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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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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.

But that's not what you get in Salsomaggiore. What you get is stubby Mike Fratello, coach of the Atlanta Hawks, anything but listless, telling 310 Italian kids, ages 10 to 18, many wearing sunglasses, that he will now demonstrate a classic crossover dribble that will enable him to blow past Michael Cooper of the L.A. Lakers. Cooper, shuffling his feet modestly, tries hard not to smile.

For five weeks each summer Salsomaggiore is the site of Italy's biggest, most prestigious, not to mention expensive, basketball camp. Parents shell out 425,000 lire (about $235) for each week their kids ogle such well-known Italian heroes as Cooper, Micheal Ray Richardson and Orlando Woolridge. Throughout the basketball season, you see, Italy gets a weekly NBA game on Canale Cinque, the country's largest private station.

Although he's charming the socks—if not the glasses—off his students, Fratello is actually working very hard, teaching as much through broad pantomime as through language. When Fratello's boast about breezing past Cooper is translated, the kids squeal. Fratello stiffens with mock indignation. Then, after Cooper lunges for the obvious fake, Fratello tiptoes in for the predicted layup. The kids howl. Fratello chortles and bows.

The session over, one thing above all strikes Fratello about the kids he has observed at the camp. "They tend to play the game straight up and down. They get it from soccer, I guess, where you use your upper body and arms mostly to balance your legs." Soccer remains the national pastime, but pallacanestro—from the Italian palla (ball) and canestro (basket)—has quickly become the No. 2 sport and is growing at a phenomenal rate. Most kids in Italy simply call the game bah-sket.

As the camp day ends, dozens of youngsters surround Cooper and ask him to autograph their sneakers or their various NBA T shirts. Cooper cheerfully obliges them all, especially a skinny kid in a Laker shirt and sunglasses who gushes, "Mi-acle, you really great in playoffs."

A chubby boy wearing a Celtics shamrock demurs: "You good, Mi-acle, but Lahr-ry Beerd is namber wan."

"No, ees Moses," says an Italian Sixer.

In the last few years Italian youngsters have been swept away by things American, often to the chagrin of their parents. Milk shakes, fries, double cheeseburgers are as available now as Madonna's eternal writhing on Italy's 24-hour rock-video stations. When Italian mammas mention the "fasta fooda," one would think the kids had been dining at Lucrezia Borgia's. Born in the U.S.A., basketball is an integral part of this controversial American new wave, but it is one that most Italian parents condone.

Actually, Italian basketball officials began about 10 years ago to Americanize the style of their game dramatically by permitting foreign players (usually Americans) to play on Division A club teams. The first great import, you may recall, was Bill Bradley in 1965, when he played for Simmenthal Milano on weekends while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Not only have the Italians improved the quality and style of basketball through imported American brawn, but they have attracted American brains as well. Top U.S. coaches have been imported to Italian camps. Lou Carnesecca, the diminutive St. John's wizard, has always been in particular demand because he can parla the mother tongue. Looking back just a few years, Lou can't believe the Italian game has reached the level of excellence it has. "It used to be Latin chaos," Carnesecca recalls. "I remember giving a clinic to hundreds of Italian coaches. It's hot, I'm sweating bullets, I'm really into it. This guy raises his hand. I'm excited because he seems so interested. You know what he asks? 'What time is the next bus for Perugia?' "

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