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Original Issue

Italy's talented basketball bambini are among the country's prize exports

The Italian guidebook tells the tourist that Salsomaggiore Terme is famous for its curative warm baths. It is reasonable, then, to imagine a Fellini location—a surreal spa in which Mastroianni is vainly fighting off that old ennui behind facial tic and dark glasses as he passes listlessly among toweled and mud-caked denizens, all of whom are wandering about even more listlessly than he.

But that's not what you get in Salsomaggiore. What you get is stubby Mike Fratello, coach of the Atlanta Hawks, anything but listless, telling 310 Italian kids, ages 10 to 18, many wearing sunglasses, that he will now demonstrate a classic crossover dribble that will enable him to blow past Michael Cooper of the L.A. Lakers. Cooper, shuffling his feet modestly, tries hard not to smile.

For five weeks each summer Salsomaggiore is the site of Italy's biggest, most prestigious, not to mention expensive, basketball camp. Parents shell out 425,000 lire (about $235) for each week their kids ogle such well-known Italian heroes as Cooper, Micheal Ray Richardson and Orlando Woolridge. Throughout the basketball season, you see, Italy gets a weekly NBA game on Canale Cinque, the country's largest private station.

Although he's charming the socks—if not the glasses—off his students, Fratello is actually working very hard, teaching as much through broad pantomime as through language. When Fratello's boast about breezing past Cooper is translated, the kids squeal. Fratello stiffens with mock indignation. Then, after Cooper lunges for the obvious fake, Fratello tiptoes in for the predicted layup. The kids howl. Fratello chortles and bows.

The session over, one thing above all strikes Fratello about the kids he has observed at the camp. "They tend to play the game straight up and down. They get it from soccer, I guess, where you use your upper body and arms mostly to balance your legs." Soccer remains the national pastime, but pallacanestro—from the Italian palla (ball) and canestro (basket)—has quickly become the No. 2 sport and is growing at a phenomenal rate. Most kids in Italy simply call the game bah-sket.

As the camp day ends, dozens of youngsters surround Cooper and ask him to autograph their sneakers or their various NBA T shirts. Cooper cheerfully obliges them all, especially a skinny kid in a Laker shirt and sunglasses who gushes, "Mi-acle, you really great in playoffs."

A chubby boy wearing a Celtics shamrock demurs: "You good, Mi-acle, but Lahr-ry Beerd is namber wan."

"No, ees Moses," says an Italian Sixer.

In the last few years Italian youngsters have been swept away by things American, often to the chagrin of their parents. Milk shakes, fries, double cheeseburgers are as available now as Madonna's eternal writhing on Italy's 24-hour rock-video stations. When Italian mammas mention the "fasta fooda," one would think the kids had been dining at Lucrezia Borgia's. Born in the U.S.A., basketball is an integral part of this controversial American new wave, but it is one that most Italian parents condone.

Actually, Italian basketball officials began about 10 years ago to Americanize the style of their game dramatically by permitting foreign players (usually Americans) to play on Division A club teams. The first great import, you may recall, was Bill Bradley in 1965, when he played for Simmenthal Milano on weekends while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Not only have the Italians improved the quality and style of basketball through imported American brawn, but they have attracted American brains as well. Top U.S. coaches have been imported to Italian camps. Lou Carnesecca, the diminutive St. John's wizard, has always been in particular demand because he can parla the mother tongue. Looking back just a few years, Lou can't believe the Italian game has reached the level of excellence it has. "It used to be Latin chaos," Carnesecca recalls. "I remember giving a clinic to hundreds of Italian coaches. It's hot, I'm sweating bullets, I'm really into it. This guy raises his hand. I'm excited because he seems so interested. You know what he asks? 'What time is the next bus for Perugia?' "

Italian basketball is no longer catching the bus for Perugia. The Italian national team (without American players) lost only to Russia, the undefeated winner, in this year's European Championships, held in Germany. There was a consensus among American coaches present that the Russians could give some of the weaker NBA franchises a tough game. The Italians play at a strong NCAA level. A team like Simac Milano, champion of the Italian league, would have been odds-on to make the Final Four.

Another American import is Simac coach Dan Peterson, who claims to be successful mostly because he has been able to graft the American game to the Italian temperament. "The language and the passions here are different," explains Peterson, who has made himself perfectly bilingual. "I would never tell an American player he has to suffer to be great. They'd think it was corny. But when I use the Italian verb soffrire, sure it's very dramatic, but to the Italian temperament it makes sense."

Nominally an amateur organization, the Italian league is a big-money operation. The Benetton team from Treviso, new to the top division this year, has spent almost $2 million buying players from other clubs. Salaries for American stars in Italy now run between $100,000 and $150,000. That may sound low, but U.S. salaries are paid in tax-free dollars, and benefits include free housing, transportation and food privileges, which cover everything from antipasto to zabaglione and include wine with training meals.

Ask any Italian league official how they can maintain the blatant charade that they are amateur and you get a horrendous shrug, which in Italy is an art form in itself. Indeed, there is no other answer but a shrug, for in fact there is nothing amateur about the game. Enrico Campana, basketball writer for La Gazzetta dello Sport, is a rare expert willing to explain the contradictions: "The teams are professional in every way, but they wish to play amateur in order to qualify for European championships and the Olympics. By staying within amateur rules—40-minute games, wide lanes, allowing zone defenses—they manage to do that. But, of course, successful teams in fact make a lot of money with TV contracts, sold-out arenas, sponsors' money."

Major team sponsors represent every imaginable sort of product—coffee, sportswear, furniture, refrigerators. They also range from far right to far left politically—from the Banco di Roma to Granarolo, which is a communist milk-products cooperative in Bologna. There is usually so much advertising on the court and on the players that watching an "amateur" game in Italy is akin to walking through the Yellow Pages.

While they have vastly improved the quality of their game with American imports, the Italians have also been exporting their best young coaches across the Atlantic to study the old American masters on the job. Sandro Gamba, coach of that strong national team, was one of the early exports. He now dresses like an American coach, and acts like one to the extent that he even passes out Doublemint.

Italian teams have also been exporting some of their finest teenage players to the States to give them a feel for the competition. Some teams send kids to U.S. camps, but Virtus Bologna and Simac Milano have gone a step farther. They've sent a few of their best prospects to high school in the States, most often through the pipeline to Long Island Lutheran High, a friendly New York private school that plays an Eastern seaboard inner-city schedule.

Virtus Bologna's Augusto (Gus) Binelli came to Lutheran as a spindly 7-foot, 17-year-old center in 1981. He barely spoke English and was constantly plagued by homesickness. He overcame both and hefted up enough to lead his team to the New York State championship the following year.

Considered a blue-chipper as a senior by many Division I coaches, Binelli received over 100 scholarship offers. They weren't really his to accept. It was the province of Gianluigi Porelli, president of the Virtus club, to determine where, when and for whom Binelli would play.

Porelli is called the Red Auerbach of Italian basketball. Like Auerbach, he knows the game, wins a lot, rules with an iron hand and talks gruffly. Porelli has very strong feelings about allowing his kids to play too long in America. "For Binelli was great thing Lutheran High School, psychologically," he says. "In college he would have made great technical improvement, but it is too dangerous for us. Imagine if he would go for the money in the NBA! So I call home."

Still, Gus Binelli, having tasted the Big Mac in its native land, may also have swallowed the seeds of discontent. Although he has accommodated himself to playing regularly for Virtus this season, Binelli just might turn out to be the guy who shakes up the system but good. He says, "Two years ago when I came back, I had regrets. That is not so much the case now. Yet probably in the future I will want to see if I can play in the NBA." Those words might just be the sound of a time bomb ticking away in Bologna.

Fear of losing a talented player to the fast food and fast bucks of America has come to run so deep in the hearts of Italian basketball officials that some dare not risk sending a promising player to college in the States, no matter how much such experience might enhance his playing abilities. Antonio Bulgheroni, president of Varese, says, "We must be extremely careful with our players who go to America. We must have assurances they will return. We cannot be like the Germans who have already lost Schrempf and Blab."

Thus the fearsome announcement last summer that Marco Baldi, an 18-year-old giant (6'11", 235), would be playing for St. John's this year, the first Italian club player at a major American university, threw Italian league general managers and coaches into a panic. If champion Simac was willing to take the risk, for how long could the others afford to hang back? Privately, many Italian team officials hope the experiment will fail. They would rather not be forced to take a similar chance with any of their own kids. Says one G.M., "It's all for publicity. Simac is really risking nothing at all. Marco Baldi isn't much. He has everything but talent." The grapes in Italy are ripe in late summer, but some of them are very sour.

A more accurate appraisal comes from Bob McKillop, head coach at Lutheran High, where Baldi played as a senior. "It is a very significant gesture and very courageous of the Simac people to take this next step, exposing one of their prospects," he says. "They've put a lot of money and work into Marco." (Baldi, who had signed with the Milano team as a 14-year-old, is being groomed to replace the 35-year-old Dino Meneghin, a legendary player who was said to have had true NBA talent.)

The strange arrangement seems to put the philosophical Carnesecca in a curious bind. If Marco develops quickly, he could improve himself right back to Milano. If he doesn't develop at all, the Red-men might get themselves kicked all around the Big East. So Carnesecca shrugs and says vaguely, "He's such a wonderful kid that I thought to myself, 'Why not take Marco, even for only a year? It'll give him something special in his life, and he deserves it.' "

The Hawks' Fratello, an interested observer, likes any arrangement that brings European big men to the States—his Atlanta team drafted Arvidas Sabonis, the 7'2" Russian wonder. But the Baldi deal confuses him. "As a coach, I'm alarmed at their two-year limit," he says. "That's about how long it takes to work with a big kid to get him to the point where he can start helping you. And that's just when they're going to lose him!"

The object of all this attention is a modest kid born and raised in the shadow of Mont Blanc in Aosta, Italy. He speaks English and French fluently, was a solid A student for two years in American high schools and is mature enough to handle the unique pressures on him.

Baldi is looking forward to his year in New York. He says, "At St. John's I have a chance to improve a lot. I know my club can call me back anytime, but for this year it is St. John's. I accept that someday I must play for Simac...." Marco puts his dry Italian white, wine to his lips and adds thoughtfully, "...if I play in Italy."

If the Baldi experiment succeeds, there's something in it for everyone. Carnesecca would have an interim center good enough to help him win in the Big East while he looks for someone more permanent. Baldi could improve his game far more by throwing elbows against the Georgetowns, Syracuses and Boston Colleges than he ever could as a five-minute man for Milan. And Peterson would eventually receive a polished player ready to match the American imports on the better Italian league teams. A perfect arrangement.