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Italy's talented basketball bambini are among the country's prize exports
Sam Toperoff
November 20, 1985
The Italian guidebook tells the tourist that Salsomaggiore Terme is famous for its curative warm baths. It is reasonable, then, to imagine a Fellini location—a surreal spa in which Mastroianni is vainly fighting off that old ennui behind facial tic and dark glasses as he passes listlessly among toweled and mud-caked denizens, all of whom are wandering about even more listlessly than he.
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November 20, 1985

Italy's Talented Basketball Bambini Are Among The Country's Prize Exports

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Still, Gus Binelli, having tasted the Big Mac in its native land, may also have swallowed the seeds of discontent. Although he has accommodated himself to playing regularly for Virtus this season, Binelli just might turn out to be the guy who shakes up the system but good. He says, "Two years ago when I came back, I had regrets. That is not so much the case now. Yet probably in the future I will want to see if I can play in the NBA." Those words might just be the sound of a time bomb ticking away in Bologna.

Fear of losing a talented player to the fast food and fast bucks of America has come to run so deep in the hearts of Italian basketball officials that some dare not risk sending a promising player to college in the States, no matter how much such experience might enhance his playing abilities. Antonio Bulgheroni, president of Varese, says, "We must be extremely careful with our players who go to America. We must have assurances they will return. We cannot be like the Germans who have already lost Schrempf and Blab."

Thus the fearsome announcement last summer that Marco Baldi, an 18-year-old giant (6'11", 235), would be playing for St. John's this year, the first Italian club player at a major American university, threw Italian league general managers and coaches into a panic. If champion Simac was willing to take the risk, for how long could the others afford to hang back? Privately, many Italian team officials hope the experiment will fail. They would rather not be forced to take a similar chance with any of their own kids. Says one G.M., "It's all for publicity. Simac is really risking nothing at all. Marco Baldi isn't much. He has everything but talent." The grapes in Italy are ripe in late summer, but some of them are very sour.

A more accurate appraisal comes from Bob McKillop, head coach at Lutheran High, where Baldi played as a senior. "It is a very significant gesture and very courageous of the Simac people to take this next step, exposing one of their prospects," he says. "They've put a lot of money and work into Marco." ( Baldi, who had signed with the Milano team as a 14-year-old, is being groomed to replace the 35-year-old Dino Meneghin, a legendary player who was said to have had true NBA talent.)

The strange arrangement seems to put the philosophical Carnesecca in a curious bind. If Marco develops quickly, he could improve himself right back to Milano. If he doesn't develop at all, the Red-men might get themselves kicked all around the Big East. So Carnesecca shrugs and says vaguely, "He's such a wonderful kid that I thought to myself, 'Why not take Marco, even for only a year? It'll give him something special in his life, and he deserves it.' "

The Hawks' Fratello, an interested observer, likes any arrangement that brings European big men to the States—his Atlanta team drafted Arvidas Sabonis, the 7'2" Russian wonder. But the Baldi deal confuses him. "As a coach, I'm alarmed at their two-year limit," he says. "That's about how long it takes to work with a big kid to get him to the point where he can start helping you. And that's just when they're going to lose him!"

The object of all this attention is a modest kid born and raised in the shadow of Mont Blanc in Aosta, Italy. He speaks English and French fluently, was a solid A student for two years in American high schools and is mature enough to handle the unique pressures on him.

Baldi is looking forward to his year in New York. He says, "At St. John's I have a chance to improve a lot. I know my club can call me back anytime, but for this year it is St. John's. I accept that someday I must play for Simac...." Marco puts his dry Italian white, wine to his lips and adds thoughtfully, "...if I play in Italy."

If the Baldi experiment succeeds, there's something in it for everyone. Carnesecca would have an interim center good enough to help him win in the Big East while he looks for someone more permanent. Baldi could improve his game far more by throwing elbows against the Georgetowns, Syracuses and Boston Colleges than he ever could as a five-minute man for Milan. And Peterson would eventually receive a polished player ready to match the American imports on the better Italian league teams. A perfect arrangement.

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