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SITTING PRETTY IN ROME
Curry Kirkpatrick
October 09, 1989
With a huge salary and all the pasta he can eat, Danny Ferry doesn't regret having said ciao to the NBA and pronto to pro hoops Italian-style
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October 09, 1989

Sitting Pretty In Rome

With a huge salary and all the pasta he can eat, Danny Ferry doesn't regret having said ciao to the NBA and pronto to pro hoops Italian-style

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Off-court pleasures aren't the only attraction. As William Drozdiak, who played for six seasons in Europe and is now an editor at The Washington Post, has written: "With one or two games a week on the schedule and a very Mediterranean attitude toward practice sessions, [the game] in Italy can seem like the sporting pursuit of a gentleman of leisure compared to the ruthless Darwinism of the NBA."

Ferry was a political science major at Duke, and his horizons always exceeded those of the average jock. He was envious of his schoolmates who studied abroad. "Basketball season prevented me from ever doing that," he says. Ferry instead seized the opportunity to play on international teams every summer after graduating from DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md. At Duke one of his closest friends was Paul Stewart, from Scotland, the son of the retired Formula One racer Jackie Stewart. "I always thought I'd play in Europe after the NBA, the way Greg [Ballard] did," says Ferry.

Enter Il Messaggero coach Valerio Bianchini, who follows American college ball with fervor. Nicknamed L'Evangelista by Italian journalists for his Dale Brown-style philosophizing—"Don't risk excessive turbulence on the court. Five must play as one," he has been known to announce in the huddle—Bianchini, 49, has led three teams to the Italian championship. He never dreamed he would get to work with Ferry, until the pitiful Clippers, with all their young forwards and all their backward history, made him the second pick in the draft. Even to those who watched the draft on television, Ferry's face looked ashen. "It was then I knew I had Danny," says Bianchini.

His chance meeting with Ferry on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan later that night may not have been so chancy after all. The next day, in Washington, D.C., Enzo De Chiara, Gruppo Ferruzzi's counselor for international relations (read lobbyist—the company was a major contributor to George Bush's presidential campaign) met with Danny's father, Bob, vice-president and general manager of the Bullets. "I suggested to my good friend Bob what we would like to show Danny and his parents, Roma, Italy and Europe—my way, the Gardini way," says De Chiara, an immaculately tailored boulevardier who numbers among his heavy-hitting D.C. media friends Ted Koppel and Larry King.

So off went the Ferrys—and one of Danny's Duke roommates, Lou Scher—to Venice, where Gardini put them up at the Gritti Palace Hotel overlooking the Grand Canal, fed them at his son-in-law's famous restaurant, Harry's Bar, and entertained them at his own palace on the Grand Canal, where Ferry noticed that the gondola paddlers all wore Rolexes. "Just call me Big Time," Scher kept saying. But there's Big Time and then there's Gardini.

This was the same palace that Gardini had repeatedly tried to buy from an insurance company, which refused to sell. His patience exhausted, so the story goes, a fed-up Gardini bought the entire insurance company. And this is the same team owner who once sought to purchase the controlling interest in a company for $322 million. "Can we have time to consider?" said the company's owner.

"Of course," said Gardini, checking his watch. "You've got 22 minutes."

The owner accepted Gardini's offer. Gardini, who is backing Italy's entry in the next America's Cup challenge, is depicted in cartoons in Italian publications with a pirate's black eye patch.

Before Ferry left Venice to watch Stewart begin his racing career in England—and before Ferry's parents were whisked off courtesy of Gardini to the Savoy Hotel in London, followed by a weekend in Monte Carlo—Gardini made this offer: nearly $10 million over five years, guaranteed, with an option to leave after every season. "I need more than 22 minutes," Ferry said.

But he didn't take much longer. On a visit to Rome he met his would-be teammates, toured the villa—complete with tennis court, lap pool and a 60-seat theater—where he was supposed to live (Ferry said it was "a bit large") and saw the arena where he would play, the Palaeur, where Cassius Clay and Oscar Robertson, among others, made their international debuts in the 1960 Olympic Games. Ferry sought advice from his father as well as from representatives of several sports-management groups. On his own he decided to take the plunge—before he had even hired an agent.

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