It was “Italia Day” in Toronto. The three colors of the Italian flag flew on the jumbotron in the Air Canada Centre, Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” played at halftime, and 10,000 Andrea Bargnani bobble-heads circulated in the Toronto stands. Acorss the Atlantic, it was a “NBA Day” in Italy. For the first time in history, two Italian players would square-off in an NBA game.
Only two Italians played in the NBA in the past. Stefano Rusconi (Phoenix Suns, 7 games and 8 total points) and Vincenzo Esposito (Toronto Raptors, 30 games, 116 total points), both in the 1995/96 season, they weren’t exactly two key players for their teams, and they’ve never faced each other on an NBA field. This year it’s different, Andrea Bargnani, 1st pick of the 2006 Draft, and Marco Belinelli, 18th in 2007, were on the same parquet as the Warriors took on the Raptors, in an emotional challenge for the Italian hoops fan.
It was like everyone in the country was waiting for this game to start yesterday. Last night, the game aired live in primetime (7 pm) on Italian TV. Bargnani-Belinelli’s showdown had a lot of resonance in the Italian media. The Italian hoops nation has developed a strong passion for the NBA since the beginning of the Bargnani & Belinelli era. The next Italian headed to the NBA is Danilo Gallinari and he should, in fact, be in the next lottery. The meeting of the Italy’s two newest sports heroes didn’t do much to boost the Italian presence in the sport. While Italy anxiously awaited a face-off between their basketball big-shots, the rest of the world was just watching another regular season match up.
The result of the challenge was a good game between Golden State and Toronto, but an averaging showing for Bargnani, who finished with 12 points, 5/10 from the field in 20 minutes and a limited appearance by Belinelli, who didn’t scor, in the 106-100 win for the Warriors. Apart from the score and the “Italia Day” theme in Toronto, Italian fans may have to wait a bit longer to crown the first NBA Superstar of Italian decent.
DANIELE VECCHI is the author of the Italian language book “Playground in New York.” He also writes a column for the Italian language hoops magazine, American Superbasket.