The basketball took care of itself, and the food almost took care of Morse. When he arrived in Varese, the team's owners told him he could take two meals a day free in one of the local ristorantes. Morse forthwith bellied up to the table. "The first month I was here I ate so much that I finally got sick, and I stayed sick for two days," he says.
These days Morse is taking his meals in a villa that sits on the side of a hill in Ghirla, a small town at the foot of the Alps just 15 minutes north of Varese. Morse bought the place two years ago, after having spent six years living in an apartment provided by his team, and if it is not the kind of villa around which paparazzi once lay in wait for the appearances of Liz and Dick, it is certainly a nice little two-story house with a terrific view of some Alps. There is no front yard, only a small, gated car park where Morse keeps his automobiles. There is no Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow or even a Ferrari; Morse drives a Volvo and a Fiat because those are the kinds of cars that Italian teams provide for their foreign players.
If it is not exactly the life of Rigoletto, uh, Riley, Morse has no complaints. He is bringing up his two daughters without television; when they are old enough, they will sit at the dinner table with their mama and papa and actually talk. They will not bolt through their meal to see a rerun of The Rookies; they will discuss books and art and music and boys, and Morse says he will see to it that this is so. He has thrown himself so fully into the life of Ghirla that he has become fairly fluent in a dialect spoken only in the valley in which his village lies. Morse has embraced every opportunity to bring himself feet first into the Italian mainstream. Two years ago he enrolled at the University of Milan to resume his study of veterinary medicine. However, he soon realized that playing basketball took too much time and that he wouldn't be able to get in the long hours of study.
If Morse's life in Italy now seems terribly easy to the other Americans struggling to adjust, it wasn't always so. Six years ago, his wife, Jane, who already had completed three of four years toward a degree in veterinary medicine at Penn, became so frustrated by the language and the bureaucracy that she decided to go home. She took a job in Wilmington, Del, but Bob continued to stay in Italy and play. Within four months, however, she had returned to Italy to again pursue accreditation, which she did. "The practice in the States was good," Morse says, "but the separation didn't work out."
Morse went to Italy at a time when many of the Americans there had not played professionally in the U.S. In the past few years the balance has tipped the other way, and there is a colony of expatriates in Italy who generally hold one of two attitudes about the NBA: some feel they merely emigrated from the league, others feel they were deported. NBA box-score combers will recognize the likes of Derrek Dickey, Jim McMillian, Jim Ard, Ron Behagen and Tom Barker.
For many of them it was a terrible fall, especially for the ones who felt they had been pushed. Mel Davis, another Knick refugee, has learned to like Italy and has even managed to accept the fact that, for reasons still a mystery to him, from one until four every afternoon Italy breaks for lunch. "Your arm could be falling off," says Davis, "and if it happened at one o'clock, you'd just have to wait for three hours to get it put back on." Sitting in a barely furnished apartment in Milan, Davis looks like a large ebony figurine in an empty gallery. "I've worked since I was 12 years old to get where I am today," says Davis, his voice hollow and echoing slightly off the bare walls. "There's no way I'd go back to the NBA now. I'm not hostile, but I just feel my talent was insulted when I was with the Knickerbockers. I certainly didn't plan this, though. If someone had told me when I signed with New York that I'd wind up playing in Italy, I'd have said there was no way. I figured I would play as long as I could in the NBA and then get a job. But when it happened I was 26. I still thought I could play."
Davis always had mixed feelings about the NBA life, anyway. He is so terrified of flying that he took tranquilizers every time he got on a plane. Now he travels by train and bus to out-of-town games r and says he's never been happier. "It was a big adjustment at first," he says. "When I got here last year I was alone for the first three months. I felt really isolated, and sometimes I'd go days without speaking at all. Most of the time it was just ciao and a smile."
Steve Sheppard doesn't smile much anymore, although his smile was his trademark when he was playing at the University of Maryland. He was put on waivers a few days after Christmas in 1978 to make room on the Chicago roster for Scott May, one of his best friends, who had just recovered from an injury. Then Sheppard was dropped by Detroit this fall after the Pistons acquired Bob McAdoo. Sheppard would rather live in Motown than Roma. He feels wronged by the Pistons, who cut him the day before training camp began.
"I just wanted to go to camp, that's all," Sheppard says. "I was hoping maybe I'd be seen by another ball club in a couple of those scrimmage games. I just needed a little more time to show them, just a little more time. I can play, I know I can. It just kills me when I have time to think about it.
"There are some players who seem like they get six or seven chances to play in the NBA, and there are some guys who just get one chance and they're out forever. If they would just let me play in the games, I know I could show them. I can play. Don't judge me by what I do in practice, you don't always do good in practice. Just let me play 10 or 15 minutes a game, not the last two minutes when the game is out of reach. You can't do nothing in two minutes except mess up; that's what I used to call it—mess-up time."