Knicks’ Gallinari Revisiting Basketball Roots
By HOWARD BECK
Published: September 29, 2010
GRAFFIGNANA, Italy — The road has faded from four lanes to two, from two to one and finally, from pavement to gravel and dust. It winds past chipped brick edifices, weathered barns and cornfields until it ends, finally, at an iron gate. Beyond the gate is a basketball court, the first ever seen in this tiny pastoral village.
Danilo Gallinari, 22, is a rising star for the Knicks and a minor celebrity in Italy.
The rim looks a little higher than 10 feet. The court has no lines, only a green zigzag of moss squeezed between interlocking gray and red bricks. An errant shot might end up in the tall wild grass behind the metal stanchion.
This was Danilo Gallinari’s court, and his place of solitude, where he could practice Michael Jordan’s moves and act out sequences he had memorized from the countless N.B.A. videos that lined his shelves.
“Just the basket, me and the ball,” Gallinari said recently.
This is where a spindly Italian boy — born into a farming family, the son of a modestly skilled professional player — fed his obsession and began crafting the jump shot that is now one of the smoothest in the N.B.A.
Gallinari was 5 years old when his father, Vittorio, installed the basket on the brick driveway outside their home. At the time, it was the only basket within 20 miles. Gallinari found his rhythm with a two-handed push-up shot. At age 6, he won a street-fair shooting contest, beating a bunch of men in their 20s and 30s.
At 11, he was making 55 percent of his 3-point shots.
At 14, he went away to live at a basketball academy in Casalpusterlengo, 17 miles from home.
At 16, he was so easily beating his father in one-on-one games that Vittorio retired for good.
At 18, he was starring for Armani Jeans Milano, his father’s old team.
Now Gallinari is 22, a rising star for the Knicks and a minor celebrity in his country. His career will come full circle on Sunday, when the Knicks play an exhibition game against Milano at the Mediolanum Forum. The game sold out last spring in a matter of hours. Gallinari heard there were 85,000 ticket requests for an arena that seats 12,000.
“I hope I don’t get too emotional,” Gallinari said in a recent interview at Eataly, a sprawling new Italian market in New York’s Flatiron District.
As he strolled through the aisles of pasta and olive oil, Gallinari stopped occasionally to shake hands with well-wishing Knick fans. He is actually recognized more often on the streets of Manhattan than in Milan, where soccer is a religion and basketball is a minor sport. Among basketball icons here, Gallinari would rank well behind his coach, Mike D’Antoni, who starred for Milano in the 1970s and ’80s, leading the club to numerous championships.
“Mike is an idol there,” Gallinari said. “He won everything.”
The perspective is different in Graffignana, a close-knit farming town of 2,000 people, about 40 kilometers southeast of Milan. The Gallinari family has lived here for generations, growing corn and wheat, and raising pigs, cows and chickens. Gallinari’s father worked on the farm before turning pro. There were still roosters roaming the homestead when Danilo was a boy, which makes his nickname, Gallo (Italian for rooster), seem all the more appropriate. Vittorio and Marilisa, his mother, still spend their summers here, with their younger son, 13-year-old Federico.
On the night in June 2008 when Danilo was drafted, nearly the entire village gathered in front of a video screen suspended in the downtown area to watch the proceedings. It was nearly 3 a.m. here when Commissioner David Stern called Gallinari’s name, as the sixth overall pick.
The Knicks drafted Gallinari, 19 at the time, for his height and athleticism and his splendid jump shot. He was Milano’s go-to scorer in fourth quarters, despite being the youngest player on a team stacked with American expatriates. He played with an edge and an air of pure confidence.
“He is mentally tough,” said Flavio Tranquillo, Italy’s top basketball broadcaster and a longtime family friend. “All of his toughness comes from his father.”
Vittorio Gallinari was known as an enforcer during his days as D’Antoni’s teammate with Olimpia Milano, as the team was previously known. He was not, however, much of a scorer.
“Probably the worst shooter ever to play the game,” Tranquillo said, only half-joking.
It quickly became evident that Danilo’s DNA was of a unique strain. During halftime of his father’s games, Gallinari would sometimes wander down to the court to shoot jumpers. The more he made, the more fans buzzed and pointed. It was too much attention for a bashful 6-year-old.
“He became shy and then he cried, ‘Mama, I want to go,’ ” Vittorio, chuckling softly, recalled in an interview at his home. “At the end of the game, they’d just stay to see him shoot. They said, ‘If his father could score like him, we’d win much more games.’ ”
When he wasn’t watching hours of N.B.A. tapes, Gallinari was on the brick court, spending hours on his shot, even at night.
“Sometimes I was making my dad mad because I was doing some bad stuff, like kid’s stuff,” Gallinari said. “And he just put the ball in my hands: ‘Go out and shoot.’ ”
Gallinari got over his stage fright. Although he remained quiet off the court, he became a swaggering, scoring, do-everything point guard. He pined to play with older players and did so whenever he could.
“For his age, he was too good,” Pino Cagnani, his coach from age 6 through 10, said through an interpreter. “Watching his teammates and watching him, no contest.”
Like many peers in the United States, Gallinari developed bad habits, trusting only himself with the ball. Once, when Gallinari was 7, Cagnani benched him for shooting too much. Frustrated, Gallinari asked him, “Why are they not able to do what I am able to do?”
As his understanding of the game grew, Gallinari became an all-around threat — a shooter, slasher and passer — and a consummate team player. At age 14, he joined his first professional team, Assigeco Basket, which operated out of the Casalpusterlengo academy. He scored when he had to but rarely forced the issue.
In the gym, Gallinari was all business and constantly looking for ways to make each drill more challenging. At 16, his teammates called him “Three for Three” because he ended every practice by making nine straight free throws — three left-handed, three right-handed and three off the glass.
The coaches devised a 3-point exercise just for Gallinari, sending him to nine positions along the arc, with a requirement to make two straight shots at each spot. If he missed, he had to start over at the first station.
The results are clear today. Gallinari, now 6 feet 10 inches (and possibly still growing, according to team doctors), has become one of the N.B.A.’s top outside shooters. His 186 3-pointers last season ranked second in the league and were the second most in Knicks history.
So where did that sweet shooting stroke come from? “Just practice and talent,” said Giangaetano Polenghi, Gallinari’s coach from age 13 to 16. “No one taught him.”
Alessandro Mamoli, a broadcaster for Skysport and a former pro player, said Gallinari “has the potential to be one of the top five European players ever to play in the N.B.A.”
After being slowed by a back injury as a rookie, Gallinari is gradually regaining his old form. The rebuilt Knicks will need every bit of his talent as they try to re-establish credibility this season.
Back home in Northern Italy, the adoration and pride are unconditional.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Franco Curioni, the president of the Assigeco team. “Danilo is our hope.”
This is a nice read. Gallo is just a real well-rounded kid. He will continue to show more of his game as he gets more comfortable. I agree w the assessment from the Euro broadcaster. Gallo has the skills, when healthy, to be one of the best, if not the best European player to ever play in the NBA. I think it goes without saying that we need his growing skills and leadership on the Knicks.