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SITTING PRETTY IN ROME

Oct. 09, 1989
Oct. 09, 1989

Table of Contents
Oct. 9, 1989

Auburn-Tennessee
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NHL Preview 1989-90
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Dan Hampton
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Point After

SITTING PRETTY IN ROME

With a huge salary and all the pasta he can eat, Danny Ferry doesn't regret having said ciao to the NBA and pronto to pro hoops Italian-style

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's...uh, money?

This is an article from the Oct. 9, 1989 issue Original Layout

Danny Ferry, a smart, healthy American fellow just out of college, is roving around Italy, but he isn't exactly backpacking through the alleys of Rome in search of a spare cot or a box of maccheróni. As he sat at the wheel of his BMW one day on the way to his suite at the elegant Aldrovandi Palace Hotel, and again while enjoying a sumptuous repast(a) with a representative of the U.S. embassy, Ferry pondered how much less it would have taken for him to spurn the NBA than the one-to-two million dollars—or approximately 2½ billion lira—he will earn for playing at least one season with Il Messaggero Basket in the Italian League. "Let's put it this way," said Ferry in the midst of one of the Eternal City's eternal traffic jams, "I didn't come over here to lose money."

Most NBA first-round draft choices react to their selection with a "Wow!"; last summer Ferry, a 6'10" forward, declared ciao, not so much to American pro basketball as to the Los Angeles Clippers—losers of 196 of their last 246 games—who had picked him. The Clipper brass seemed dumbfounded, as if struck upside their collective heads by a magnum of Asti Spumante. They didn't even have time to make a counteroffer before Ferry, the Duke All-America and last season's ACC Player of the Year, had become Daniele Ragazzo (Danny Boy) as well as an instant Roman hero with a following comparable to that of the young Caesar—and we're not talking Romero.

Long before the professional season started in Italy last week—with Il Messaggero defeating Vismara-Cant‚Äö√†√∂≈ì√Ñ on the road and losing at home to Philips Milano, the defending national champion—Ferry's name and face were constantly in the newspapers and on television. One of the newspapers was Il Messaggero, whose parent company, Gruppo Ferruzzi, an enormous agro-industrial holding company, bought the team in April to give its owner, Raul Gardini, yet another form of p.r. visibility.

Il Contadino (the peasant farmer), as Gardini is known, rose from farming in the Adriatic town of Ravenna, married Serafino Ferruzzi's daughter and now controls a $22 billion conglomerate that does business on six continents. He is 56, silver-haired and a jet-set yachtsman with designs on the America's Cup. A normal day might consist of a working lunch with U.S. Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher in Gardini's 16th-century palace in Venice, followed by a flight to Moscow in one of his six private planes to discuss wheat harvesting in the Ukraine. But on the Italo-celebrometer, compared with the 22-year-old Ferry, Gardini is a courtier in his own palazzo.

Meanwhile, Ferry, the only ACC player in history with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists, has taken to heart a basketball philosophy that's the reverse of the one he grew up with as the son of a professional player, coach and general manager: Subjugate the team to yourself. "Danny's got to remember it's not selfish when you're paid to shoot and score," says Greg Ballard, the former Washington Bullet who is an assistant coach for Il Messaggero.

Having developed a special liking for penne all'arrabbiata, a fabulous, spicy pasta dish, at a restaurant called La Pigna near the Piazza Venezia, Ferry might do well to remember an important Italian axiom: Lay off seconds; there's always another course coming. "My first time [coping with the long meals]," he says, "I was full after the antipasto. I've learned to pace myself."

At his current pace, however, Ferry could end up resembling less "a young Larry Bird," as the Italian press has dubbed him, than an old Marlon Brando. He would not be the first American basketball player whose career disappeared in the valley of tortellini, washed away in a sea of Frascati. In truth, though, Ferry is probably much too dedicated to his profession to turn into a Frigorìfero Ferry.

He has already been named Italy's MVS—Most Valuable Stranièro (or stranger), which is the name of a trophy he won in a preseason tournament—and fairly remarkable Ferry tales are being created every day. Over a recent 72-hour period, for example, Ferry:

•endured Babel-like mob scenes from adoring fans who surrounded the team bus on road trips to Siena and Cantú;

•hobnobbed at a Rome reception with some of Italy's most renowned entertainers, including Heather Parisi, a glamorous blonde dancer along the lines of Joey Heatherton, and Pippo Baudo, a sort of Gianni Carsoni;

•attended a team dinner at the breathtaking apartment of Il Messaggero president Carlo Sama, Gardini's brother-in-law. The apartment overlooks the famous fountains of the Piazza Navona. "Carlo's terrace seats 40 people!" said Ferry. "I could reach out and touch the church steeple";

•practically won single-handedly his team's first nationally televised game, the 90-86 road victory over Vismara-Cantú, with a pair of late three-point baskets. (He had the chance to be a hero again on Sunday against Philips Milano, but he missed a free throw with 19 seconds left, and Philips won 96-94 before a capacity crowd of 13,000. Ferry scored 28 points.)

None of this conveys the excitement generated by Ferry and his American teammate, 6'6" Brian Shaw—who left the Boston Celtics backcourt to take another $1 million chunk out of Gardini's gardens—whenever they appear on the streets of Rome. Shaw has acquired the Italian title of Signor Quattro Formaggi. "That's four cheeses," says Signor Shaw. "I order everything with four cheeses, and when I sprinkle the Parmesan on, I'm Signor Cinque Formaggi."

As any visitor who has ever flipped a coin into the Trevi Fountain might expect, Ferry and Shaw have made their only real language strides in the restaurants of Rome. Away from the table Ferry's vocabulary consists mostly of pronto (hello) when answering the phone and non ho capito (I didn't understand) when he doesn't want to elaborate. Both players have learned the common Italian obscenities, courtesy of their new teammates. Still, Shaw was unprepared for a recent incident involving Italy's only female referee.

"First I cursed her out in English, which it turned out she understood perfectly," says Shaw. "Then she cursed me out in Italian, which I understood. Whew! Some real nasty stuff. Later she kept smiling, and I thought she was my friend again. Then she hit me with another charging call. I think she wanted to gain respect. She sure got it from me."

It's not as if the two innocents abroad are that innocent—although they did shell out $50 for ice cream for four people on the Via Veneto the other day—or that difficult to miss. "A tall white guy and a tall black guy walking around together in Rome—who else could we be?" says Ferry. Now that Lori Butler, Shaw's college sweetheart from UC Santa Barbara, has joined him in Rome, the two players are not always together.

When left to his own resources, Ferry sometimes has trouble adapting to Italian customs. For one thing, he was kicked out of the Vatican complex for wearing shorts. For another, he nearly kills himself every time he ventures into the insane Roman traffic, which has no rules, only recommendations.

"If you drive politely here, you're either a fool or soon to be dead," said Ferry one day amid a temper-meltdown of a journey along Via Salaria between the team's practice site and his hotel. Normally a 15-minute trip, the adventure took Ferry, who alternated between being hopelessly lost and sideswiping several rearview mirrors off other motorists, more than two hours. "When Danny's at the wheel, I wear a helmet and a blindfold," says Ballard.

"The dirt and the pollution," says Ferry, changing the subject. "That's the downside of Rome." He also misses his friends and the NFL on Sundays. For Shaw the downside of Rome is the lack of ice in his drinks and "karate movies dubbed in Italian rather than in English." Ah, but they're encountering some of the world's most glorious art, finest food and most beautiful women. "I rate the women here as definite pieces of art," says Shaw, a quick learner even under the watchful eye of Butler.

Off-court pleasures aren't the only attraction. As William Drozdiak, who played for six seasons in Europe and is now an editor at The Washington Post, has written: "With one or two games a week on the schedule and a very Mediterranean attitude toward practice sessions, [the game] in Italy can seem like the sporting pursuit of a gentleman of leisure compared to the ruthless Darwinism of the NBA."

Ferry was a political science major at Duke, and his horizons always exceeded those of the average jock. He was envious of his schoolmates who studied abroad. "Basketball season prevented me from ever doing that," he says. Ferry instead seized the opportunity to play on international teams every summer after graduating from DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md. At Duke one of his closest friends was Paul Stewart, from Scotland, the son of the retired Formula One racer Jackie Stewart. "I always thought I'd play in Europe after the NBA, the way Greg [Ballard] did," says Ferry.

Enter Il Messaggero coach Valerio Bianchini, who follows American college ball with fervor. Nicknamed L'Evangelista by Italian journalists for his Dale Brown-style philosophizing—"Don't risk excessive turbulence on the court. Five must play as one," he has been known to announce in the huddle—Bianchini, 49, has led three teams to the Italian championship. He never dreamed he would get to work with Ferry, until the pitiful Clippers, with all their young forwards and all their backward history, made him the second pick in the draft. Even to those who watched the draft on television, Ferry's face looked ashen. "It was then I knew I had Danny," says Bianchini.

His chance meeting with Ferry on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan later that night may not have been so chancy after all. The next day, in Washington, D.C., Enzo De Chiara, Gruppo Ferruzzi's counselor for international relations (read lobbyist—the company was a major contributor to George Bush's presidential campaign) met with Danny's father, Bob, vice-president and general manager of the Bullets. "I suggested to my good friend Bob what we would like to show Danny and his parents, Roma, Italy and Europe—my way, the Gardini way," says De Chiara, an immaculately tailored boulevardier who numbers among his heavy-hitting D.C. media friends Ted Koppel and Larry King.

So off went the Ferrys—and one of Danny's Duke roommates, Lou Scher—to Venice, where Gardini put them up at the Gritti Palace Hotel overlooking the Grand Canal, fed them at his son-in-law's famous restaurant, Harry's Bar, and entertained them at his own palace on the Grand Canal, where Ferry noticed that the gondola paddlers all wore Rolexes. "Just call me Big Time," Scher kept saying. But there's Big Time and then there's Gardini.

This was the same palace that Gardini had repeatedly tried to buy from an insurance company, which refused to sell. His patience exhausted, so the story goes, a fed-up Gardini bought the entire insurance company. And this is the same team owner who once sought to purchase the controlling interest in a company for $322 million. "Can we have time to consider?" said the company's owner.

"Of course," said Gardini, checking his watch. "You've got 22 minutes."

The owner accepted Gardini's offer. Gardini, who is backing Italy's entry in the next America's Cup challenge, is depicted in cartoons in Italian publications with a pirate's black eye patch.

Before Ferry left Venice to watch Stewart begin his racing career in England—and before Ferry's parents were whisked off courtesy of Gardini to the Savoy Hotel in London, followed by a weekend in Monte Carlo—Gardini made this offer: nearly $10 million over five years, guaranteed, with an option to leave after every season. "I need more than 22 minutes," Ferry said.

But he didn't take much longer. On a visit to Rome he met his would-be teammates, toured the villa—complete with tennis court, lap pool and a 60-seat theater—where he was supposed to live (Ferry said it was "a bit large") and saw the arena where he would play, the Palaeur, where Cassius Clay and Oscar Robertson, among others, made their international debuts in the 1960 Olympic Games. Ferry sought advice from his father as well as from representatives of several sports-management groups. On his own he decided to take the plunge—before he had even hired an agent.

"I know there is no substitute for the NBA," says Ferry, "but I figured this was what was best for me at the time. I know the Clippers and others thought this was a bargaining tool to get traded, but once I signed, that was it. I was staying the year in Rome. I didn't want to be in limbo.

"Valerio got me at a very emotional, vulnerable period. Whether somebody else had drafted me—I just don't know—I can't speak to that. I reacted to my situation as it was, not what might have been. The Clippers could have hardballed me, chastised me in the papers. But they've always acted with class. I still expect to be a Clipper someday, but the opportunity to play in Rome was something I thought would never come again."

Shaw, who was a little-known college point guard before he started 54 games as a rookie last season for the Celtics, echoes Ferry's thoughts. Boston did not take Shaw's offer from Il Messaggero seriously. "Brian better brush up on his Italian," Celtics general manager Jan Volk said cavalierly. Now the Boston media parrot the familiar argument against European ball: The longer Shaw and Ferry play in Italy, the more their value will decrease in the NBA because their talent will dry up and they will develop sloppy habits.

The argument is specious and silly, loaded with, as the Italians say molto fumo e poco arrosto (much smoke but very little roast). No, Ferry will learn how to bang and post up, and he will become a mature, polished leader. Shaw, cut off from driving because of zone defenses and desirous of staying in one piece, will become the outside shooter-scorer the Celtics didn't believe he could be. Both will be back, much the better for their cultural and athletic experiences abroad. "The bottom line is Brian and I are having a lot of fun," says Ferry.

Which may be the difference between road trips to Florence, Venice and Milan and ones to Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Cleveland. Then there's all that loot. Who's in the big league now? "Somebody from Il Messaggero told me we're going to get a private audience with the pope," says Shaw. "Now I'd call that pretty big league."

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERPHOTOPETER READ MILLERFerry—a.k.a. "young Larry Bird"—starred in his team's first nationally televised game.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERSignor Quattro Formaggi is also a big cheese in Italy.PHOTOF. SCIANNA/MAGNUMAfter wooing him in Venice, Gardini hooked Ferry with a five-year, $10 million contract.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe 6'10" Ferry, 6'7" Ballard (center) and 6'6" Shaw aren't hard to spot in Rome.