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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Nevertheless, the Moes have learned to enjoy Italy and the Italians in their two years, especially since they have picked up the language and found new ways to spend the long days off. The team forbids Moe to ski (although other players ski their heads off and are sometimes taken on ski trips by the Jesuit fathers), but the little family makes the three-hour drive to the pre-Alps just to ride the ski lifts. In the mornings Moe drives his cream-colored Fiat 850 over to the sports club and loses at tressette (three seven), an amateur card game in which 3s, 2s and aces are the highest cards. In the evenings the Moes may socialize with members of the basketball team, and one of their closest friends is the Petrarca player Pino Stefanelli, son of a Padua millionaire who owns bus lines. "We visit him at his villa," Moe said. "A little place of 50 or 100 rooms. He gave us a couple of books printed in the 16th century just as a memento." Usually the Moes avoid the monuments and museums that sometimes make Italy resemble a vast cemetery. "We go once in a while, but those art things don't do much for me," Moe explained. "When we were in Florence we went to see Michelangelo's work so we could say we saw it. I mean, how can you say you lived in Italy two years and didn't look at Michelangelo's work? But I don't really get anything out of it. So why force it?" Padua has original Giottos, a Renaissance wooden horse 25 feet high, the ruins of a Roman amphitheater going back to the pre-Christian era, the tomb of Petrarch (the Italian poet after whom the sports club is named) and untold churches, basilicas and ancient grottoes, but the Moes would rather go to the movies.

Not long ago I had the pleasure of watching one of these three-ring circuses called pallacanestro in Italy, and I am told by all involved that the game was one of the most drab and colorless affairs of the year. If so, I would not want to be on hand for a sprightly match. The game took place in the 6,000-seat Sports Palace in Bologna—a university city where-the rain falls mainly every day through the long winter—and pitted two teams that have been losers this season: Cassera Fortitudo of Bologna (clothing) and Unione Sportiva Petrarca of Padua (souls). The big sports action of the day was a soccer game, Inter of Milan vs. the Bologna team, at a crosstown stadium, but some 2,500 faithful basketball fans drove up to the Sports Palace in their four-wheeled Giulia Spiders, Maseratis, Innocentis and Ferraris and their two-wheeled Lambrettas, Vespas and Gileras.

Long before the appearance of the first basketball player on the floor, the fans began beating sheets of iron against pipes, blowing air horns hooked to tanks of compressed air, banging away at tambourines and castanets and screaming challenges at anyone whose hairstyle they did not approve of. One man walked proudly around the court carrying the red-and-dark-blue flag of Bologna and a sign saying, MY BEAUTIFUL BOLOGNA. A visitor from Padua carried an opposing sign reading, FORZA PETRARCA, OLE! OLE! But he was soon hooted off the court and fled back into a group of his fellows sitting in a remote section of the stands for safety.

When the first Petrarca player walked out on the court in his blue-and-white sweat suit, looking for all the world like the man who drew the short straw, there was prolonged hissing and whistling, and the other Padua players seemed to join their colleague reluctantly. The team had a distinctly humpty-dumpty look about it, what with socks of varying colors and short shorts that would have been banned in Boston, and the impression that they were bush was heightened when the team began shooting baskets. Ten, 20, 30 seconds would go by before one of the basketballs would go through the rim. They looked like the Little Sisters of the Poor "B" team. The appearance of Douglas Moe, last to appear on the court, as befits the leading scorer in the league, slightly improved the warmup percentage.

The Cassera team made a smart entrance heralded by a chorus of air horns that must have been cannibalized from the big tractor-trailers that now awaken the dead all over Europe. "I am sorry," said my companion, an Italian, "but you must understand that Italy is a noisy country. Why, one night when I was walking in London I came to a block where every television, every radio and every phonograph was being played at top volume, and I said, 'These must be Italians.' Just so. I checked and found out it was a block of Italian laborers. So do not make such a show of holding your ears. You will offend them and mark yourself as a foreigner."

"I don't suppose they care if they offend me," I said indignantly, but he couldn't hear me.

The Cassera players warmed up with the same lack of precision as the Petrarcas. Balls rolled around the hoop and dropped out; shots whistled over the backboard and a foot to the left or right. When a shot went in, pursuant to the law of averages, there was applause. Soon I caught on. The reason nobody was making shots with any consistency was because nobody was practicing normal shots. They were trying fancy jumpers from 35 feet, reverse layups from behind the basket, over-the-shoulder shots and other mockeries of Euclid. One Cassera player took up a position at midcourt and began dribbling his way to the basket through a phalanx of imaginary defenders. He bounced the ball behind his back to elude one opponent, head-faked and shoulder-faked two more out of position, shifted the ball from his right to his left hand in midair—and missed the layup. The crowd cheered wildly. Roaring down the court like that, baffling all those defensive chimeras, the virtuoso performer had not shown skill, but the appearance of skill. And in Italy appearance is everything. That is why, in the words of Luigi Barzini, "Little provincial towns...boast immense princely palaces, castles, vast churches, and stately opera houses, all disproportionate, sometimes ridiculously so." This same national personality trait now was showing up with mirror accuracy in the sports arena. Whirling around with their fancy dribbling and crazy shots, the players appeared to be marvels, and the crowd was exhilarated.

While I was musing, two cocky little referees strutted onto the court. One of them quickly assembled the players and threw the ball up at a pronounced angle, and the game was on. About 10 shots were tried before one was made, and the pattern of the game quickly became clear. The two Americans, Doug Moe for Petrarca and Dewey Andrew for Cassera, were assigned to guard each other, but the difference was that Andrew's teammates were providing him with some assistance, whereas Moe's teammates acted as though he had some contagious disease. Time and again he would cut for the basket or establish himself all alone in the pivot only to have a Petrarca player try a 25-foot set shot that would sometimes miss the basket altogether. Still Moe rebounded, stole the ball, kept his own shooting percentage well over 50% and in general dominated the first half much as he had dominated games when he was starring for North Carolina six and seven years ago. Andrew, one of Moe's closest friends off the court, bided his time and waited for the nonpareil to grind himself down. Anyone could see that Moe could not maintain such a pace unaided.

Meanwhile the other players were putting on performances worthy of Marcello Mastroianni. Every time a foul was called the offending player would spread his arms wide and look beseechingly at the crowd. One wondered if an Italian player ever accepted a foul call graciously. "It's just our style," my companion said. "You can grab the guy by the head, wrestle him down and then kick him, and when the referee calls the foul you're supposed to spread your arms and say, 'Who, me?' It's sort of expected of you."

Academy Award performances were also going on at the foul line. When a player missed a foul shot a look of incredulity, followed by one of deep puzzlement, crossed his face, as though this had never happened before and how was he to stand it. If, on the other hand, the player sank the shot, he would put on a look of shy modesty, while the audience cheered as though he had just made a field goal from the other end of the court. The game was controlled by sporting ritual as rigid as any in the days of the vestal virgins and the Colosseum.

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