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 people thought."
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 Fu?ka, 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 leadership role.
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 his mind.
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.