SI Vault
Jack Olsen
February 13, 1967
Basketball in Italy is something else again—like Jupiter, says Doug Moe, one of the U.S. stars playing there. Referees all but root for the home team, and who can blame them, since fans are so rabid (left) they threaten to make every game a riot
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February 13, 1967

Pallacanestro Is The Rage

Basketball in Italy is something else again—like Jupiter, says Doug Moe, one of the U.S. stars playing there. Referees all but root for the home team, and who can blame them, since fans are so rabid (left) they threaten to make every game a riot

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"To make things worse," said Moe, "Petrarca had always been a loser. They were always down in the mouth. Before every game they'd say, 'We can't beat this team, we can't beat this team.' And I got there and I couldn't understand this, and I said, 'What do you mean, you can't beat them? You're finished before you start with that attitude.' So the first game was against one of these teams you can't beat, and we beat 'em, and before the preseason schedule was over we'd won 10 straight, including one with the European champions.

"By this time the coach had learned Italian, and I could understand it a little, and we were beginning to do everything in Italian, and we began working together better. If I wanted the ball I knew how to yell 'Dammi il pallone! (give me the ball) or 'Guarda, guarda! When the coach talked to us in the time-outs he began using Italian, and some of those language screw-ups began to disappear."

By the end of the first half of the long seven-month season, U.S. Petrarca was leading the league. "In the second half we came back to form," Moe recalled, "but we still finished third only to Simmenthal and Ignis, and they're practically professional teams. It was the best finish in Petrarca's history, and it had the whole town going crazy." Moe was the hero of Padua, and the happy Galtarossa moved him and his family into a pleasant apartment, provided him with a car, a few vacation trips and a cushy job paying $6,000 a year. "The people couldn't do enough for us," Moe said. "One day we went to the corse al trotto (the trotters) and one of the drivers slipped Jane a piece of paper with the names of all the day's winners on it. We bet 200 lire (about 30�) on every race through the fifth, and we won every one. Then Jane mislaid the paper, and we bet on the wrong horse in the sixth. The winner paid 25 to 1, and it was listed on the sheet the driver gave us. We found it later and felt like shooting ourselves."

Newspapers all over northern Italy joined in praising Moe. A typical article called him "the fabulous Moe" and observed that he could do anything "with or without the ball." The newspaper Il Resto del Carlino, published in Bologna, said: "Italians view it as extraordinary that he thinks every match can be won. That is something out of our mentality, and is considered typically American and typically sporting." Cesare Rubini, coach of the champions from Simmenthal, said that Moe was "easily 50% of the Petrarca team," and Signore Galtarossa proudly remarked that Moe's presence made every other member of the squad play far over his head. Moe had averaged 30 points a game and led the league in almost every individual department except slugging.

"The only problem from the beginning was learning the Italian style," Moe said recently. "It's a different game. Italians don't usually start playing basketball till they're 17 or 18 years old, and by that time all their training has gone to their feet. You throw a ball to an Italian kid, and four times out of five he'll flub it. But throw it around his feet and he'll make a perfect stop. They're all soccer players. All this makes them bad passers. I would cut into the basket 100 times before one of them would hit me with a pass, and finally the coach said, 'Look, don't bother making the cut.' We have one player on the whole team who's a good passer—now I wait till he has the ball before I go into the pivot. But what else can you expect from kids that've been drilled for 18 years never to touch the ball with their hands? If they were allowed to kick the basketball I'd be in the pivot all the time!"

Italians play by international rules, which are vastly different from American college rules. There is no three-point play; if a player is bumped as he makes a basket, a foul can be called against the defender, but no free throw is awarded. On a drive to the basket, the dribbling player is allowed one extra step at the end and, to the uninitiated spectator, it looks as though players pick up the ball at the foul line and simply run to the basket and lay the ball up. "That makes the play a little faster at the shooting end," Moe said, "but they slow it down at the other end by making you bounce the ball right away when you start to move. In the U.S. you try a fast break and somebody throws you the ball and you start off with a step and then begin to dribble. Here you've got to dribble before you can move a foot, and it slows down the fast break. Another thing here, there's no backcourt time limit. You have 30 seconds to shoot—there's six different colored lights under the basket, and one goes out every five seconds—but you can keep the ball in the backcourt for the whole 30 seconds if you want."

The last word on gamesmanship, Italian style, was written years ago by one Monsignor Chitarrella in a book on card games. "Rule No. 1," the monsignor wrote, "is: Always try to see your opponent's cards." Fair play, in the rigid Anglo-American sense, is all but unknown in Italy, although there is a plethora of backslapping and embracing and after-you-dear-Alphonse between players when they have tried to assassinate each other.

"The idea is to see what you can get away with," Moe said. "One of the biggest heroes of Italian basketball is a guy who'd get thrown out of any American basketball game in the first five minutes. Last year, when we were still in the fight for first place, the other teams'd throw in some little 5'6" guy—you know, a chopper—toward the end of the game, and he'd work on me alone. They didn't care if he was thrown out. One game I got seven or eight stitches in the head, and the next game two more. Both times it was under the basket after a shot. There was blood pouring all over the place, but they wouldn't stop the game. I'd get it every time. They'd start a box and one. The box'd take care of the basketball game, and the one would take care of me. This year, now that we're off to a bad start, they've been easier on me. But there's still one player from Ignis—the big team from Varese—he'll smack you every chance he gets. The ideal way is to play 'em at their court first, because then you've got to play 'em again at your court, and they know you can get 'em then. But if you play a team at home first, you're dead."

Italian referees seem to follow certain strange rituals almost as though they were written into the code of the game. "They have a dramatic sense, and they think of themselves as a bunch of Fellinis," said Steve Chubin, who played at Rhode Island and is now in his first season with Simmenthal, the meat-packers. "In the early part of a game they tend to keep things even. In the last 10 or 15 minutes almost all the fouls are against the visiting team. In Italy you just don't win away from home. Back in the States the home-court advantage is about five to 10 points; here it's more like 25. Some of the refs'd get shot in the U.S."

Simmenthal and Chubin played Petrarca and Moe at Padua early this season and, according to Chubin, "we'd have won by 30 points if it hadn't been for the refs. We'd get 10 points ahead and then start stealing the ball, and when you do that you can really take charge of a game. But every time we'd start to move away they'd hit us with walking violations or charging or pushing, and the first thing you'd know we'd be right down to a two-point lead."

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