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It may be said that on leaving the mother country the emigrants had, in general, no notion of superiority one over another. The happy and powerful do not go into exile....
It had not been one of the more memorable nights of Steve Green's basketball career, and as he pulled a towel up the back of his neck, over his head and down over his eyes, he wheezed in a way that sounded something like a baby snoring; it was not quite a laugh, rather a mirthless kind of snort. "Preface everything I say about this place," Green muttered darkly, "with the music from The Twilight Zone." Then he bulged his eyes in a way that must have reminded his Italian teammates in the locker room of Pagliacci on a bad day.
The game that evening at the Palazzetto dello Sport—a small dome-shaped arena not far from the great wall guarding the more ancient precincts of Rome—had been close and typically frantic. If it had not been the kind of artistic triumph you'd want to hang in the Villa Borghese, it nonetheless was satisfying to the local fans, the home team, Stella-Azzurra Roma, having won 85-83. In the final five minutes the lead had teetered back and forth between Stella-Azzurra—Green's team—and the visiting Superga-Mestre, much to the delight of the crowd, which had been hearing a selection of eerie-sounding chants from some fans, thus making them sound like a choir of crazed Gregorian monks. In the last 30 seconds of play, this sing-along was suspended in favor of the more resonant Stel-la! Stel-la! Stel-la! It seemed as if Marlon Brando might appear in a T shirt at any moment.
Green, an American who was the star of the 1975 team at Indiana University that went 31-1, finished the game with nine points and nearly as many turnovers. He had been timid about taking open shots and had not played the American-style game, unforgivable shortcomings in the eyes of the Stella adorers. That this reluctance to shoot was not shared by Green's American teammate, 6'9" Center Wilson Washington, a former 76er and Net, only served to make matters worse for Green.
Green had played four seasons of pro basketball in the U.S. and had watched two ABA franchises (the Utah Stars and the Spirits of St. Louis) fold underneath him before being given his release by the Indiana Pacers last summer. When no other NBA team expressed an interest in him, Green decided to play out the final season of his career in Italy, where American players are considered first among equals and where some Americans are more equal than others.
In 1965 the federation that governs Italian basketball granted each of the 28 teams in that country's two highest classifications—A-1 and A-2—the right to hire one foreigner (99% of whom were Americans) to supplement its all-Italian roster. These Americans, at first a mix of the near-great, the not-so-great and the saw-somebody-great-once-on-TV, were to serve as ambassadors from the country where basketball had been invented. So the Italian clubs went after big men who could play forward and center. The idea was for the Americans to teach the game by example—when it came to basketball, Italians thought shirts-and-skins were things you bought at Gucci, Pucci and, if need be, Fiorucci. The experiment was such a success and the game was becoming so popular that in 1977 the Italian federation permitted the addition of a second foreigner on each roster.
The Italians opened their arms to these American Gullivers, not to mention their hearts and, most remarkably, their treasuries. Americans received salaries and perquisites unimagined by their Italian teammates. The U.S. players were given free apartments and free cars, and most were paid upward of $35,000 a year free of Italian taxes. The Italian players usually had to hold down other jobs to support themselves.
For their lire, the Italian club owners expected each American to be a star, and they did little to discourage the development of a caste system. "They want you to score," says Steve Sheppard, formerly of the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, now of Lazio-Eldorado Roma. "I've always got the green light and that's been good for my ego. In the States I was always the one getting yelled at for making a mistake or taking a bad shot. Over here they don't say nothing to me—they yell at the Italians."
Along with the money and the attention came inevitable burdens. "There is pressure on the Americans," says Bob Morse of Pallacanestro Emerson Varese. "If a player has an off game, right away the newspapers start asking, 'Is this the right American for our team?' There are four national sports dailies, and it's a real problem for them to fill up all that space. If you don't score 20 or 30 points fairly consistently, get your share of rebounds and provide leadership, they can be pretty rough on you. In the NBA, a player can specialize in one thing, like defense, and get away with it. Over here he wouldn't last very long if he didn't get his 20 points a game."
Green made the mistake of trying to ignore the star system, and he has paid for it. "It's so difficult to communicate," he says, "but I wanted them to understand the kind of game I play, so I tried having my ideas on the kind of intelligent passing game I like to play translated from English to Italian. Before I knew it, the coach was telling me he considered me the equal of the Italian forwards on the team, which wasn't what I had in mind at all. I should have been cocky and demanding right off like Wilson was. They expect that from Americans."