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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The former All-America basketball player, Douglas Moe, of Brooklyn and the University of North Carolina and Elon College, now finds himself, at the advanced age of 28, playing in fogbound northern Italy, and we pick up the action as he takes a pass at midcourt and heads into enemy territory, dribbling like Meadowlark Lemon. He absorbs a home-team elbow in the side without breaking stride. He fakes an opposing guard right down to the floor and then nimbly steps over the strategically outstretched foot. He weaves through a traffic jam in the foul circle, lays the ball up perfectly and descends into a threshing machine of enemy elbows, knees and fingernails. "Spingere!" the referee shouts, and signals that Moe has pushed and therefore the basket does not count. He hands the ball over to the home team, while the partisan crowd applauds the lunatic decision, and Doug Moe takes up his defensive position with no show of annoyance. "I'm used to it," he explained later. "It's another world. It's Jupiter."

A dozen or so Americans are playing in the Jupiter of Italian basketball (or basket or pallcanestro) with mingled joy and discontent. Until last season foreigners were banned from the Italian leagues, but the level of play was so poor the authorities decided to permit each team a transfusion of one foreigner. Immediately the 12 teams of the big league recruited 11 Americans (including Bill Bradley of Princeton and Oxford) and one Yugoslav, treated each one like King Farouk and watched the game soar in popularity. But of the Americans who went over in the first wave only three returned this season, forcing the Italian teams to recruit eight new Americans, one of whom has already gone AWOL from the team in Leghorn. And Doug Moe, the first American player to arrive in Italy, has vowed not to play after this season. "It's a dead-end street," Moe said. "They treat you great, but what do you have when you're finished playing here? I'm going to North Carolina and teach school."

The best Italian basketball league is made up of 12 teams which are supported to varying degrees by publicity-hungry Italian businessmen and which play in the soggy, bone-chilling north of Italy, a piece of real estate that rivals Novosibirsk for pure winter misery. To most of the American basketballers, one season of Italy in midwinter is more than enough. Milan and Venice and Padua and other northern Italian towns are at almost the same latitude as Duluth, Minn., and if they do not experience Duluth's occasional dip down to 30� below, neither does Duluth experience northern Italy's constant saturating fogs and rains. "My feet stay cold all winter," said Moe's wife, Jane, who was brought up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina and has found the going rough in the old country.

"At first there wasn't anything we liked about it," Moe said in the family's terraced two-bedroom apartment in Padua's " Garden City," where Moe and his wife and their two preschool boys have lived, all expenses paid, for the last two winters. "They put us in a hotel, and we didn't speak the language, we couldn't move around, we had no car, nothing. A couple of the players on the team spoke English and they tried to help us, but we couldn't understand anything anybody else said, and it was depressing, and we were freezing to death, and there was nothing to do with our free time." The Moes are not serious Shakespearean scholars, but they would have taken violent issue with Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew, one of a handful of plays Shakespeare set in what is now Italy's fanatical basketball region. Lucentio spoke of a "great desire I had to see fair Padua, nursery of arts," and went on:

...I have Pisa left
And am to Padua come, as he that leaves
A shallow plash to plunge him in the deep,
And with satiety seeks to quench his thirst.

What made the Moes hang on was not any satiety that was immediately available in the ancient town of Padua, but the wondrous goings-on down at the gym, where the 6'5" former Tar Heel was taking the leading role in what the Italian press came to call "a homemade miracle."

Moe had been signed on to play for Unione Sportiva Petrarca, the David of the league, a sort of church team in Padua, the middle-size industrial town some 25 miles inland from Venice. The original function of U.S. Petrarca had never changed: any boy in Padua could enjoy the fun and games of the sports club provided he attended one hour a week of religious instruction by the foxy Jesuits and also attended Sunday Mass. The sports club, in other words, was a carrot held out by the church.

Unlike big industrial teams such as Simmenthal of Milan (meat) and Ignis of Varese (appliances) and Oransoda of Cant� (soft drinks), clubs which recruit all over Italy and seldom utilize any local players, the team of U.S. Petrarca came exclusively from Padua. Sticking to its lily-white policy, the team of the Jesuit fathers wallowed in the cellar of the league for years and never finished higher than sixth. But last season a wealthy and influential Padua industrialist, Giacomo Galtarossa, decided to give the team a few gifts out of his own pocket. The gifts were Douglas Moe and a new coach. Thus began the "homemade miracle."

"We first got together in preseason training," Moe recalled, "and it was the Tower of Babel. The new coach was Alexandar Nikolic of Yugoslavia, the man who coached the Yugoslav national team for 15 years. He didn't speak a word of Italian, but he had some English and French. Most of the players could understand his French, and then he'd repeat everything to me in English."

"Was very bad at first," Nikolic said in his rudimentary English, one of his five languages. "Was what somebody call 'language cocktail.' Many of basketball words were English; I could said tira or I could said shoot. Jump shot in English is jump shot in French, but in Italian is tiro sospensione. In French dribble is dribble, but in English is difference between dribble and drive, and in Italian you say palleggio for dribble and entrate for drive. At first made terrible mistakes. Would tell player to cover other player and would cover wrong one. Would take player out and would think was telling him a good boy."

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