A London dateline graced last week's lead sports-paternity
story: the news that Julius Erving's genes help account for the
power and grace of Wimbledon semifinalist Alexandra Stevenson.
But if you've read your Dickens, you know where to turn for a
comparable tale of another city--Paris, where last Saturday,
Italy defeated Spain for its first European Basketball
Championship in 16 years.
Meneghin (pronounced men-uh-GEEN) isn't a name well known to
basketball fans outside Europe, but the New York Knicks thought
enough of 6'8" Dino Meneghin to draft him in 1971, long before
one out of every three NBA centers was foreign-born. He never
signed with the Knicks, but he played a preposterous 28 pro
seasons in his native Italy, retiring in 1995, at the age of 45,
before becoming manager of the Italian national team. Today he
remains beloved in his home country and respected throughout the
continent for the way he rebounded, defended and set picks that
could crumple a Fiat Cinquecento. In 1983 Meneghin led the
Azzurri to its first European title, also over Spain, also in
France. Nine years before that, while with Varese of Italy's top
league, Serie A, he fathered a boy, Andrea, by a local woman,
Graziella Battaini, before drifting out of the lives of both.
The very first time a friend brought Andrea to a playground at
age five, he became hooked on hoops. Now, at 25, he's the star
of the Italian national team, albeit in a different way than his
granite-sculpted dad. While hints of Dino's aquiline nose and
broad forehead can be seen in his son, Andrea's lissome 6'7"
build and light-footed game beg for a DNA test. Meneghin fils is
an all-court player with moves that Dino didn't dare dream
about. Last weekend Dan Peterson, the American expatriate who
coached Papa Dino to four Italian Cup titles in Milan during the
1980s, called Andrea the best player in Eurobasket '99, as the
two-week-long tournament in France was known. "He's like Toni
Kukoc, only a better athlete," Peterson said. "Dino was power
and screens, all the things that don't show up in the box score.
Andrea does all the things that do show up in the box score.
"You know, for years people in Italy said the national team
wouldn't be any good again until another Meneghin came along.
Well, that's exactly what's happened, only not at all the way
Andrea has spent recent years slowly coming around to a father
he had known of but never really known. Several seasons ago,
when Dino was in his twilight with Trieste and Andrea was a
greenhorn with Varese, photographers posed them together before
a game between their two club teams, but their relationship
didn't go deeper than that. Then, in 1996, father and son were
thrown together on the national team.
"At first we had problems because we were confused by our
roles," Andrea says. "As a player I'd be saying, 'Hey, don't
bust my balls!' As a manager he'd be saying, 'I'm your daddy,
you must do this or that thing!'" During a practice in 1996,
Dino threw his son out of the gym because Andrea, injured and in
mufti, was reading a newspaper while his teammates sweated
through their drills. Today the relationship is better, says a
source close to the team, in part because "now everyone
considers Andrea a great player, not just Dino's son." Said
Andrea last week, "Here, this summer, we found the right
distance for a relationship."
Italian basketball has also finally recalibrated itself. It
reached its nadir in Zaragoza, Spain, at the qualifying
tournament for the 1992 Olympics, where the Azzurri struggled to
beat a team of Albanians who played in the same ratty Chuck
Taylors they used for padding around town. At the European
championships a year later, Italy finished tied for ninth, and
longtime coach Sandro Gamba stepped aside.
That's when the capi of Italian hoops decided to take drastic
steps. They stuck in the middle a cadaverous seven-footer of
Slovenian descent with a name, Gregor Fucka, that will mean
trouble if he ever has to play at Cameron Indoor Stadium. (That
diacritical mark over the c, however, means his surname is
pronounced FOOTCH-kuh.) On the perimeter they added mercurial
guard Carlton Myers, who missed his team's final four shots in
its Eurobasket opener as Italy squandered a 19-point lead and
lost to Croatia. After that, Myers settled into a steady
The Italian federation hired as coach Bogdan (Boscia) Tanjevic,
a hardheaded Montenegrin who was vindicated in his determination
to field a team without a true point guard. He might have had
one, but he clashed with Italy's most popular player, Gianmarco
Pozzecco, a self-described "fool and clown" with dyed hair and
Rodmanesque tendencies. When Pozzecco missed the first two weeks
of national-team training camp in May with a broken nose,
Tanjevic didn't much care for his style of rehabilitation, which
featured extensive nightclubbing. When Pozzecco one day
announced he was leaving the team, Tanjevic didn't try to change
Playing without a floor general, Italy barely survived in last
Friday's semifinals against Yugoslavia, the defending world
champion and winner of every Eurobasket in which it had competed
since 1989. The Italians built an 18-point lead in the first
half, only to watch their advantage disappear in the heat of the
Yugos' press. But with four minutes to go Alessandro Abbio
retrieved Italy's lead with a three-pointer, and the Yugoslavs,
whose training was complicated by the war over Kosovo and who
came to Paris desperate to prevail against a field made up
largely of teams from NATO countries, wound up 71-62 losers.
"Coach Tanjevic taught the players that the more they work, the
more they win," Dino Meneghin said after Italy's 64-56 defeat of
Spain in the final the next day. With its victory Italy also
stamped its ticket for Sydney, earning a spot in the Olympics
for the first time since 1984. Five other European teams also
claimed Olympic bids with their performances in France,
including the host country, ending its own 16-year drought.
Spain, Yugoslavia, Lithuania and Russia will join the French in
Sydney, while disappointments Croatia and Greece won't have to
worry about being fodder for an NBA Dream Team.
Speaking of the NBA, the league may have been the biggest
underachiever of the Eurobasket. Despite all the NBA players who
took part--Croatia's Kukoc, Yugoslavia's Vlade Divac and Predrag
Stojakovic, France's Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Slovenia's Radoslav
Nesterovic, Lithuania's Arvydas Sabonis and Germany's Dirk
Nowitzki--two teams without a single NBA player contested the
final. The younger Meneghin had a theory. "Maybe other teams
gave too much responsibility to their NBA players," he said. "We
knew we had to play together to win."
Though Fucka was named the Eurobasket's MVP, Meneghin scored
(11.2 points per game), passed (3.6 assists) and defended (1.7
steals) while bringing backcourt order to his point-less team.
All of which should commend him to the NBA. "For now, no one
drafts me," Andrea said with a shrug. "I can't go if no one
Asked if he envisioned Andrea in the league in which he might
have played, Dino seemed to hint at an answer. "He's a
completely different player from me," he said. "More moves. More
shots. Much better."
Of course their differences hardly needed pointing out to anyone
who had seen both Meneghins play. But just so there would be no
mistake, Andrea disclaimed his father as inspiration for his
game, citing instead "Sabonis and Kukoc. And many NBA players.
Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan. Larry Bird. And especially Julius
A surprise father last week, that Doctor J. Twice over.