Italian Dressing in the NBA

by July 09, 2007

By Matt Caputo

Being Italian-American, my pride for my heritage took a severe blow with the release of Rocky Balboa. I would have probably preferred a sequel to Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, a truly classic Stallone film.

Fortunately, the Golden State Warriors chose Marco Belinelli with the 18th pick in this years draft and my love for my ancestry has been renewed.

Over the weekend, Belinelli dropped 37 points in his first NBA game in the Vegas Summer League. Corey “Homicide” Williams, who is running with the Warriors this summer, reached out and made it clear to me that Belinelli was no bologna. “He was fuckin’ playing around with them guys today. He is legit and shoots the lights out,” the text message read. I was sold on Bellinelli after waking up at 4 a.m. or so last summer to watch him rip Team USA for 25 points in the World Championships. While Bellineli has got me craving gnocchi, I can’t say this feeling is totally new.

Before Andrea Bargnani was officially taken as the first pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, only a few Italian players had ever made it to the NBA. Bargnani went through his ups and downs while helping the Raptors to the Atlantic Division title and their first playoff appearance in five years, with homecourt advantage too. He averaged 11 plus points and just below four rebounds per game, earning a spot on the All-Rookie Team. [Ed’s note: You can read more Bargnani in the new issue of SLAM, on sale later this week].

Unfortunately, Bargnani’s Italian predecessors weren’t nearly as successful. However, things are changing; despite a 12th place finish in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, Italian players impressed both spectators and scouts alike. Here is the (very short) list of the Italian NBA players before they were being imported into the NBA with the first overall pick:

Hank Biasatti / Toronto Huskies 1946-1947
Born in Beano, Italy, Henry Arcado Biasatti stood 5-feet-11 inches tall and played his college ball at Long Island University in Brooklyn. He was taken by the Boston Celtics in the 1947 BAA draft but played in only 6 games in one season for the Toronto Huskies. Biasatti also went on to play for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1949 and batted 0.83 in 24 at-bats. He died in 1996 in Dearborn, Michigan.

Vincenzo Esposito / Toronto Raptors 1995-1996
Born in Caserta, Campania, Italy in 1969, Esposito played in 30 games for the Raptors in his only season in the NBA. Isiah Thomas made him the first player ever signed to the then brand-new Toronto Raptors. He was already 27 years old and averaged just below four points and nearly one assist for the Raptors who finished 21-61 in their first season. Since leaving the league, Esposito has been a mainstay on mostly Italian pro-teams.

Stefano Rusconi / Phoenix Suns 1995-1996
Rusconi, a 6’9 power forward, also made his NBA debut at 27 years old. Drafted by the Cavs in the 2nd round of the 1990 draft, he didn’t suite up in the league until 1995-1996 with the Suns. In seven games, Rusconi averaged an anorexic 1.1 points-per-game and nearly averaged a lone rebound. Though he was never thought of to be a great NBA prospect he was considered an effective center in Europe with the Bennetton team that featured Toni Kukoc.

My man Bellinelli figures to be better than all of them.