The roster of Italy's national team includes so many lilting names—Premier, Bonamico, Romeo, Magnifico—that one might confuse it with the cast of characters of a Rossini opera. Then the eye stops. Meneghin, Dino. 6'8", 243 pounds. Sounds like someone who would spit in your face.
And he would, too. Oh, maybe not yours but then you aren't the official who irritated him during the playoff series between Meneghin's SIMAC team from Milan and Granarolo of Bologna last May. For abusing a ref, Meneghin (pronounced men-uh-GEEN) was suspended just long enough to ensure his club's defeat. He will, however, be in Los Angeles for his fourth Olympics.
At 34, late in a career during which he's broken bones—his, not someone else's—nine times, Meneghin is as good as ever. He'll still occasionally grab a rebound, fire an outlet pass and use his speed to score a layup at the other end. No wonder a panel of coaches and writers assembled this year by Milan's Giganti del Basket magazine voted him the finest player in Europe. (Some 4,000 of his countrymen voted for him in the recent elections to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, West Germany, but that was far from enough to win a seat. Meneghin was on the Italian Social Democratic Party's ticket.)
Fact is, Meneghin has been the best player on the continent for years now, and his savvy around the basket is the main reason Italy is a certain medalist in L.A. He's quick and relentless on the glass, like Moses Malone, but mobile and reckless elsewhere, a la Dave Cowens. "Meneghin's mere presence unites a team," says one Italian club coach. "It takes pressure off everybody else and breeds a professional attitude."
But Italy isn't exactly lost without him. Meneghin missed a tour of the U.S. last fall, yet the Italians beat Iowa by six, BYU by 13, Fresno State by 15 and Tulsa by seven. They lost only to Bobby Knight and Indiana when the Hoosiers' Stew Robinson threw in an 18-foot jumper at the buzzer. That may mean Knight is the rare coach who's more capable than Italy's Sandro Gamba, who played on 10 Italian club champions. With an eye for physical, coachable players, Gamba has kept the core of his team constant since 1980. "Sandro's a guy who takes a while to make up his mind, but once he does, that's it," says a friend. "He's created a team where nobody's indispensable and everybody can contribute."
Alongside Meneghin, Gamba starts 29-year-old Renato Villalta, a 6'7" Dave DeBusschere-type; and 30-year-old Romeo Sacchetti, a 6'4½", 235-pound swingman who plays for Berloni of Turin and defends like a shroud. "To me, Sacchetti is the best player in Italy," says Scott May, the former Indiana star who's now a teammate of Sacchetti's. "He does everything." Cedrick Hordges, the ex-Denver Nugget who last season played for Star Varese says, "The forwards are the strongest part of the Italian team."
The guards are almost as good. Antonello Riva, 22, is Italy's new superstar. A 6'4" shooter, his current first-division team acquired his rights from a small-town club in return for a $3,000 bus and half a dozen basketballs. Pierluigi (Pierlo) Marzorati, a part-time kiwi farmer, has been running Italy's offense since the Munich Games. Marzorati is 31 now, and Gamba normally alternates him with 5'9" Carlo Caglieris, 33, so each plays roughly half the game. Others with surrogate-starter status: 27-year-old guard Enrico Gilardi, forward Roberto Premier, 26, and Walter Magnifico, 23, who's truly magnifico for a forward, at 6'9".
Except at center, where after Meneghin the quality drops off sharply, Italy's depth is its greatest strength. In its seven-game run to the European title in France last year, Gamba never used a player for more than 189 minutes (of a possible 280). Eight of the 12 players on the roster played at least 14 minutes a game, and the bench scored an astonishing 57 of Italy's 105 points in its nine-point defeat of Spain in the final. In spite of all the shuttling, the Italians finished second in the tournament both in scoring (94.4 points per game) and in field goal percentage (.578). There are simply more good players in Italy than ever before, a result in part of a rule change in the fall of '80 that permitted the top club teams each to carry two Americans rather than one. Explains one coach, "It jumped the level of play so much that the native kids who did emerge had to be better."
Still, Gamba's team is sometimes an enigma. "Yes, Italy is a semiprofessional team," says Oscar Eleni, who covers pallacanestro for Il Giornale of Milan. "But it's a Latin team. They may play well against the U.S., and then lose to Australia."
Perhaps. But if the Italians reach the gold medal game, they won't be playing the Aussies.
"Gamba tends to run it to death, but he gets a lot out of it," says one coach of Italy's basic set (above, left). Marzorati (1), the veteran point guard, passes to Sacchetti (3) on the wing and then hides in the low post. Sacchetti passes (above, right) back to old reliable Meneghin (5) and screens low for Marzorati. Meanwhile Riva (2), Italy's best shooter, rubs his man off the 6'7", 225-pound Villalta (4). Meneghin can pass the ball to Riva, back to Sacchetti, who has moved inside, or to Marzorati on the wing—or he can work it in himself.