the airport. That's it."

Wingo never went any further in school than junior college and had to earn his spot in the NBA by making a name for himself on the playgrounds of New York and in the Eastern League. At the age of 30 he is grateful to be playing anywhere. "When I was cut by the Knicks," he says, "it was a relief to have this to fall back on. Over here you get a chance to play 40 minutes, so I was glad to have the opportunity." The transition to the Italian style of play—which is a bit more plodding than the American game, but otherwise not all that different—was not nearly as difficult to make as the adjustment to living in a strange country.

"At the end of my first year I went back to the States right away," says Wingo, "or subito, as the Italians say. My first year was difficult because I didn't have any friends and I didn't speak the language. After practice I would go home and try to think of things to do. That was the year I got into reading."

Wingo speaks Italian now, enjoys the country, considers his assimilation into the culture a success and has brought his new wife Dianne, an American, to live in Mestre, a city near Venice. They spend most of the year in Mestre, but vacation near Los Angeles in the summer. The Italian fans seem to enjoy Wingo's aggressive style of play, and they love to shout his name—Weeeeengo! But he has not forgotten the grim nights in Cantu, a city near Milan. "I was in a small, very religious town," he says. "You didn't go out with girls. I was very strong that year."

Those who survive the first year usually are eager to return to Italy. Willie Sojourner, a five-year ABA veteran who has spent the past four seasons in Rieti, not only speaks the language but also has a sister who recently became engaged to one of his Italian teammates. Certainly no player has ever adapted to Italy more successfully than Morse, the greatest American name in the history of the Italian game. If it is a name that doesn't happen to be familiar to you, you are not alone.

Morse, 28, was taken on the third round of the 1972 NBA draft by Buffalo, but when the Braves (now the San Diego Clippers) wouldn't match the $32,000 an Italian club from Varese, a province of 600,000 in northern Italy, offered him, Morse decided to go abroad. Now in his eighth season in Varese, Morse is averaging about 28 points for a team that has been in the European Cup finals (the continent's equivalent of the NBA playoffs) the past seven years and won the title three times.

Morse, who grew up in Kennett Square, Pa., first left home to play for Penn, where from 1969 until 1972 the three varsity teams on which he started went 25-2, 28-1, 25-3 and won three Ivy League titles. He is 6'8" and as good a jump shooter as anyone anywhere but a step slow for playing good defense in the NBA. "I have a feeling that if I'd played in the NBA," says Morse, "I would've been one of those players who was always getting shifted around, playing 10th man, being put on waivers a lot." Instead of all that, Morse has become something of a national treasure in Italy. And because basketball ranks a distant second in popularity to soccer in Italy, he has been able to maintain his privacy, a luxury not shared by the game's stars in the U.S. "Maybe half the people in Varese would know me if they saw me on the street," Morse says. "But if they did recognize me they'd go on about their business. On the other hand, if a national soccer star walked down the street here he would be mobbed instantly."

Morse never expected to stay in Italy as long as he has; in fact, he tried to quit in 1975 to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine at Penn, but was lured back in the middle of his first semester when the sponsor of the Varese club offered him a five-year contract worth $80,000 a year, not including fringe benefits. "Very few people come over with the idea of staying," Morse says. "The guys who end up living here for a number of years are the ones who try to fit in, who learn the language and try to be a part of the team. The Italians appreciate that. I came with the attitude that I wanted it to be a good experience, that I was going to try new foods and wines and let the basketball take care of itself."

The basketball took care of itself, and the food almost took care of Morse. When he arrived in Varese, the team's owners told him he could take two meals a day free in one of the local ristorantes. Morse forthwith bellied up to the table. "The first month I was here I ate so much that I finally got sick, and I stayed sick for two days," he says.

These days Morse is taking his meals in a villa that sits on the side of a hill in Ghirla, a small town at the foot of the Alps just 15 minutes north of Varese. Morse bought the place two years ago, after having spent six years living in an apartment provided by his team, and if it is not the kind of villa around which paparazzi once lay in wait for the appearances of Liz and Dick, it is certainly a nice little two-story house with a terrific view of some Alps. There is no front yard, only a small, gated car park where Morse keeps his automobiles. There is no Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow or even a Ferrari; Morse drives a Volvo and a Fiat because those are the kinds of cars that Italian teams provide for their foreign players.

If it is not exactly the life of Rigoletto, uh, Riley, Morse has no complaints. He is bringing up his two daughters without television; when they are old enough, they will sit at the dinner table with their mama and papa and actually talk. They will not bolt through their meal to see a rerun of The Rookies; they will discuss books and art and music and boys, and Morse says he will see to it that this is so. He has thrown himself so fully into the life of Ghirla that he has become fairly fluent in a dialect spoken only in the valley in which his village lies. Morse has embraced every opportunity to bring himself feet first into the Italian mainstream. Two years ago he enrolled at the University of Milan to resume his study of veterinary medicine. However, he soon realized that playing basketball took too much time and that he wouldn't be able to get in the long hours of study.

If Morse's life in Italy now seems terribly easy to the other Americans struggling to adjust, it wasn't always so. Six years ago, his wife, Jane, who already had completed three of four years toward a degree in veterinary medicine at Penn, became so frustrated by the language and the bureaucracy that she decided to go home. She took a job in Wilmington, Del, but Bob continued to stay in Italy and play. Within four months, however, she had returned to Italy to again pursue accreditation, which she did. "The practice in the States was good," Morse says, "but the separation didn't work out."

Morse went to Italy at a time when many of the Americans there had not played professionally in the U.S. In the past few years the balance has tipped the other way, and there is a colony of expatriates in Italy who generally hold one of two attitudes about the NBA: some feel they merely emigrated from the league, others feel they were deported. NBA box-score combers will recognize the likes of Derrek Dickey, Jim McMillian, Jim Ard, Ron Behagen and Tom Barker.

For many of them it was a terrible fall, especially for the ones who felt they had been pushed. Mel Davis, another Knick refugee, has learned to like Italy and has even managed to accept the fact that, for reasons still a mystery to him, from one until four every afternoon Italy breaks for lunch. "Your arm could be falling off," says Davis, "and if it happened at one o'clock, you'd just have to wait for three hours to get it put back on." Sitting in a barely furnished apartment in Milan, Davis looks like a large ebony figurine in an empty gallery. "I've worked since I was 12 years old to get where I am today," says Davis, his voice hollow and echoing slightly off the bare walls. "There's no way I'd go back to the NBA now. I'm not hostile, but I just feel my talent was insulted when I was with the Knickerbockers. I certainly didn't plan this, though. If someone had told me when I signed with New York that I'd wind up playing in Italy, I'd have said there was no way. I figured I would play as long as I could in the NBA and then get a job. But when it happened I was 26. I still thought I could play."

Davis always had mixed feelings about the NBA life, anyway. He is so terrified of flying that he took tranquilizers every time he got on a plane. Now he travels by train and bus to out-of-town games r and says he's never been happier. "It was a big adjustment at first," he says. "When I got here last year I was alone for the first three months. I felt really isolated, and sometimes I'd go days without speaking at all. Most of the time it was just ciao and a smile."

Steve Sheppard doesn't smile much anymore, although his smile was his trademark when he was playing at the University of Maryland. He was put on waivers a few days after Christmas in 1978 to make room on the Chicago roster for Scott May, one of his best friends, who had just recovered from an injury. Then Sheppard was dropped by Detroit this fall after the Pistons acquired Bob McAdoo. Sheppard would rather live in Motown than Roma. He feels wronged by the Pistons, who cut him the day before training camp began.

"I just wanted to go to camp, that's all," Sheppard says. "I was hoping maybe I'd be seen by another ball club in a couple of those scrimmage games. I just needed a little more time to show them, just a little more time. I can play, I know I can. It just kills me when I have time to think about it.

"There are some players who seem like they get six or seven chances to play in the NBA, and there are some guys who just get one chance and they're out forever. If they would just let me play in the games, I know I could show them. I can play. Don't judge me by what I do in practice, you don't always do good in practice. Just let me play 10 or 15 minutes a game, not the last two minutes when the game is out of reach. You can't do nothing in two minutes except mess up; that's what I used to call it—mess-up time."

Sheppard is determined that someday he will play pro basketball in the U.S. again, but the odds are not good. He can still remember every one of his good games—the number of rebounds he got one night in San Antonio, his assist total in Milwaukee. To Sheppard, his performances are still vivid, his ability impossible to ignore. Being forgotten is the one thing he fears above all else. "I'm going to be back in the NBA, I'll tell you that," he says. "I belong in one of those uniforms."

PHOTORome and its Colosseum are O.K., but it's the Pontiac Silverdome that Steve Sheppard longs for.PHOTOHarthorne Wingo used to do a lot of rubbernecking from the bench in Madison Square Garden, but having been cut by New York, he and his wife, Dianne, now sight-see on the canals of Venice.PHOTOMorse, carrying Jennifer, and wife, Jane, with Amanda, lead the good life at their villa in Ghirla.PHOTOWashington and Sheppard go up for a rebound.

AND THE NOT SO DOLCE VITA

For many, perhaps most, of the American basketball players who go to Europe to prolong their careers, living the Continental life is appealing. But for some, Europe becomes a kind of bleak exile.

Bob Elmore, a 23-year-old forward out of Wichita State, was able to catch on with Lazio-Eldorado of Rome in the fall of 1977 after he had been cut by the New Jersey Nets. "He was kind of disappointed that he hadn't made the Nets," says Elmore's American teammate in Rome, Abdul Jeelani, who's now with the NBA Trail Blazers. When Elmore missed a day of practice about three weeks after his arrival, Jeelani and officials of the team went to Elmore's apartment, where they found him dead on the floor of an overdose of heroin. Elmore was not a regular user; the fatal needle mark investigators found in his arm was the only one. "He used to walk around in short-sleeve shirts over big muscles," says Jeelani. "I think he just wanted to get high for a while and forget where he was."

Fessor Leonard had been released by a team in Bologna in 1977 and was playing the 1977-78 season in Lugano, Switzerland. Leonard, a 7'1", 235-pound black man who had been a star at Furman, was walking down a street in Lugano on Christmas Eve when he saw an elderly woman who seemed in need of assistance. According to various accounts, Fessor said that when he approached the woman, she apparently became so frightened by Leonard's size and color that she either screamed or pushed him away, or both. Swiss police charge that Leonard had beaten the woman, and although that allegation was later dropped, Leonard spent Christmas Eve in a Swiss jail.

Leonard was virulently attacked in the local press. The criticism bothered him so much that he saved the unflattering stories, and one night in February 1978 he took what proved to be a fatal dose of tranquilizers and then set fire to the clippings and a collection of centerfolds of female nudes in his apartment.

Steve Mitchell, a 6'10" center, who played his college ball at Kansas State, had been in Italy for five seasons, and though he seemed well adjusted to his new life, he was never able to make any close friends. Mitchell, 27, attended a dinner party on Dec. 4, 1978 during which he consumed a large amount of food and drink. Later, he tried to sleep it off. Mitchell was an asthmatic, so when his host heard the player's labored breathing the next morning, he thought nothing of it. When the man returned later he found Mitchell dead of suffocation from congestion.

The fact that all three of these players died alone and within a period of a single year made the circumstances seem more suspicious than they were. In fact, according to some American players, the killer was something insidious, not sinister—being alone in a faraway place where nobody knows your name or your game.