Mad About Marco
David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images
Most of Italy was asleep when it happened. Even the nation’s voice of the NBA seemed to have dozed for a moment around 4 a.m.
Somewhere between the first gleam of dawn and the last trace of moon, the bleary-eyed became wide-eyed, and a soccer-mad nation erupted over a basketball first. Italy had a three-point champion at the NBA All-Star Weekend.
Marco Belinelli does not recall when his phone blew up with congratulatory texts and tweets. He only knows that more than six weeks later, waves of euphoria continue to reach him from the motherland.
“Everybody was crazy and they’re still crazy,” Belinelli says. “I’m the first Italian guy to win something in the states.”
No one may be more elated than residents of San Giovanni in Persiceto, Belinelli’s hometown. Weeks after their favorite son became the first Spur to win the three-point shootout, the town folk made the winning bid for a pair of Nike Hyperdunks, the flash-lime and purple sneakers Belinelli wore at the contest.
They spent 8,500 euros -- the equivalent of $11,688 -- to secure pieces of history and benefit a children’s charity. “The price was high and made me unbelievably happy,” Belinelli says. “Not for me but for the children. It’s great to give money to people that really need it. I’m proud of my hometown, for the people who did that.”
The feel-good vibe of Belinelli’s breakthrough lingers in a slice of Spurs Nation that watches from afar. Italy loves the silver and black. The devotion began before Belinelli arrived, before he reached the NBA. So when he defeated Bradley Beal to win the shootout, it was doubly special: Italy’s own had won representing a team the country adores.
“The people in Italy hold the Spurs in such high esteem,” says Flavio Tranquillo, the voice of the NBA for Sky Sport Italy. “I suspect it’s a by-product of those four titles and of Manu being there. I can tell you that when a game is on National TV, Pop’s interviews draw a lot of attention. There are lots of fans and even more admirers who believe the Spurs play and win the right way.”
Belinelli has been an exquisite fit. He plays with the guard he grew up idolizing, Manu Ginobili. He plays for a team that encourages him to shoot from long distance. In seven NBA seasons, he’s never shot better. There’s a reason he wears No. 3. Belinelli is shooting 45.2 percent from three-point range. In his last two games, he’s been impossible to stop, sinking 10 of 14 attempts from behind the arc.
His appearance in All-Star Saturday generated excitement across Italy. Tranquillo says Belinelli tripled his normal viewing audience. But still, in that dead-of-night spot between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., most of the nation slept. The sweet, wonderful irony is this: Tranquillo remembers the contest for the call he blew.
“When Marco finished his first shooting session, he made the last shot,” Tranquillo says. “The graphics, though, was slow to react, and I misunderstood, thus declaring Marco’s elimination. I have never been happier to be wrong in my career.”
Belinelli hit his last three shots to advance to the final against Washington’s Bradley Beal. Belinelli took the lead, Beal rallied and the competition went to a tiebreaker. Then Belinelli pulled away, sinking eight of his last 10 shots. “I erupted in a ‘e’ caldo come una stufa!’ call,” Tranquillo says. “Translated it means, ‘He is hot as a stove.’ It immediately caught up on Twitter and #caldocomeunastufa became a trending topic over here.”
The shootout ended long after Italian newspapers went to press. In the morning, TV stations replayed Belinelli’s victory to a waking audience while reporters scrambled for an interview.
“When I woke up on Sunday, I spent two to three hours on the phone with all the journalists from Italy,” Belinelli says. “It was just amazing.”
Social media erupted. “My phone was really crazy,” he says. “A lot of text messages, a lot of everything. Twitter. Instagram. People putting up pictures of me with the word, ‘Congratulations.’ It was unbelievable.”
Tranquillo has been calling NBA games in Italy for three decades. Belinelli grew up listening to his voice. He imagined Tranquillo calling his name. In the dead of night, Tranquillo screamed it and headlines followed. The most common, according to Tranquillo: “Marco Belinelli is the king of the three point shot.”
Larry Bird, the inaugural three-point winner, inspired little boys across the U.S. and beyond. Belinelli was one of them. Now it’s his turn to inspire.
“Every Italian kid lived his dream through Marco,” Tranquillo says. “The victory is going to be remembered forever.”