This was from the Toronto Star
Sprawled across an oversize couch in a rumpus room tucked behind the Raptors
’ ACC training facility, Andrea Bargnani
is doing something weird.
On the court, in front of cameras and anywhere there’s a crowd, Bargnani wears an expressionless mask that his critics have spent six years trying to interpret.
The least charitable have decided he isn’t grinning or grimacing or generally clowning because he doesn’t care.
And he doesn’t care, but not in the way they mean.
When you get him in a room alone, he is an entirely different person. He is solicitous and engaging. He is more articulate in his second language because he can focus on a single conversation, rather than several scattershot ones. For someone who’s been kicked so often, he is amazingly open.
This version of Bargnani — the real one — is a lot of fun, which you’ll agree is a word not usually associated with the cornerstone of the Raptors franchise.
He knows what people say about the way he carries himself in public. There is an explanation, which is presented without the slightest hint of an excuse.
"I grew up with a really tough European coach (current Lakers
assistant Ettore Messina)," Bargnani says.
Messina still figures largely in his imagination. The Italian had him at Benetton Treviso for three crucial years between the ages of 18 and 20. No mentor has had a greater impact. While his game has changed since, Bargnani’s demeanour was cemented as a teenager.
"All the stuff you can do here in college, the celebrating, that’s not allowed. If you do something like this" — and here he mimes the familiar gesture of pounding a fist to the chest — "you’re done. That’s really, really bad. So I got used to not doing it. I was very close to crying more than one time when I was young with that coach."
Now he prefers hardcourt imperturbability, while still allowing himself the odd outburst.
"I do what I feel, not because people ask me to do this," Bargnani says, holding his hands over his head and doing a strange chicken dance.
Do not ask Andrea Bargnani to dance. He doesn’t like that.
This is the treacherous shore to Bargnani that a series of NBA coaches have run up against and foundered — he will not do what you ask him to just because you asked. He wants to be included in the discussion.
Before Bargnani was drafted first overall, he took one of the personality tests that is administered to most hopefuls in order to reassure would-be employers they are not flakes or kooks. Shortly after that draft, GM Bryan Colangelo raved about Bargnani’s performance.
"(The testers) said, ‘Out of all the athletes we’ve profiled, we’ve never seen anything like this,’ " Colangelo told ESPN. One of the things the profile showed was that Bargnani does not care what other people think of him.
Here is a case in point: Bargnani is the only man in the Italian diaspora who tells people he can’t stand watching soccer.
"Zero. No interest. It’s soooo boring."
He finally succumbed to repeated invitations to go to a game featuring his hometown club, AS Roma, only three years ago. His highlight, the only one apparently, was sharing VIP seats with the country’s randy ruler, Silvio Berlusconi.
"It was good for public relations," he shrugs, "but boring."
My God, do Italians know you feel this way?
"Oh yeah, everybody knows."
And they don’t want to string you up on a lamp post?
"No," he says, confused at the suggestion that this might bother him. "I just don’t like it."
This curious immunity to peer pressure has been a double-edged sword during his career, with the sharpest end often held out defensively.
"Criticism has two sides," Bargnani says. "Most of the time it just comes here" — and he points to his right ear — "and goes out here" — the left ear.
"It doesn’t change a minute of my life. But if it comes from one of the few people I care about, the people you can count on one hand, it really changes me."
If you’re trying to figure out why Bargnani has suddenly vaulted into the elite ranks during his sixth season, this might be part of it: He now has a head coach he can count on one hand.
When Dwane Casey
got the Raptors job, one of his first acts was to phone Bargnani in Italy and hand him the on-court keys to the franchise.
Once Bargnani arrived in camp, Casey began taking him aside for one-on-one chats.
"A straight relationship, where you feel free to talk, is a very simple thing. A lot of people think it’s a normal thing, but in this business it’s not very common," Bargnani says.
"Not just the coach, everybody. Having people say what they think to your face, not behind the shoulder," Bargnani says. "He said to all of us at the beginning, ‘I’m going to say what I think, whether you like it or not.’ I think that’s very good."
These are not handholding sessions designed to work on self-esteem. Whatever people have suggested, Bargnani is supremely confident in his ability. They are technical lessons being delivered by a man who revels in the details. Bargnani speaks proudly of having his strategic advice solicited by Casey during games.
"Of course, he always takes the final decision. But he asks me," Bargnani says.
This is what Dwane Casey has figured out — that Bargnani wants to be coached collaboratively, not cajoled or disciplined or talked at.
Your opinion of him doesn’t matter — not to him, and not to you if your goal is to coax the best out of him. What matters is Bargnani’s opinion of you.
"Everybody’s good when things are going right," Bargnani says. "In rough times, when you lose seven games in a row, that’s when you see what people are made of. (Casey) doesn’t change his idea. I say that in a very good way."
There are other factors, of course.
Bargnani is a hard worker. We spoke on a rare team rest day this week. Though he’s sidelined with a calf injury, Bargnani came in to lift weights.
Big men take a while, and in this case maybe "a while" was five years.
His English has improved, and along with it his comfort and sense of belonging. During his first few seasons, there was always at least one other Italian speaker in the dressing room — Jorge Garbajosa
, Rasho Nesterovic
, et al. Now when he speaks, he must speak basketball’s lingua franca.
There is also a change in his personal life.
His first roommate in Toronto was his mother, Luisella Balducci. She arrived a month before her then-20-year-old son in order to scout the city. By the time he’d arrived, mom had everything sorted.
Later, his brother Enrico moved in. The younger Bargnani, a U of T business student, is spending the year studying in Tokyo.
Bargnani now lives with Nabila Chihab, a 27-year-old Moroccan-Italian he began dating last summer. She’s a professional volleyball player who stands 6 ½-feet tall in heels. Seeing the pair of them together is like surveying the results of a very successful genetic experiment.
He is settled in the city and does not view it as temporary lodging, but as his home. He’s not much for nights out on the town, but when he does go out he has a network of Italian restaurant owners and friends who shield him from gawkers.
His five-year, $50 million (U.S.) contract extends until 2015. Whatever it looked like at the end of last year, the deal now appears a ridiculous bargain for a versatile 20-odd point a night 7-footer who extends the floor for his teammates and can take over games.
Since this is Toronto, every silver lining has its cloud. It’s a matter of time before fans begin to fret that Bargnani will become the latest all-star who wants to venture south once he’s proven himself.
When I try to pin him down on this point, Bargnani does not use weasel words or get surly. He points out the flaw in the question.
"I don’t think it’s fair to ask me if I want to leave one day, because I think I’ve demonstrated the opposite," he says. "I think it’s pretty clear that I’d like to stay in Toronto."
Slowly, he extends a finger the length of a pencil. Then he begins to wag it playfully.
It’s no war whoop, but Bargnani is not the sort to celebrate when he knows he’s won the point.