bawful vs italy
Can you pick out the Americans?

Editor's note: I am critically behind in e-mail. How critical? I'm seriously considering abandoning my e-mail address and starting new. I keed. But seriously, I'm way behind. If you've e-mailed me and not received I response, it's not because I don't love you. Know that.

Buon giorno, everybody.

Evil Ted and I just returned from another work trip in Pisa, Italy. During last year's trip, our primary goal -- other than that whole "work" thing -- was to find a pickup basketball game. We very much wanted to match our American basketball skills against the skills of our Italian counterparts. You know, for the sake of, uhm, international relations. Yeah.

Well, we failed. Utterly. Here's the proof.

This year? Great success! Our Italian supervisors, perhaps out of guilt for making us once again trek across the sea to learn things we could have figured out over Skype, worked relentlessly to find a way for us to play basketball during out visit. And by "worked relentlessly" I actually mean they figured out someone in the Pisa office has a weekly pickup basketball group.

It took a few days of asking around, but we managed to set up a game for the first Friday of our trip. The thing about pickup ball in the Pisa area is that there aren't really any courts you can just walk onto. Rather, there are gymnasiums where you can reserve court time by the hour. Unfortunately, we were unable to reserve the court in Pisa -- as far as anyone told us, there's only one court there -- so our Pisan co-worker Tim reserved a court in nearby Livorno for the low, low price of 50 Euros.

The day of the big game, Tim came by our "desk" for a little shop talk. (I put desk in quotes because it was more like a long wooden table with a bank of computers. Kind of the computer software version of a sweatshop. Very Orwellian.) It quickly became obvious that Tim takes his basketball quite seriously. He gave us incredibly detailed scouting reports on everybody who would be playing: Who could shoot, who could drive, who crashed the boards, who like to run, etc. He even told us that one guy was a lefty, so we needed to adjust for that. It was all very thorough.

Tim also let us know that he was pretty good...and that he hated to lose. He claimed to be a brutal smack talker who didn't mind getting in people's face and playing hard, hand-checking defense. To illustrate this point, he pushed me hard in the chest. Just so we were clear.

(For the record, I always get a chuckle when a pickup baller tells me he hates to lose. It's always good to know when somebody can't be included in the massive hoards of people who enjoy losing. You don't want to play with those people.)

Evil Ted and I listened without offering any description of our abilities. After all, there was no sense in tipping our hands and letting our soon-to-be opponents prepare for us. That and we were starting to get nervous. Were we in over our heads? Tim's description made his group sound like some very serious ballers. What if we got schooled? That would be humiliating. Especially since our secret fantasy was to establish our American basketball dominance.

Friday after work, we rushed back to our hotel and switched into our basketball duds, after which we rushed right back to the office to meet our co-worker Brent, who had agreed to give us a ride to Livorno. On the way to the court, we picked up Brent's son and his son's friend, who (as Tim had warned us) liked to run.

Before we arrived, Brent told us not to expect an American-style gym. He was right. If you didn't already know the building housed a basketball court, you'd never guess it in a million years. Honestly, the outside looked like an old Roman ruin crossed with something out of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. If I hadn't been with some locals, I wouldn't have ventured inside...or anywhere near it for that matter. It looked seedy and dangerous, and I couldn't imagine what state the court would be in.

Turns out, the court was pretty nice. It was regulation size (by which I mean international regulation size). The floor was painted cement, which was odd, but it was fairly tacky and provided decent traction. Rather than the rectangle you see on standard American courts, the painted area was a trapezoid. The ball was severly overinflated and the rims were a tight and tempermental as any rims I've ever used. ET and I were the first ones on the court shooting around before the game, and we chucked up some pretty spectacular bricks. I couldn't even get my patented hook shot down. Ever shot was clunking off the back iron or rattling out.

Our nervousness was on the rise.

After some light warming up and stretching, the other players slowly ambled onto the court. Two people were late, so we started with four-on-four. Tim and someone we didn't know divided up the players. That someone we didn't know suggested a team of me, Evil Ted, Tim, and a blocky, slow-footed man named Robert. Tim was not happy about this. He felt the talent was weighted on the other team, particularly since they were mostly young gunners. Tim thought they were going to run us off the court. He demanded that when the other guys showed up, our team would get the better of the two.

Due to our team's presumed defensive shortcomings, Tim called for a zone. "We cannot stay with them man-to-man," he insisted. I was positioned at the bottom of the zone directly under the basket. Before the first check in, Tim looked at me very seriously and said: "Don't let me down."

No pressure.

Now, before I describe the game itself, I should probably say a few things about how it was played relative to American pickup ball. Rather than a game of ones (for standard two-point shots) and twos (for three-pointers), the scoring was by standard twos and threes. But here was the weird thing: Rather than keep a specific score -- for example, 10-7, or whatever -- each team kept track of how many they were ahead or behind. For instance, assume a team was ahead by that 10-7 score. They would yell out "Plus three!" Our hosts explained this method is easier than tracking the actual score.

Hey, when in Pisa, right?

Here's another weird thing. Rather than always checking the ball in at the top of the key, the ball was immediately checked in wherever play had been stopped. If the ball went out of bounds on the baseline, the team with possession would simply throw it back into play and go. Foul under the basket? Quickly throw the ball inbounds and go. This process took some getting used to.

Okay, so those were the only major logistical differences. But the style of play was also vastly different.

The first 5-10 minutes was nothing but fastbreaking. Seven seconds or less? Try four seconds or less. It was run-run-shoot, rebound or inbound, run-run-shoot, rebound or inbound, run-run-shoot, etc. Just mad sprinting up and down the court. After that initial burst, things slowed down and it became more of a standard half court game.

That half court offense was like nothing I've experienced before. It was like 1940s basketball. There was no physical contact. None. It was like everybody was surrounded by a personal force field. That's not to say people didn't play up on each other and contest shots. But when I went into the post, or crashed the boards, I wasn't getting hacked, held, poked, pushed, etc. like I'm used to in the U.S. I never really thought of my usual weekly pickup league as being all that physical, but now? Let's just say it was something of a culture shock to be posted down low without a forearm in my back or a knee up my ass.

The halfcourt plays basically had two options: The Drive and The Whip. The Drive was a simple, straight ahead, bull-in-the-China-shop stampede toward the hoop that either ended in a layup attempt or an overly elaborate pass back out to the perimeter. The Whip was where the ball would whip around to various stationary players until a wide open shot was created against our zone. And that shot, when it came, was always a long-range set shot.

I have to tell you, as the foundation of our zone, I felt like Bill Russell. For the most part, I simply rotated around the paint forming a wall between the basket and anybody who chose to drive. During the first several minutes, I blocked six or seven shots. I mean, guys just came straight at me. No juking. No fancy-schmancy circus shots. They just made a head-on assault on the basket, seemingly determined to shoot the ball directly through my waiting hands.

Once my Russell-like presence was established, our opponents became increasingly reluctant to attack the rim. And when they did, they were taking these awkward, windmill-style layups that were usually way off the mark (although, admittedly, a few did go in).

The thing that struck me about the moves I was seeing is that they were all very linear. There wasn't much in the way of zig-zagging or hotdogging with the ball. Nobody was overdribbling. It was either a straight drive or a pass to comebody cutting or standing wide open. It seemed very fundamental and unselfish.

It seemed bizarre.

Of course, offense was where we had the most fun. I have to tell you, I've never in my life played with so little physical contact. I'm not trying to obsess over this, but it was huge. I'm a reasonably skilled big man, and I was the tallest person in the gym that night. As a result, I got layup after layup after layup. It's not that guys weren't contesting, but seriously, try going up over someone several inches shorter than you without getting touched. You're going to convert a lot of shots that way. I felt like Wilt Chamberlain.

(The lack of contact, and the expectations of it, was evident both ways. I lightly brushed somebody on his way to the hoop and he immediately stopped and started jabbering in Italian. I asked Tim for a translation. "He says you killed him," he said. Really? I wasn't even sure I touched him.)

Another thing was, when people blocked out, there man didn't try to forcibly shove them off their spot. They just tried to find another open spot from which to pursue the ball. There was one guy who kind of shoved me once. I shoved back, and that was it. Nobody got physical with me again for the rest of the night.

This set the stage for some serious board crashing, not only by me, but by Evil Ted as well. ET is a guard, and he usually stays out on the perimeter. When he realized how free and open the paint area was, he started going after the basketball. In 12 years of playing with him, I think I'd seen him try to tip in a shot maybe once. Maybe. That night, he attempted three tips and converted two. And I have to admit, they were pretty wicked tips.

We also ran. Well, I should say, I ran and ET hit me Peyton Manning style for easy layups. It basically went like this: I'd grab a rebound on our end, shuffle the ball to ET, sprint past everybody, and receive a loooong pass from ET for the open zero footer. During one stretch, we did this three or four plays in a row. It was like nobody there had seen a full court pass before.

We killed our opponents. Badly. It was +3, then +9, then +18, then...we just stopped keeping score. About three quarters through the game, Brent got hurt, so Tim switched sides to go five-on-four against us.

We still killed them.

Okay, here's the last weird thing. When our hour was up, everybody just stopped. Like, stopped mid-play. Everywhere I've ever played in the States, people try to wring every last second out of a game, typically running over the alotted time. So seeing people willingly walk off the court when there was nobody waiting and no obvious reason to call it quits was kinda strange.

I got a ridiculous amount of praise after the game. Guys were high-fiving me. Somebody told me I should try out for the Italian league. Tim joked (in a somewhat irritated voice) that I had a "triple-triple" (I assume he meant points and rebounds). I have to admit, it felt good.

Not for Tim, though. He was our ride to the train station so we could get back to Pisa. Only he stormed out of the gym. We had jog to catch up. Turns out he was frustrated that he hadn't played better (or maybe that me and ET had played so well). He told us that we could expect better from him next time. And to be shut down. (As a follow up, he showed up to work on Monday and greeted us with, "Good morning, ladies.")

It didn't matter. We were stoked. And we couldn't wait for next week's rematch.

Only it never happened. There were trips and schedules, and nothing could be worked out. We never got the chance to prove we were legit. For all we knew, we might have simply been First Night Superstars. It's possible our Italian foes would have figured out our games and put it to us. We'll never know.

And unless we go back and find another group of Italian pickup ballers, we'll never know if we were genuinely good or just good relative to our competition. And that's okay.

It was just fun to hoop it up overseas.

As a postscript to this story, I officially got back from Italy late last Friday night and played my first American pickup game on Sunday morning. Within 20 minutes, I had a busted lip. Yep. Didn't miss the extra physical contact.


Anonymous milaz said...
interesting... the guys you played however, don't really seem like they're real basketball freaks... they look like ppl that play once in a while to keep fit. Sad but true... as you get older it's harder to arrange a get-together to play ball... and sometimes ppl are rusty or try to avoid playing more physically to avoid getting hurt... in any case... having played in both the US and Europe (pickup basketball) it is true that the US is more physical and runs more... of course what you are describing seems a bit extreme, that's why I'm saying maybe these guys were not that into the sport...

Blogger AnacondaHL said...
In before Euro softness comments.

Feeling like Russell AND Wilt? You may as well have described ET's outlet passes as Kevin Love-esque just to make it sound even better for you =D

Anonymous Shiv said...
This should've been part of the Pick-up diaries.

It seems kind of strange that the Italians are basketball n00bs. A couple of years ago I was chaperoning a bunch of Italian high schoolers around Southern California and while they were all soccer players a couple of them were actually decent ballers as we. As in they were decently big very fluid guys who could actually dunk the ball and while there was little flash in their games, they knew what to do with a basketball.

I've had similar experiences playing ball in India though. After I moved here from the US I played regularly at Loyola University in Madras with Jesuit Priests and random others. The Jesuits were actually pretty serious ballers and while they all had very funky looking jumpshots they would hit their 15-20 footers when open and sprint the floor on EVERY defensive rebound while the rebounder would hit them with fullcourt passes. Despite their surprising spryness and stamina(for guys in the general age group of 35-50) there were very few who ever took more than 2 or 3 dribbles to create a shot. It was either cut without the ball or shoot the open jumper. And if you so much as breathed on them it was a foul. They also pass the ball at every available opportunity to the open guy or cutter, no exceptions.

I eventually ended up on a semi-pro team though and they were much more physical, mostly because fouls didn't get called very often, so every time I drove to the basket I'd have to get hit atleast three times before a foul was called.

Blogger zyth said...
wow,did Evil Ted sweat through his shorts ?
and yeah, quite a lot of European gyms are like that. look like hell but it's all we've got.

Anonymous UpA said...
Matt, were you taking the picture? I don't see the big glasses, Celtics shorts and Larry Legend T-shirt. You wont fool me, you are not in that pic!

Anonymous Heretic said...
I played in Greece a couple of summers ago, pretty much the same thing. I did enjoy getting the ball when I was open instead of yelling at an over dribbling PG. Its a bit surreal. The worst part is going back to the US and playing in the mosh pit known as the paint.

Anonymous JJ said...
Wow, I honestly cannot imagine basketball without contact, especially in the paint. I guess that's great as long as you're taller and/or jump higher than everyone else.

How they keep score is really interesting. You said that they said it's for easier score tracking. But, to me that's a turn-off because it reminds me of people who want to play with 1's and 2's for "easier" scoring. Come on, scoring in 2's and 3's is not exactly rocket science. Also, having 1's and 2's just makes everyone want to shoot the 2's (and who can blame them when it's worth twice any other shot).

Anyway, I'm really curious what they use as a stopping point in a game (ex. first to 15 points wins). If there is a next team waiting, how do they know when they can get in?

Anonymous Nick said...
Looks like this is the european style of play!
It's the same at my pickup league. Would really love to play against you guys to see what it's like!

Blogger Unknown said...
Did you speak to them in Italian, like so:

It's weird playing those non-physical games, because it feels like any contact might set someone off. So you start avoiding all contact, even in situations where you would normally try to absorb it (like a layup). Only time it happens in the states is when you play high school Freshmen or Sophomores.

Anonymous CBear said...
Sounds like a great experience. I went to Taiwan & China this past summer and was trying to find pick up games. Unfortunately it was raining in Taiwan during the 4 days I was there and in China, I was on a tour and we hardly ever had free time to wander. I have a feeling it's much less physical too...

Anonymous Mladen said...
Cool post. I love that you guys have as much enthusiasm as me (and, apparently, the other readers) to look for basketball where ever you go. Just don't be getting any ideas - not all of Europe plays basketball like that. In Serbia, you would have gotten plenty of physical contact, and, honestly, there would always be a rather large guy in the paint swatting you off like a mosquito. Also, I know I'm going to sound like a douchebag, but I think that the level of talent at our courts is insane. For example, where I usually shoot hoops, we have 2 courts, and each basket is used for 3 on 3 games. The baskets are actually "ranked": A, B, C and D, and it's reeeally difficult to get to play on the A basket. Even if you "sign up" a team, you'll probably get your ass handed to you, and will then have to wait approximately an hour or two to get back on the court, depending on the number of other teams. And then, you'll get your ass kicked again.
Also, I played some streetball in Germany, when I was there last summer, and the cool thing was, that I got the chance to play against people from all over the world, because I was at an international language school. First off, I have to say that the local German guys played pretty well - they were all decent shooters (some of them deadly), and there were some mixed-race dudes who were lightning fast. Of my international buddies, the best players were a Jordanian guy, and a tall black dude from Panama. That was it. There were plenty of others, especially a lot of Africans, but, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was playing on another level. These guys didn't understand how to defend the pick and roll, nor the need to pass out of a double-team. Some of them had tremendous physical attributes (one African guy jumped over a girl who was talking to us, just for fun), but they failed to utilize them. If you felt like Russel, I felt like Jordan, when I was playing them. I was driving like crazy, getting layups, and even hitting some tough fade-aways. Although, I must note that their defense was actually nice. They played physically, but without any cheap shots or aggression. I had two other Serbs come along sometimes, and we'd wipe the court with our schoolmates. That's, of course, when the German guys would see us as a challenge, and come over to our basket, usually getting the better of us.

Anonymous Mladen said...
Also, I just watched those other Italy videos, and I realized that Bawful looks astonishingly Chevy Chase-like.

Blogger Wild Yams said...
What? No video of Evil Ted singing about how Matt Barnes will ruin the Lakers? And you call this a Basketbawful Italian trip? I am dissapoint.

Blogger Dan B. said...
Solid piece. I love the ridiculously huge grin Bawful has in that picture. Being a combination of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell for even an hour would put a big ass smile on anybody's face.

Yams -- When Bawful told me he was in Italy, I warned him that I didn't want him and ET stat-cursing us into another Lakers title. Sorry, buddy. ;)

In unrelated news, a new NBA rules change will require coaches to wear collared shirts this year, and Stan Van Gundy wants the rule named after him.

Anonymous eric said...
Matt, would you ever consider putting a youtube of you actually playing up?

There are tons of people who write and talk about basketball very extensively as though they can play, and reading your blog I know you have a very long history with the game.

But you probably know just as well as I do that sometimes people talk all day about the game but you see them take one jumper or layup and you know they aren't for real.

It can be like 30seconds of some jumpers and drives to the hoop. You can tell by someone's body language in seconds if they're "real" or not. Honestly as a long time reader of your blog I've always wondered if you're actually the experienced and knowledgeable baller you sound like, or something closer to this

Anonymous calvin said... is true that it's not easty AT ALL to find a court to play "overseas". Here in Argentina, you also have to find a club and reserve a court which you usualily have to pay for. Frustrating.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Eric - You know what's funny? In some ways Matt would NOT look like he knows what he's doing. He's a true McHale - his body is just....wrong. It looks as though it was assembled by Dr. Frankenstein (that's Franken*steen*). He can scratch his knees without bending over, and his hands. Oh, the humanity! His hands are mangled twisted horrors that shouldn't be even able to hold a ball, much less shoot it. He's really stiff, and dribbles like Pinocchio.

Yet it all freaking works. Really well. He doesn't acknowledge it much, but it's part of the reason people hate him on the court. He just doesn't look like he should beat you.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
As a bawful reader *and* italian baller I must admit:
1) that if an italian baller goes to Serbia or any ex-Jugoslavian republic he would be killed phisically period. Italians are for the most part short people and they have nothing in common with dinaric people (we have our qualities, you know, but not useful to get a Darko out of the paint);
2) Northern Italian people are in average taller than southern people and there are more players here so the level is very higher than central and southern italy;
The Italian league champions are Siena (near to pisa) but that team has 3 italian players born in nothern italy, of course, so to compete at higher and international level italian teams has to fill the roster with foreign players while Partizan Belgrade has 90% Serbian players;
3) An Italian pickup baller played in the 90% in some team and having played with european referees has an influence on the fouls per minute rate.


Anonymous Mladen said...

I didn't know there was that much of a difference between Italian people from the north and the south. A Italian kid actually showed up at our court in Serbia one day (I'm guessing he was from the north). He was only 16, I think, but he was reasonably tall (I'd say around 190cm), and had a sweet jump shot. Also, he hustled for rebounds like a lunatic, and I was really glad he was on my team. (Although, I was afraid he would get hurt, because some guys just play dirty.) That being said, he still avoided fouling or any stronger kind of contact.

Anonymous Marco said...

1) North and South: Andrea Bargnani and Gianfranco Zola are both italians and try to think of how many different italians there are in between! Once Scot Pollard in visit to Divac hometown said serbian grandmothers are 7 footers too... so I guess Serbians are less various...
2) I bet the italian guy played in some club from day one as I did for Olimpia Milano: my coach told us not to play pickup ball so we didn't get hurt for nothing so we were in a way more "educated". A 16 year old of 1.90 in Italy has 100% chances of play in a junior team while I'm sure there are a lot of 1.90 serbian or american players that do not make a team so develop "pickup baller" habits...
3) Serbia and Italy: I remember a Italy-Jugoslavia match in the 70s when a riot happened between Meneghin and Dalipagic: all italian players ran on the field to fight while Kicanovic ran to the Jugoslavia team doctor bag to take scissors, THEN got to the court...


Anonymous Mladen said...

Ha ha - nice example with Bargnani and Zola! Joking aside, although we Serbs are generally rather tall, when it comes to pick-up ball, you'll see some short guys, too. In fact, because a lack of height is a handicap when playing ball 'round these parts, the tiny guys usually develop a wicked shot, and are immensely fast. And yeah, you got it right - here, it's quite normal for a big, talented baller not to have any kind of career, except streetball. The competition is just too tough, and only the best, or in many cases, luckiest, go trough to the big leagues.
By the way, I never actually saw that game, but I heard stories about it, and I think even Kicanovic himself said that he deliberately provoked Meneghin, so he would get him out of rhytm. I guess when he saw that Meneghin was really pissed, and was going after him, he was scared shitless. I have to point out that I'm still amazed at how great Dino was, especially 'cause he played the center position, at only 206cm!

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Tim must be the guy in the middle, right? The one with the smoldering, unsmiling expression, who, had he turned and seen your huge ass grin, would have punched your lights out.

The guy on the far left, top row, knows his synthetic materials. There are no sweat stains on him at all. The rest of you guys look like a pouring mess.

Anonymous Marco said...

I was in junior Olimpia Milano team when Dino Meneghin played there so I met him often and he was STRONG and SMART I don't know what more. He played in Serie A until 44 so you know how strong he was and then he become rich on home trading so you know how smart he is. Consider that he was 2.04 but these times there were less tall players.
If you feel like watching old time euro and NBA basketball (young Sabonis or 70s Jugoslavjia National team or boston (bawful alert!) or mc donalds open) take a look at is a wonderful site for vintage ball: I had finally the chance to see players I just read about because then basektball coverage in italy was zero, as a matter of fact I saw Split vs. Beograd on TV Koper more often than Milano vs Varese on italian tv!

Blogger Joe said...
This story reminds me of the time when I was in China. I was visiting a college around Beijing and stumbled onto the courts, with a couple of buddies - one guy from Baltimore and the other from...I think it was the Congo. Straight up African (I'm a skinny white guy). We must've seemed like gods when we played a group of three students -- their game consisted of driving and doing some fancy footwork (read: travelling) in the paint. I was the only guy with any form of an outside J, so we won pretty handily. Still, I bet you share the same feeling with me, it was great to just play basketball overseas despite any language/cultural barrier.

I only got to play basketball in Italy once, but it was with a bunch of kids younger than me (I'm 21, they were like, 17 I guess) so it wasn't quite as interesting as your game. Like zero fundamentals.

Anonymous eric said...
Baddave- I can actually accept that answer because I have encountered guys like that. People who look like they shouldn't be able to do anything but somehow manage to exert major influence over the game. That solves one of my larger questions in life!

Anonymous Mladen said...

Lucky you! I would have given anything in the world to get a chance to meet some of those "golden" old basketball stars. I did get a chance to hang out a little with the '04 Yugoslavian Olympic basketball team, while they were working out at a training camp in the mountains (I was there for a basketball camp).
I first read about Dino's life in a Croatian basketball magazine, and I found his story really interesting. It's a shame players like him don't exist anymore. I loved seeing him at the WBC this year, when he was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame, with other greats.
Oh, and thanks for the link! From what you've written, I'm pretty sure I'm younger than you, so I do need to brush up on my "history". =)

Yep, playing basketball outside of your "natural surroundings" is always a nice challenge, and somewhat of an adventure. I kind of envy you, since it's been my dream for a while to dominate some Asian ballers (so I could, for once in my life, feel like a big man).
By the way, were you studying in China, or was it just a tourist visit? I'm looking up options to go get my Master's there, so I'm looking for info.