ottomatica Roma is not your ordinary basketball team. On a rooftop patio in Rome, a few blocks from the Vatican, shooting guard Alex Righetti is off in the corner, coolly puffing on a Marlboro. Belgian seven-footer Tomas Van Den Spiegel and Australian seven-footer Wade Helliwell say cheers and clink large bottles of Heineken, which in the clutches of their giant hands look like sample liquors out of a hotel mini bar. And with a “Ciao ciao,” in strolls backup point guard Davide Bonora, wearing Capri pants and a pink polo shirt with the collar flipped up.
Granted, it is the night after Lottomatica was eliminated from Italy’s Legabasket playoffs by eventual champion Climamio Bologna, and these players are just cutting loose at the end of a long season, fashion police be damned. Presiding over this motley crew with a pair of tongs and a bottle of barbecue sauce is starting point guard Tyus Edney.
“Sweeeet Baby’s,” sings Edney, in what could be a jingle for his favorite barbecue sauce, Sweet Baby Ray’s. “Mmmm hmmm. It’s all about the sauce.”
There are many lessons learned by American ballplayers in Italy — remembering to bring back sauce from the States is one of them. While Italian supermarkets are well stocked in olive oil, the only barbecue sauce to be found is called “Salsa BBQ” and is made in Germany.
“As Americans, we like our food,” says Edney, a native of Long Beach, Calif. His kitchen downstairs is well supplied with Americana: boxes of pancake mix, bottles of maple syrup and, of course, “Sweeeet Baby’s.” Edney’s teammates and Italian friends seem to enjoy this taste of America too, as they lunge for the sizzling wings and pork kebabs before Edney can get them off the grill. The last time Romans were this happy to see smoke a new pope was elected.
Ten years have passed since Edney helped guide his UCLA Bruins to an NCAA title, and the cheerful point guard has only a gray hair or two to show for it. This season, after a successful year in Rome, he’ll play in Athens, his third city in three years. But the switch is unlikely to change the way he is, or what he represents.
Watching him playing host in Rome — pouring wine for guests, manning the grill, effortlessly switching from English to Italian as he greets his friends — it’s easy to call Edney a renaissance man, a man for all cities, a stylish wanderer. It doesn’t hurt that he’s decked out in a designer polo shirt and jeans — a nice blend of la dolce vita and Dolce & Gabbana.
This scene is a strange contrast to Edney’s life seven years ago, his first season playing in Europe. Back then, the former NBA starter had trouble figuring out his kitchen appliances and, at one time, thought he might freeze to death.
LITHUANIA, 1998 In a chilly apartment in the city of Kaunas, Tyus Edney’s heater has just gone out, again. “I would freeze,” says Edney. He hugs himself and starts shivering. “I used to knock on my neighbor’s door in the middle of the night, saying, ‘Please, help!’”
Edney knew he was in for an adventure when he signed with BC Zalgiris Kaunas. Earlier that year, the NBA entered a lockout and, after three seasons in the league, Edney was without a contract. Negotiations between owners and players stalled, and the prospect of a season looked bleak. While Edney was considering his options, he received a phone call from an old friend.
In 1991, George Zidek enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles to play college basketball. He didn’t know much English, and the flashy American culture was a mystery to the native of Czechoslovakia, an ex-communist country. Luckily, Zidek shared his UCLA dorm room with another freshman ballplayer: Tyus Edney.
“He really made the transition easier for me,” says Zidek, who finished the 2005 season with CEZ Basketball Nymburk in his home country. “If I had a question about anything, the language or the country, Tyus would always be there.”
With the help of Edney and his other teammates, Zidek conquered his initial culture shock, won a starting job and was eventually selected as a first-round draft pick in the NBA.
Zidek appeared in only 12 games in the 1997-98 season, split between the Seattle Supersonics and Denver Nuggets. Then the lockout hit. Zidek received an offer from BC Zalgiris Kaunas and decided to return home to Europe. When management of his new club asked him if he knew a good point guard, Zidek said the first thought that came to him. “What about Tyus?”
“George called and said ‘Hey, come over. We got a good team over here,’ ” remembers Edney. “If I was going to go, at least George is there to help me out.”
So Edney packed his bags, said goodbye to his two little girls — he was married shortly after graduating UCLA and later divorced — and boarded a plane bound for the other side of the world, in more ways than one.
“I got to the airport in Lithuania and it seemed like the Third World,” says Edney, describing the uniform grayness of so many of the former communist countries in Eastern Europe. “I didn’t know if I could do this.”
But Zidek was there to help his friend adjust to a new country and a new culture, like Edney had done for him so long ago. He remembers one of Edney’s first games with Kaunas. Size has been a question for Edney throughout his career — he is only 5 feet 10 inches, small even by European standards. “He stole the ball and was all alone,” says Zidek. “He just took off and dunked it. The whole arena went crazy. No one believed he could do it.”
With Edney and Zidek at the helm in 1998-99, Kaunas won the Lithuanian national championship, the Northern European Basketball League (NEBL) championship and, most important, the Euroleague title, European basketball’s answer to soccer’s Champions League in which the top clubs from across the continent compete. Edney even got his heater to work.
The next season, Edney signed with Benetton Treviso in Italy and recorded another solid season. The Indiana Pacers took notice and offered Edney a one-year contract for the 2000-01 season. Before he left for one more shot in the NBA, Edney went out with some friends to a bar in Treviso. That’s when he met her.
Aiñoa Da Silva. Half Italian and half Brazilian, she had curly brown hair and soft caramel skin. She worked for MTV and spoke a little English. At first, they had trouble communicating, but they were quick to laugh at their linguistic woes. They didn’t understand much, but they understood that something was there. Edney didn’t speak Italian then, but he had just found a reason to learn.
TYUS EDNEY JR. is calling for his dad. He’s not yet two years old, but he speaks three languages. When he wants to go outside, he asks in Portuguese. When he is ready to leave, he goes with the English “Bye bye!” When he wants his dad, he squeals in Italian, “Papà!”
Edney looks down from a bowl of Bush’s Baked Beans and sees his son running toward him. The infant weaves through the legs of friends and family, his diaper swish-swishing until he latches on to his dad’s leg.
“He’s getting it all, he’s getting all three,” says Edney, referring to his son’s trilingual upbringing. Mother Aiñoa speaks to Junior in Italian. Aiñoa’s Brazilian sister lived with the Edney family in Rome through the season, and she addresses Junior in Portuguese. Then there’s Papa with his soft-spoken English.
With the Pacers in 2000-01, Edney appeared in only 24 games and decided to return to Treviso for 2001-02. He rekindled his relationship with Aiñoa and Tyus Jr. soon followed. Aiñoa recently accepted Edney’s proposal, and they are planning to be married later this year.
For most Americans playing abroad, basketball is the easy part, says Mike D’Antoni, the NBA Coach of the Year for the Phoenix Suns. In 2001-02, he coached Edney at Benetton and remembers family life as the biggest struggle for his American players. For Americans in Europe, every game is an away game.
“You may have a wife who sits at home all day, with no friends and nothing to do. They may have a bunch of kids and go to the market but can’t figure out the right milk to buy,” says D’Antoni, who met his wife Laurel while playing in Italy years ago. “For the players, the basketball takes care of itself.”
True, basketball was never a problem for D’Antoni. He spent 13 seasons with Olympia Milano, became the team’s all-time leading scorer and, in 1990, was voted by fans as Legabasket’s greatest point guard of all time (See page 25). His advice to American players: “I try to get them to not hang around Americans all day. Try to get out there and learn the language, learn the culture.”
Edney’s success in Italy is no surprise to D’Antoni, even though his star point guard used to sneak off to an American military base for Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits and American DVDs when he first arrived in Treviso.
“On the basketball court Tyus is fearless. Put him on a golf course, he’ll hide in the cart — he’s afraid to get into the weeds because a bug might bite him,” laughs D’Antoni. “As a person, Tyus is just a real nice — almost timid — guy.”
It’s not that he’s timid. He’s modest. When told that a former teammate called him the Michael Jordan of Europe, Edney could only shrug his shoulders in disbelief and say, “Wow.”
Modesty is a trait that’s served him well in Italy, especially when too many American players think their way is the only way. Says Edney, “You have the most trouble if you don’t try to be a part of the culture, don’t try to accept it. You have to just stop and say, this is different, I can learn from this.”
TYUS EDNEY’S landlord is not a big basketball fan.
While Lottomatica was knee deep in the playoffs, he stopped Edney in the street and asked, “When is the championship game again?”
Strange. NBA fans have playoff dates circled on calendars. Not taken aback at all, Edney smiled that same toothy grin fans remember from his 1995 NCAA national title run with UCLA and gracefully explained the best-of-five format in Italian with just a hint of an American accent.
In a country — a continent even — in which soccer is king, Edney walks the bustling streets of Rome in anonymity. Meanwhile, foreign players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, both of the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs are becoming household names in America. And here’s Edney, giving directions to the Lottomatica stadium to his landlord. “That’s OK,” says Edney. “If I was a soccer player, everybody would recognize me.”
In 1995, everybody did recognize Edney. Every March, the memory is refreshed, thanks mostly to those annual greatest-moments-of-the-NCAA-Tournament highlight shows. There, usually wedged somewhere between greatest-moment No. 4 and greatest-moment No. 8, Edney is a legend.
Ninety-four feet in 4.8 seconds. End to end. That’s how far the No. 1-seeded UCLA Bruins needed to go in order to defeat upstart Missouri in the second round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament. The Tigers took a one-point lead and were ready to celebrate an upset of a No. 1 seed. But UCLA coach Jim Harrick had a spry, 5’10” senior point guard who happened to be one of the quickest players in the country.
Edney took the inbound pass on his own baseline, scampered to half court, dribbled around the back and lofted a little shot off the glass and in. The buzzer sounded. The Bruins miraculously moved on. Minutes later, Edney’s toothy grin was broadcast on sports stations across the country. He couldn’t hide if he wanted to.
Harrick remembers being angry after the game. Missouri is a team his Bruins should have handled with ease. After the post-game celebration, he lined his players up.
“I got on my players. It shouldn’t have been that close,” says Harrick. “I’m going down the line, yelling and screaming. Then I get to Tyus. What could I say to him? He was a perfect student, a perfect player to coach. Having a player like that for four years, I had not one negative thing to say about him.”
Two weeks later, UCLA was crowned national champion. Edney left the title game early because of a sprained wrist. After the game, most valuable player Ed O’Bannon pulled Edney into the spotlight and yelled into a microphone, “This is the real MVP right here. He’s the one who got us here.”
When Harrick drew up the final play against Missouri, he knew Edney was a player that could win it for him. Four years earlier, Harrick wasn’t so sure.
While recruiting in 1991, Harrick had a different choice for an incoming point guard. He visited the home of his top choice and dived right into the recruiting presentation. When Harrick finished, the recruit nodded patiently, then made it clear that UCLA was not his first choice.
“His parents said, ‘Well coach, UCLA is on the list, but we have 10 other schools on our list. We’ll let you know,’ ” remembers Harrick.
The next day, Harrick headed to the Edney house in Long Beach.
“I go into his house, and I lay out all my papers and start making my presentation. After a few minutes, Tyus and his parents interrupt me. They say to me, ‘Coach, I don’t think you understand. We want to go to UCLA.’” Harrick gambled on Edney.
That spring, Edney helped lead his Long Beach Polytechnic High School team to the league playoffs. Harrick went to watch his incoming point guard and witnessed one of Edney’s worst games of his high school career. “He had a couple of points, a bunch of turnovers. His team lost,” says Harrick. “I thought I may have made a mistake.”
Summer passed and Edney enrolled at UCLA. During Edney’s second practice with the team, Harrick was running a four-on-three drill in which the defense wasn’t allowed to pass the three-point line. So Edney hit a three. Then another. Then another. He connected on seven consecutive threes. Harrick stopped practice for a minute. A 5’10” freshman had just fearlessly torn apart his defense. “I was thinking,” says Harrick, “who is this guy?”
Later that preseason, Harrick invited former UCLA coach John Wooden to attend a clinic. After a few minutes of watching Edney, the 10-time national champion coach pulled Harrick aside and said, “Coach, the little guy sees the floor better than anyone you got.”
After his senior season, the Sacramento Kings chose Edney as the 18th pick in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft. Starting more than 60 games and averaging 10.8 points a game, Edney was a rookie of the year candidate. Moreover, the Kings made the playoffs for the first time in ten seasons.
The next year, Edney started only 20 games for the Kings and was replaced by newly acquired Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (who, coincidentally, finished 2005 in Italy as well, playing for Sedima Roseto). With too many guards, the Kings did not re-sign Edney, and he moved to Boston for the 1997-98 season. Edney played only a handful of minutes a game that year, and Boston did not pick up his contract option for the next season, leaving him few options. Then came the lockout and a phone call.
“It’s amazing to me that there are players his size in the NBA, and he’s not one of them,” says Harrick, currently working as a scout and coaching consultant for the Denver Nuggets. “If I was a coach, he’d be on my team, I’ll tell you that.”
Former Olympia Milano coach Dan Peterson wouldn’t mind having Edney on his hypothetical team either. As a broadcaster for SKY Sport, the Italian basketball legend is often courtside at Legabasket games and sometimes chats with players.
“I don’t say hello to everyone, but when Tyus is playing, I make it a point to shake his hand,” says Peterson, most famous for coaching Mike D’Antoni and Olympia to a slew of titles in the 1980s. “He’s just a good guy.”
And a good point guard. When Edney was sidelined by a knee injury earlier this season, Lottomatica sputtered. “As soon as Tyus was even 90 percent, Rome came on and almost made it to the finals,” says Peterson. “Everywhere Tyus goes, he wins. There must be a common denominator there. It’s Tyus.”
With his protégé D’Antoni, Peterson co-authored the book “Playmaker,” the Italian name for the point guard position.
“The most important thing for a playmaker, and this sounds strange, is his personality. It’s charisma. They have to want the ball. Tyus has that,” says Peterson. “It’s in the way he talks, the way he moves. It comes out of his pores like sweat. Other guys, they trust him. He’s like a faro as they say here, a beacon. He keeps the ships from crashing into the shore. His light is turning 360 degrees all night for his team. The other players look to him. Tyus creates.”
Peterson takes a breath — point guards easily excite the broadcaster. He recalls a Euroleague game in Greece, when Benetton needed a basket.
“They were down a point. With less then a second to go, they throw the ball across court. Tyus catches it in the air, and in one motion heaves it toward the basket, and they win. He’s been doing things like that his whole career.”
Twilight is falling now on Edney’s roof, and on his career. He sometimes thinks about coaching, sometimes about broadcasting. But he isn’t ready to hang up the high tops. Not yet. He signed a two year deal with Olympiakos in August. “I still got a few good years left,” he says.
Edney slices into a fresh watermelon, cutting the fruit in half. Aiñoa takes one half and pours in a bottle of champagne, then cuts the watermelon in slices and passes out the sweet treat to her friends.
Lottomatica center Tomas Van Den Spiegel, meanwhile, makes jokes as he takes in the view. “You like the American tourists? We just make fun of them,” he says, referring to the Americans wielding giant guidebooks, North Face jackets, backpacks and hiking boots, as if they are climbing Everest instead of the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Edney slurps down his watermelon and doesn’t pay attention — it’s just another of Van Den Spiegel’s attempts to rile his American friend. Suddenly, a blue and red cascade of fireworks explodes in the distant sky, most likely in celebration of one of Italy’s many holidays.
“Wow Tyus, thanks for the fireworks,” shouts Van Den Spiegel, the sarcasm seeping through his Belgian accent. “What a party.”
Edney smiles mischievously — he’s best known for his pyrotechnics on the court. But, after learning a new language, a new culture, barbecue and basic heater maintenance, it would be no surprise if Edney had one more trick up his sleeve.
“You like that?” he responds. “Just a little something I learned a few years ago.”
D’ANTONI: Life all’Italiana
Before he was the NBA Coach of the Year, Mike D’Antoni was Italy’s best point guard. Back then, he didn’t ride first-class in jumbo jets — he rode the bus. And he loved it.
“We had great bus trips,” D’Antoni says of his playing days with then-powerhouse Olympia Milano. “For two or three hours, we’d all sit and talk together. We’d always stop off at a restaurant along the way and get something to eat. It’s a great way to bond with teammates. I think that’s something we’re lacking in over here.”
Not that his Phoenix Suns lack chemistry — not after boasting the NBA’s highest scoring offense in 10 seasons and recording a league-high 62 wins on their way to the Western Conference semifinals. Still, nothing brings a team together better than a six-hour bus ride from Milan to Rome with a three-course Italian dinner on the way.
Every now and then D’Antoni’s teams would fly too, mostly when traveling to other countries while competing for the European Cup. Sure, there weren’t any feathers floating around the cabin, but flying Milan to Moscow proved more taxing than Phoenix to Philly.
“We’d always be stuck in customs, chartering planes to places like Poland or Russia,” D’Antoni says. “In America, everything is easier, everything is convenient.”
D’Antoni’s not complaining. It’s just that a lot has changed since his playing days in Italy. Today, players jump the language barrier by watching satellite television and English language DVDs. They email friends and family back home. All D’Antoni had were good books.
“Things are easier now for Americans,” he says, in his best I-walked-five-miles-uphill-in-the-snow voice. “Back then, everything was in Italian. I did a lot of reading.”
As the “playmaker” for Olympia Milano, D’Antoni won five Italian league championships. The basketball took care of itself, as he likes to say. It was off the court where he had to make adjustments.
“I missed being able to find a good burger,” he says. “I missed being able to go to the bank and not have to think about it. I missed going to the post office and it not being such an ordeal.”
D’Antoni graduated from Marshall University in West Virginia as the school’s all-time assist leader. But didn’t see similar success in his three NBA seasons. So he made the move to Milan.
“My first year wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” he remembers. “You have your bouts of loneliness, coming from the NBA, not living up to expectations. Everything from eating habits to the language is different. Most Italians didn’t know English. On my team, we had one other American and all Italians. Every time I’d eat or go out, I’d always be with my teammates. There was always at least one, sometimes five or six.”
Naturally, he learned Italian, and eventually became a duel citizen of Italy and the United States. He met his wife Laurel in Milan while she was working as a model. He even co-authored a pair of books on basketball, Playmaker and Vivendo Giocando (Living Playing). Eventually, D’Antoni learned to love the Italian people and culture.
“The Italians do a lot of things right. I miss the long, three or four hour dinners, just sitting around all night and talking,” he says. “At first, after a half hour, Americans get antsy. By the end of your stay, you love it.”