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Like a lot of American players spending their first season abroad, Green frequently finds himself frustrated by the language barrier and has had a hard time adjusting to certain Italian customs. "It took me a while to get used to all the guys on the team kissing each other after a good play," he says. "They don't do that in the NBA. To play over here you have to have patience, you have to have a sense of humor and you have to have an Allman Brothers tape or something to remind you of home."
When Green was cast adrift by the NBA, he contacted Richard Kaner, a New York agent who specializes in placing Americans on European teams. There are several hundred U.S. players performing in foreign countries these days, and many players use someone like Kaner to make the initial overseas contact and negotiate their first foreign contract. After settling in, some of the players then handle their own international affairs, or get a foreign lawyer. The more enterprising Italian clubs send their coaches to the U.S. to recruit players. Harthorne Wingo, for one, was working to hold his spot on the bench of the New York Knicks when he was approached by a coach for Forst-Cantu at the Knicks' training camp in 1976. "That September New York put me on waivers," says Wingo. "I left for Italy the same day."
Wingo is in his fourth season in Italy, playing for Superga-Mestre at the A-1 level, after having spent a year with that club in the A-2 division. For two seasons before that he was our man in Cantu; then Wingo was "changed," or dropped by his team, a fate in Italian basketball tantamount to being told your career sleeps with the fishes. Under Italian rules, an American player must be signed to a contract by the start of the season; once the season is under way the player cannot be cut or traded. If, however, he is released during the off-season, he must either move down to an A-2 team or play in another country for a year. In Italy, Americans are changed about as casually as socks. "They say, 'We don't want you anymore,'" says Wingo." 'You're a nice guy, but we're going to change Americans.' Then they tell you your plane ticket back to the States is waiting at the airport. That's it."
Wingo never went any further in school than junior college and had to earn his spot in the NBA by making a name for himself on the playgrounds of New York and in the Eastern League. At the age of 30 he is grateful to be playing anywhere. "When I was cut by the Knicks," he says, "it was a relief to have this to fall back on. Over here you get a chance to play 40 minutes, so I was glad to have the opportunity." The transition to the Italian style of play—which is a bit more plodding than the American game, but otherwise not all that different—was not nearly as difficult to make as the adjustment to living in a strange country.
"At the end of my first year I went back to the States right away," says Wingo, "or subito, as the Italians say. My first year was difficult because I didn't have any friends and I didn't speak the language. After practice I would go home and try to think of things to do. That was the year I got into reading."
Wingo speaks Italian now, enjoys the country, considers his assimilation into the culture a success and has brought his new wife Dianne, an American, to live in Mestre, a city near Venice. They spend most of the year in Mestre, but vacation near Los Angeles in the summer. The Italian fans seem to enjoy Wingo's aggressive style of play, and they love to shout his name—Weeeeengo! But he has not forgotten the grim nights in Cantu, a city near Milan. "I was in a small, very religious town," he says. "You didn't go out with girls. I was very strong that year."
Those who survive the first year usually are eager to return to Italy. Willie Sojourner, a five-year ABA veteran who has spent the past four seasons in Rieti, not only speaks the language but also has a sister who recently became engaged to one of his Italian teammates. Certainly no player has ever adapted to Italy more successfully than Morse, the greatest American name in the history of the Italian game. If it is a name that doesn't happen to be familiar to you, you are not alone.
Morse, 28, was taken on the third round of the 1972 NBA draft by Buffalo, but when the Braves (now the San Diego Clippers) wouldn't match the $32,000 an Italian club from Varese, a province of 600,000 in northern Italy, offered him, Morse decided to go abroad. Now in his eighth season in Varese, Morse is averaging about 28 points for a team that has been in the European Cup finals (the continent's equivalent of the NBA playoffs) the past seven years and won the title three times.
Morse, who grew up in Kennett Square, Pa., first left home to play for Penn, where from 1969 until 1972 the three varsity teams on which he started went 25-2, 28-1, 25-3 and won three Ivy League titles. He is 6'8" and as good a jump shooter as anyone anywhere but a step slow for playing good defense in the NBA. "I have a feeling that if I'd played in the NBA," says Morse, "I would've been one of those players who was always getting shifted around, playing 10th man, being put on waivers a lot." Instead of all that, Morse has become something of a national treasure in Italy. And because basketball ranks a distant second in popularity to soccer in Italy, he has been able to maintain his privacy, a luxury not shared by the game's stars in the U.S. "Maybe half the people in Varese would know me if they saw me on the street," Morse says. "But if they did recognize me they'd go on about their business. On the other hand, if a national soccer star walked down the street here he would be mobbed instantly."
Morse never expected to stay in Italy as long as he has; in fact, he tried to quit in 1975 to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine at Penn, but was lured back in the middle of his first semester when the sponsor of the Varese club offered him a five-year contract worth $80,000 a year, not including fringe benefits. "Very few people come over with the idea of staying," Morse says. "The guys who end up living here for a number of years are the ones who try to fit in, who learn the language and try to be a part of the team. The Italians appreciate that. I came with the attitude that I wanted it to be a good experience, that I was going to try new foods and wines and let the basketball take care of itself."