For many, perhaps most, of the American basketball players who go to Europe to prolong their careers, living the Continental life is appealing. But for some, Europe becomes a kind of bleak exile.
Bob Elmore, a 23-year-old forward out of Wichita State, was able to catch on with Lazio-Eldorado of Rome in the fall of 1977 after he had been cut by the New Jersey Nets. "He was kind of disappointed that he hadn't made the Nets," says Elmore's American teammate in Rome, Abdul Jeelani, who's now with the NBA Trail Blazers. When Elmore missed a day of practice about three weeks after his arrival, Jeelani and officials of the team went to Elmore's apartment, where they found him dead on the floor of an overdose of heroin. Elmore was not a regular user; the fatal needle mark investigators found in his arm was the only one. "He used to walk around in short-sleeve shirts over big muscles," says Jeelani. "I think he just wanted to get high for a while and forget where he was."
Fessor Leonard had been released by a team in Bologna in 1977 and was playing the 1977-78 season in Lugano, Switzerland. Leonard, a 7'1", 235-pound black man who had been a star at Furman, was walking down a street in Lugano on Christmas Eve when he saw an elderly woman who seemed in need of assistance. According to various accounts, Fessor said that when he approached the woman, she apparently became so frightened by Leonard's size and color that she either screamed or pushed him away, or both. Swiss police charge that Leonard had beaten the woman, and although that allegation was later dropped, Leonard spent Christmas Eve in a Swiss jail.
Leonard was virulently attacked in the local press. The criticism bothered him so much that he saved the unflattering stories, and one night in February 1978 he took what proved to be a fatal dose of tranquilizers and then set fire to the clippings and a collection of centerfolds of female nudes in his apartment.
Steve Mitchell, a 6'10" center, who played his college ball at Kansas State, had been in Italy for five seasons, and though he seemed well adjusted to his new life, he was never able to make any close friends. Mitchell, 27, attended a dinner party on Dec. 4, 1978 during which he consumed a large amount of food and drink. Later, he tried to sleep it off. Mitchell was an asthmatic, so when his host heard the player's labored breathing the next morning, he thought nothing of it. When the man returned later he found Mitchell dead of suffocation from congestion.
The fact that all three of these players died alone and within a period of a single year made the circumstances seem more suspicious than they were. In fact, according to some American players, the killer was something insidious, not sinister—being alone in a faraway place where nobody knows your name or your game.