Even the blindcan pick up a major difference between European basketball games and the NBA:Our background noise is pumped out of speakers while theirs is entirelynatural. On a Wednesday night in late May, in an ancient town near Venice, thefanatics of the Italian club Benetton Treviso shook the Palaverde arena withdrumbeats, shrill whistles and trumpet blasts-a cacophony not unlike a Romantraffic jam at rush hour. They were quiet only in the presence of theirnaturally endowed cheerleaders, dressed in white two-piece leotards, whoperformed routines that more closely resembled ballet than the silicone-shakingbump-and-grind acts of NBA dance teams. As they ran off the court, they brushedsingle-file past the Benetton general manager, Maurizio Gherardini,acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic as the top executive in Europeanbasketball. "You can see that Maurizio is very smart," said EnricoCastorino, the club's press officer. "He stands where the cheerleaders haveto go by him as they leave the court." Gherardini has a differentexplanation for his courtside position, claiming that he is too fidgety to sitthrough his team's games. And with good reason: On this night, he watchedBenetton squander most of a 27-point lead over Lottomatica Roma in Game 1 oftheir Italian Serie A semifinals, a best-of-five showdown. With less than threeminutes remaining, a Roma guard broke free for an apparent layup that would'vecut the lead to six. From the blindside, however, came Andrea Bargnani, themost promising discovery of Gherardini's 32-year career, to block the shot andstart a fast break, which-after clambering back to his feet and sprintingupcourt-he capped off by draining a three-pointer. That key sequence inBenetton's 85-77 win displayed the myriad natural gifts that have made Bargnanibasketball's equivalent of a five-tool player, the most intriguing prospect inthis year's NBA draft.
Bargnani and hisportly boss, who brings to mind a younger Tommy Lasorda, are the leaders of anItalian hoops renaissance from which the NBA will soon benefit. Once upon atime Italy was the capital of European roundball, a hoops haven for suchplayers as Bill Bradley, who as a Rhodes scholar in the mid-1960s would flydown from Oxford on his off days to play for powerhouse Milan. But the countryhas produced few of its own international stars as other Europeancountries-Germany (Dirk Nowitzki), Spain (Pau Gasol) and France (TonyParker)-began exporting All-Stars to the U.S. That will change this month, asItalians celebrate not only the ascent of the 7-foot Bargnani, but also ofGherardini, who is about to become the first European executive to help managean NBA team. In a delicious irony the Raptors, who have the first pick in nextweek's draft, will name Gherardini as their assistant G.M. before the draft.And a popular belief is that the Raptors will use that pick on Bargnani.
The 20-year-oldBargnani (bar-NYAH-nee) has been most often compared with Nowitzki for hislength and long-range marksmanship. (He shot 38.1% from beyond the arc thisseason.) "He has that same slow, smooth release as Dirk," says ahighly-regarded Eastern Conference executive who rates Bargnani as the topplayer in the draft. "And his lateral movement and overall athleticism isbetter than Dirk's."
Despite theimminent hiring of Gherardini, new Raptors president and G.M. Bryan Colangelohas been coy about his interest in Bargnani. In fact, according to severalleague executives, Colangelo has been entertaining offers for the pick in hisquest to fill the team's biggest need: an experienced, up-tempo point guard.Few, though, are available. "If that doesn't happen, I think they'll usethe pick on Tyrus Thomas," says a Western Conference exec. "Bargnani isthe best player in the draft, but I think Bryan is looking to re-create what hehad in Phoenix-and if he takes Thomas, then he'll have the closest thing toShawn Marion playing small forward with a revved-up motor alongside [Chris]Bosh and [Charlie] Villanueva."
At the beginningof this season Bargnani was playing only 10 to 15 minutes off the bench, but hebecame a starter midway through the year and is averaging 11.9 points, 5.5rebounds and an Italian-league-leading 1.3 blocks per game in just 22 minutesper game. He is, scouts say, well-prepared for the rigors of the long NBAschedule. In addition to adding 23 pounds to his seven-foot, 248-pound frame,Bargnani has played in close to 80 preseason, regular-season and tournamentgames this year. Being a marked man has further steeled him. At the end of acrucial game in March against powerhouse Climamio Bologna, ex-Chicago Bullscenter Dalibor Bagaric clotheslined Bargnani on a drive to the basket. As histeammates surrounded Bagaric and threatened retaliation, Bargnani got to hisfeet, rubbed his sore jaw and made two clinching free throws. Opposing fanshave also played rough with him. During a return trip home to Rome for Game 2of the Italian semis, Bargnani was greeted by 10,000 fans singing:
Bargnani pezzo demerda
Which translates,roughly, to: "Bargnani is a piece of s--." The crowd also had someunkind things to say about his mother, Luisella Balducci, a high school Englishteacher sitting courtside. Luisella just laughed at the attention being paid toher son, who lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Treviso anddrives a sponsor-provided Volvo station wagon. This year he has grown apeach-fuzz beard in an ill-fated attempt to look older; more striking are histhick eyebrows and occasionally startled expression that give him more than asmall resemblance to Charlie Chaplin.
Gherardinidiscovered Bargnani as a skinny 16-year-old playing for Stella Azzurra, a smallclub in Rome. Surprised to find a 6'9" teenager with the ball handlingskills of a shooting guard, Gherardini spent six months winning over theplayer, his divorced parents and his Italian agent, Antonio Ricciotti, who willwork in concert with Bargnani's U.S.-based agent, Leon Rose, the rep for LeBronJames.
Because there isno draft for players in Italy, Gherardini must court players like an NCAArecruiter, the main difference being that he hands out the cash over the tablerather than under it. (Bargnani is in the third year of a five-year contractthat is estimated to be worth more than $2.5 million.) He has been hustling forclients since he was a teenager. His first job in basketball was with a proteam in the Italian town of Forli, which needed an English speaker-as a16-year-old, Gherardini had lived as an exchange student in St. Louis-to handlenegotiations with Tony Gennari, a U.S. player. After landing Gennari before thestart of the 1973-74 season, Forli kept the 19-year-old Gherardini on as theplayer's translator. Later that season he was promoted to assistant coach, andwithin a few years he was running the team-at a salary of around $20 permonth.
It wasn't untilthe early '90s, when he was named G.M. of Benetton, that Gherardini began tomake a much bigger name for himself. The international interest in Gherardini'stalent-rich summer camps-including the annual Reebok Euro Camp, which wasattended by representatives of every NBA team two weeks ago in Treviso-combinedwith a training staff that includes a strength coach, physiotherapist,dietician, chiropractor, bone specialist, masseur and two team physicians wonover Bargnani, who passed up more lucrative offers from the Italian clubs Sienaand Roma.
While manyEuropean clubs shun the NBA, Gherardini has opened his doors to the Americans.By allowing Bargnani to depart with an estimated $1 million buyout, he isencouraging Italian players to dream of the NBA. "My old team president inForli used to tell me, 'At the end of the day, the big fish always eats up thesmall fish. But as a small fish you may be able to be eaten the rightway,'" says Gherardini. "Instead of fighting the NBA, we could benefitby sharing." The Raptors, who hope to rely on international talent tocompensate for the unpopularity of Canada among U.S. players, will lean heavilyon Gherardini's connections that make him, according to Mavs president DonnieNelson, the planet's most connected scout. "He's one of maybe five guysoutside the U.S. who could step in and not skip a beat," says Nelson."He's going to have no problem being a force in our league."
Will thiscultural exchange program help Gherardini's young protégé become the onlyEuropean to ever go No. 1? Gherardini will be among the first to know.