Jobless, short on money and with his NBA options nonexistent, Mike D'Antoni was at a crossroads in 1978. Two short stints in the NBA with Kansas City and San Antonio sandwiched between one in the failing ABA with the St. Louis Spirits hadn't panned out.
And after the 26-year-old D’Antoni failed to impress in a tryout with the Chicago Bulls, he was faced with the premature end of his basketball dream.
“The writing was on the wall. I was more or less resigned to the fact that I was going to have to do something else with my life,” he said.
There was, however, one alternative left. It wasn’t the NBA, or even the ABA. It wasn’t overly appealing, but it was a chance to hold off reality, a least for a little while.
D’Antoni jumped on a plane and took his West Virginia drawl to Italy.
“I could shoot. I had a good Italian name. OK, let’s try this,” he remembered saying. “I figured I would spend two years in Italy, traveling around, see Europe, make a little bit of money and save enough to come home and go back to school.
“The first year was OK. At the end of the second year, I packed everything up and said, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ It wasn’t instant love.”
But D’Antoni stayed. Two years turned into two decades. And half a world away from Mullens, W.Va., the NBA benchwarmer became an Italian legend and the toast of Milan.
He became the all-time leading scorer for Olimpia Milano. He was voted the best point guard in Italian League history in 1990, after leading “the red-and-white” (Milano's colors) to five league championships. He became an Italian citizen and played for the national team at the 1989 World Cup.
“I hit a sweet spot, no doubt about it,” D’Antoni said. “Milan is the big media capital, and the team hadn’t been very good for a while. Imagine the guy who is playing point guard when the Knicks finally explode.
“It was right place, right time. I came in, we took off and I went along for the ride.”
More accurately, he led the parade.
THE GENTLEMAN THIEF
Italian fans fell in love with D’Antoni’s fiery personality on the court and his never-say-die work ethic. They serenaded him during games, dubbing him ArsEne Lupin — “The Gentleman Thief,” a character from a Sherlock Holmes novel — because of his quick hands. Suns fans who watch him gyrate and display the gamut of facial expressions on the bench get only a snippet of his on-court persona. Videos from his playing days show him going nose-to-nose with officials, erupting in disgust and even attacking advertising signs along the baseline in protest of a poor call.
“His range of emotions on the court is something I never see off the court. He’s a completely different person,” said D’Antoni’s wife, Laurel, who met her future husband in Milan while working as a model. “That’s a good thing, because that Mike wouldn’t go over real well at home.
“Off the court, he’s kind of a loner, but he’s very close to his team, both as a player and coach. He gets on guys if they need it, gets in their faces. . . . but like a father, if you touch one hair on my son’s head, you will answer to me.”
Milan’s hot-blooded, passionate and sometimes irrational fans saw some of themselves in their point guard. How popular was D’Antoni? Wally Walker, a teammate in Milan and now the general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics, will never forget the day in Venice when one fan spotted his hero walking with other players.
“The guy recognizes Mike and actually hits the ground and starts genuflecting in front of about five of us,” Walker said. “We’re falling over laughing, and Mike is about the most embarrassed guy in the world. But it was how a lot of people saw him. The city was in his debt for resurrecting the team.”
And after a rocky start, D’Antoni came to embrace his new home and its relaxed, family-oriented lifestyle. He played until he was 39, and his dual citizenship allowed Milan to side-step Italian League rules that allowed only two foreign players on each team. That added even more fuel to the heated rivalries, such as when Milan and Rome faced off.
“When I say the fans hated the other players, I mean, they literally hated them,” D’Antoni said. “Suns fans are passionate, but when a great opposing player comes to town, they appreciate his talent. If an ex-player returns, they might still like him.
“In Italy, there is none of that. It’s, ‘We hate you. We are going to do anything we can to bother you. We hope you die.’ ”
With American-born head coach Dan Peterson guiding Milan, former NBA players like Bob McAdoo, Joe Bryant, ex-Sun Joe Barry Carroll and Antoine Carr teamed at different points with D’Antoni and Italian legend Dino Meneghin to create a winning machine.
Milan reached the league championship nine times in the 1980s, winning five titles and twice advancing to beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Cup of Europe.
“I remember the games and the championships, but I also remember the team dinners and the close relationship we all had,” D’Antoni said. “It was fun to watch the NBA guys come over with an idea of what it would be like, and leaving completely transformed.
“Bob McAdoo told me he enjoyed Milan more than any part in his career. That’s a guy who played at North Carolina, led the NBA in scoring in Buffalo and won a championship with the ‘Showtime’ Lakers. No one ever fought — or the fight never lasted long — because we were always together and we were in it together.”
After winning a fifth title in 1988, D’Antoni, Meneghin and McAdoo were all approaching 40. Milan imploded in 1989, finishing 10th and leading to a housecleaning. D’Antoni was contemplating playing one more season in Spain when Milan offered him the head coaching job — and he retired to take over.
Along with assistant Pippo Faina (who was a direct descendent of Napoleon and grew up in an Italian castle,) D’Antoni brought Milan back to respectability, winning every home game in 1990 until losing the fifth and deciding game of the championship finals. He led Milan to the Korac Cup in 1993 before moving on to Treviso, a team owned by famous Italian clothing magnet Gilberto Benetton.
After winning its first title behind Toni Kukoc and Vinny Del Negro (now director of player personnel for the Suns) in 1991, Benetton gave D’Antoni a big contract to guide Treviso toward another taste of victory. He delivered, leading the team to both the Italian Cup and Cup of Europe titles in 1995. The next year he won the league title with a 22-4 record and captured back-to-back coach of the year honors.
NBA general managers — now regular visitors to Italy to scout for talent and lured by the beauty of Treviso — watched D’Antoni closely. By 1997, he could no longer resist the lure. He took a job as player personnel director of the Denver Nuggets, but being off the court — and back in the U.S. — was uncomfortable.
"I took a lesser job, a harder job,” said D’Antoni, who had just received a four-year extension from Benetton. “But in my mind, it was the NBA, so that made it a better job.”
After almost 20 years in Italy, D’Antoni felt like a foreigner all over again. “It was as hard as it was going the other way,” he said. “I felt like I didn’t belong, plus I didn’t like the job. After five months, I had an offer in Spain and almost left.”
Knowing he was unhappy, the Nuggets made D’Antoni an assistant to Bill Hanzlik and promoted him when Hanzlik was fired midway through the next season. Stuck in a no-win situation with a rebuilding team, D’Antoni won 14 of 50 games and was fired just days before the 1999-2000 training camp began. After a year as an assistant in Portland under Mike Dunleavy, Benetton came calling again and D’Antoni jumped at the chance to go “home.”
ONE LAST TRY
D’Antoni returned to Italy, satisfied his NBA itch would never be scratched. “I thought, ‘Well, I had my chance, it didn’t work out, and Italy’s not a bad deal. Enough is enough.’ ”
But while D’Antoni led Treviso to another league title in 2001-02 with Americans Charlie Bell and Tyus Edney, NBA GMs and presidents — including Jerry and Bryan Colangelo of the Suns — visited the team regularly to follow the progress of prospects Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Bostjan Nachbar.
“Halfway through the season, I knew I was going back one more time,” D’Antoni said. “The (fast-paced style) was the selling point and I had more options. The Phoenix thing came up and I had to try.”
This time, the tumblers fell into place. And after two trips to the Western Conference finals and one Coach of the Year Award in his first two full seasons, the current two-week training camp with the Suns in Treviso is the closest D’Antoni will come to another Italian curtain call.
“I’ll go back for a few weeks or a month, but that’s it,” he said. “A chance like this to go back and show your team another way of life, another way to look at basketball is incredible, a real gift. But 20 years from now I think Arizona is still going to be the place for me. It’s just too good here.”
A legend in Italy
- Mike D'Antoni played and coached in Italy for two decades, becoming one of the most famous basketball figures in the country's history. Among his accomplishments:
- Voted the best point guard in Italian League history in 1990
- All-time leading scorer for Olimpia Milano (5,573 points in 455 games). Also holds team record for assists (1,138)
- Led Milan to the Italian League championship nine times in the 1980s, winning five titles and twice advancing to beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Cup of Europe.
- As a coach for Benetton Treviso and Philips Milan, led his team to the playoffs every season and was twice voted the league's coach of the year.