Italian basketball is no longer catching the bus for Perugia. The Italian national team (without American players) lost only to Russia, the undefeated winner, in this year's European Championships, held in Germany. There was a consensus among American coaches present that the Russians could give some of the weaker NBA franchises a tough game. The Italians play at a strong NCAA level. A team like Simac Milano, champion of the Italian league, would have been odds-on to make the Final Four.
Another American import is Simac coach Dan Peterson, who claims to be successful mostly because he has been able to graft the American game to the Italian temperament. "The language and the passions here are different," explains Peterson, who has made himself perfectly bilingual. "I would never tell an American player he has to suffer to be great. They'd think it was corny. But when I use the Italian verb soffrire, sure it's very dramatic, but to the Italian temperament it makes sense."
Nominally an amateur organization, the Italian league is a big-money operation. The Benetton team from Treviso, new to the top division this year, has spent almost $2 million buying players from other clubs. Salaries for American stars in Italy now run between $100,000 and $150,000. That may sound low, but U.S. salaries are paid in tax-free dollars, and benefits include free housing, transportation and food privileges, which cover everything from antipasto to zabaglione and include wine with training meals.
Ask any Italian league official how they can maintain the blatant charade that they are amateur and you get a horrendous shrug, which in Italy is an art form in itself. Indeed, there is no other answer but a shrug, for in fact there is nothing amateur about the game. Enrico Campana, basketball writer for La Gazzetta dello Sport, is a rare expert willing to explain the contradictions: "The teams are professional in every way, but they wish to play amateur in order to qualify for European championships and the Olympics. By staying within amateur rules—40-minute games, wide lanes, allowing zone defenses—they manage to do that. But, of course, successful teams in fact make a lot of money with TV contracts, sold-out arenas, sponsors' money."
Major team sponsors represent every imaginable sort of product—coffee, sportswear, furniture, refrigerators. They also range from far right to far left politically—from the Banco di Roma to Granarolo, which is a communist milk-products cooperative in Bologna. There is usually so much advertising on the court and on the players that watching an "amateur" game in Italy is akin to walking through the Yellow Pages.
While they have vastly improved the quality of their game with American imports, the Italians have also been exporting their best young coaches across the Atlantic to study the old American masters on the job. Sandro Gamba, coach of that strong national team, was one of the early exports. He now dresses like an American coach, and acts like one to the extent that he even passes out Doublemint.
Italian teams have also been exporting some of their finest teenage players to the States to give them a feel for the competition. Some teams send kids to U.S. camps, but Virtus Bologna and Simac Milano have gone a step farther. They've sent a few of their best prospects to high school in the States, most often through the pipeline to Long Island Lutheran High, a friendly New York private school that plays an Eastern seaboard inner-city schedule.
Virtus Bologna's Augusto (Gus) Binelli came to Lutheran as a spindly 7-foot, 17-year-old center in 1981. He barely spoke English and was constantly plagued by homesickness. He overcame both and hefted up enough to lead his team to the New York State championship the following year.
Considered a blue-chipper as a senior by many Division I coaches, Binelli received over 100 scholarship offers. They weren't really his to accept. It was the province of Gianluigi Porelli, president of the Virtus club, to determine where, when and for whom Binelli would play.
Porelli is called the Red Auerbach of Italian basketball. Like Auerbach, he knows the game, wins a lot, rules with an iron hand and talks gruffly. Porelli has very strong feelings about allowing his kids to play too long in America. "For Binelli was great thing Lutheran High School, psychologically," he says. "In college he would have made great technical improvement, but it is too dangerous for us. Imagine if he would go for the money in the NBA! So I call home."