Waiting on Magic

Pistons, Delfino anticipate breakout season

Carlos Delfino.
Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty)
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. Maradona or Madonna. If you were a kid growing up in Argentina in the ’90s, chances are your idol was one or the other.

Soccer great Diego Maradona, whose “hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup remains one of soccer’s most enduring images, was one of the world’s most famous and wealthiest athletes of his generation. Madonna had the role of her life in “Evita” as Eva Perron, wife of the former Argentinian dictator, Juan Perron.

But Magic Johnson?

“Magic Johnson. Magic all the way,” Carlos Delfino grins. “I liked that he was all the time playing, smiling, enjoying the game.

“Larry Bird was only shooting and I didn’t like that at all. I didn’t like Michael because he was, every time, concentration, so mad. Magic was playing, all around. That, for me, he was the best. When we start to see NBA all the time, he was my idol. Three in the morning, 4 in the morning, wake up to see Magic.”

Tony Ronzone was awakened at 3 or 4 in the morning, also, one day in the spring of 2003. By a phone call. From his boss, Joe Dumars.

“I called Tony,” Dumars recalls today after viewing a single videotape provided him by Ronzone, “and I don’t know if I woke him up or not, but I said, ‘Tony, I just saw the guy we’re going to draft. Get me more tape.’ ”

That guy was Carlos Delfino V, at the time a 20-year-old just completing his first season with Skipper Bologna in the Italian A-1 League.

The Pistons had two choices in that June’s first round – the first, a lottery pick owed them by the Memphis Grizzlies, would be spent on Darko Milicic – and Dumars fully intended to spend the latter, the 25th pick, on Delfino based on the tape handed to him by Ronzone, director of basketball operations for the Pistons and one of the most respected evaluators of international talent in NBA circles.

“I saw his feel for the game,” Dumars said. “I saw big-time talent, the ability to drive and make plays. I saw a guy that didn’t appear to have any fear. He just had this moxie about him on the court.”

After watching a few more Ronzone-provided tapes over the next few weeks, while the Pistons were amid a playoff run that would end in the Eastern Conference finals at New Jersey, Dumars summoned Delfino to Auburn Hills for a predraft workout.

“We really liked what we saw here in person,” Dumars said. “I said, ‘He’s the guy.’ ” Ronzone had a similar reaction when he’d first seen Delfino a few years before that when, as an 18-year-old, he first landed in Italy to play for Reggio Calabria, a team that had experienced some success with another Argentinian swing man a few years earlier, Manu Ginobili.

“I said, ‘Man, this kid’s got some skill. He’s talented,’ ” Ronzone recalls of his initial impression of the 6-foot-6 Delfino. “He was a strong kid. Then he went to Bologna and played with the top teams in Europe. I just fell in love with him. He rebounded in traffic, he’d take the ball and push it. He was like a point forward, but he actually played a lot of point guard over there.”

He hasn’t played a lot of anything in two years with the Pistons – a source of frustration for Delfino and consternation for the Argentinian press – but everyone from Dumars to Pistons coach Flip Saunders to Delfino himself expects that to change this year.

“I hope,” Delfino said. “I hope. That’s what I ask for. I want to play, just play. I’m trying to work hard and to help the team from the court.”

Delfino got what everyone hopes is his breakthrough season off on the right foot Tuesday night in the Pistons’ preseason-opening win over defending NBA champion Miami, scoring 15 points to go with six rebounds, three assists and two steals.

“Carlos played within himself,” Saunders said. “He didn’t try to do too many things. Defensively, he was pretty active, just played a good, solid game. I just liked his overall demeanor.”

Those periodic press reports that leak out of Argentina claiming Delfino’s deep dissatisfaction with his situation in Detroit at first gave Dumars pause, but now he just shrugs them off.

“Initially, I looked at it, I got on the phone right away with his agent, asked what’s going on. After a couple of years, I keep hearing the same thing – a lot is lost in translation. Carlos always comes back, just as he has this year, in great shape, laughing, smiling, happy. The stuff I read in the foreign papers, I take it with a grain of salt.”

“I don’t have any problem with the organization,” said Delfino, as affable as he is eager to play. “The people in the organization, the guys in the locker room, I’m happy here. But I am a basketball player and I want to play. If I don’t play here, I want to play someplace else.

“Sometimes the Argentine press – now they know who we are – they follow us, they ask many things, they try to fix the problems. Sometimes they write different things than what I say. I only want to play. When I come here, I come to play.”

Delfino oozes passion for basketball. Dumars and his staff fully understand Delfino’s frustration and, in fact, would be disappointed if he weren’t a little restless.

“If Carlos ever comes back and tells me he’s unhappy and doesn’t want to be here,” Dumars said, “then I’ll make a move. But he always comes back in a great mood. When I read (reports of Delfino’s unrest), I’m never upset about that. I understand that. I’d want to play, too, especially if I thought I deserved to play.”

“One thing about Carlos, he just wants to play,” Ronzone said. “He loves basketball. Money is not an issue to him. All he cares about is being on the court.”

Delfino flashed the potential that tantalized Dumars and Ronzone very early in his Pistons career under Larry Brown, though it was a season marred by two separate stints on the injured list with knee problems that limited him to 30 games. There was one night in Denver where he caught everyone’s eye, going behind his back from the deep wing on one memorable move before exploding to the rim and dunking over the defense.

“Those are the kinds of moves I’ve seen all the time from him,” Ronzone said as a training camp practice played out. “He just came down and did a reverse, two-handed dunk. He’d take off from the key and dunk on people. I saw him do that in Italy all the time. We have not seen that yet except in flashes. But he’s got the stuff. I’m a true believer. Everybody in our organization is excited about him. This is the year for him to get out on the floor and show what he’s made of.”

As camp wound down last week, Delfino dominated one scrimmage, unleashing his full palette of skills – rebounding, slashing to the rim, leading the fast break, pulling up for jump shots, flicking balls away on defense.

Saunders and Dumars both mentioned 20 minutes a night as the initial target for Delfino. Dumars said a big part of the reason the Pistons dealt Maurice Evans to the Lakers for a second-round pick used on 7-foot-1 Senegalese project Cheik Samb was to clear the logjam behind Tayshaun Prince.

“Last year was hit and miss with minutes with Carlos and Maurice Evans,” Dumars said. “We didn’t get the best out of either of them. They kind of negated each other. We made the decision that, look, we have faith in this guy. We’ve watched him for three years now. He’s a kid who can play and we’re going to give him the opportunity this year. He has the ability to make plays.”

It would be a stretch to compare Carlos Delfino to Magic Johnson, but not an outrageous one. If Delfino emerges as the Pistons envision, he will become a player who sticks a little of something in every line on the stat sheet.

“Delfino puts it down and looks to pass first, almost to a fault,” said John Hammond, Pistons vice president. “And that’s fine. We’re happy with that.”

And like Magic Johnson, who early in his career owned a very erratic perimeter shot, Delfino needs only to improve his jumper to round out his game.

“That’s the one thing he has to continue to improve on,” Dumars said. “Just be more consistent knocking that shot down. All the other parts to his game are there. Defense, rebounding, passing, pushing the ball up the court – love what he does there. The 18-foot jump shot, he has to get more consistent. Instead of 2 for 5, go 3 for 5.”

If consistency is the product of comfort, the fact that Carlos Delfino is becoming gradually more accustomed to the United States bodes well. Argentina has close ties to Italy, among several European countries, so leaving home to play there wasn’t nearly as disorienting for him as it was to come to this country.

“I couldn’t say ‘hello’ when I come here,” he said. “Italian is the second language in (Argentina’s) schools. English, you only know how to say, ‘The umbrella is yellow’ or something like that, so when you come here and somebody talks to you, it’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I remember the first day I come here, Ben Wallace in the locker room, and I don’t know to say nothing, can’t understand him, too. I feel bad.”

There were also radical changes in climate, culture and everyday nuances.

“We are like a colony of Italy, so the only change was language when I go there,” he said. “Cultures are similar. There were small things, then after a while everything was the same. After four years in Italy, I was almost an Italian guy. I almost think in Italian. To come here and change everything again was a little bit tough on me. It’s colder, different hours to go eat, different language again, many things were totally different.”

Delfino splits his time among the three countries now, returning to Italy for about a month in the summer with his Italian girlfriend and spending about two months in Argentina, where he still has his parents, grandparents, two sisters and a brother in addition to his 5-year-old daughter, Milagros, who lives with her mother.

He grew up in Santa Fe, a city of about a half-million people in the middle of the country, as one of the few kids who didn’t naturally gravitate to soccer. His father played basketball professionally in Argentina and today coaches there, but it was his grandfather, Carlos III, who was his first mentor.

“I was 5, 6, my grandfather want to teach me basketball. My father say, ‘No, he’s too young.’ My father start when he was like 12. I start with my grandfather, how to shoot the basketball, how to play the game.”

Carlos’ father took the family around the country as he changed teams every year or so, so young Carlos estimates that he played with 10 or 12 youth teams by the time he was 15, finally getting the chance to play under his father when he retired from playing when Carlos turned 16.

“For me, he’s still the best coach. He knows what I did, what I don’t know.”

Delfino comes into this NBA season fresh off a successful summer playing for the Argentine national team that finished fourth, losing 75-74 to eventual winner Spain, in the FIBA World Championships semifinals. Delfino averaged 9 points and 5 rebounds a game while shooting 53 percent and playing 20 minutes off the bench, primarily as backup to Ginobili.

“I play a lot, my confidence is better,” Delfino said. “It’s like somebody pushing you again. You’re on the court and doing some things. It was great. I needed the minutes to play. I miss that part of the game, being on the court a lot, having the pressure. For me, I say it was like an oasis.”

The kid who grew up a world away idolizing Magic Johnson – and he’s still waiting to meet him – has spent two long winters in the Detroit desert. This time around, after the replenishment provided by his success at the World Championships and the opportunity the Pistons are promising, he’s anticipating a season that might have the next generation of Argentinian kids waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning to see Carlos Delfino V.