Model of a Comeback
When I was a baby, if I cried, my parents didn’t give me a blanket. They gave me a ball and sent me to the little court in our backyard. I must have cried a lot because I was one of those kids who could dribble and shoot at 5 years old. I grew up in a village of 2,000 people, 45 minutes outside of Milan. My father, Vittorio, was a big-time player in Italy, but we never talked about basketball. He never came to my games. He said he didn’t want to step on my coaches’ toes.
Since I was very young, I had a lot of pressure on me: people talking about me, people writing about me. My parents told me not to read the newspaper. I signed with a club when I was 12. I started living by myself at 14. I turned pro at 16. I grew up playing nothing but point guard, and suddenly, I was a 16-year-old small forward matched up against 35-year-old men. That’s when my dad started watching me play. Today, kids in Italy know more about NBA players than national players, but back then it was the opposite. My dream was making the national team and the Italian first division.
At 17, I joined Olimpia Milano, the club my dad played for. Giorgio Armani was the sponsor. Everyone wanted to play for Milano because of him. They called him Re Giorgio, King Giorgio. We’d spend entire days at his stores, getting measured and fitted for suits. I was the youngest player on the team and he’d sometimes take me to his business meetings or get me modeling gigs. Now, he’s the owner of Milano. I don’t watch much basketball on TV. Even with my coaches, I tell them, “If you want me to do something better, you don’t have to show me on video. I trust you.” But I do watch Milano. The Clippers international scouting analyst, Francesco Alfier, cuts up the games for me every week.
“I signed with a club when I was 12. I started living by myself at 14. I turned pro at 16. I grew up playing nothing but point guard, and suddenly, I was a 16-year-old small forward matched up against 35-year-old men.”
I started thinking about the NBA when I was 18, my last year in Milan. Andrea Bargnani had just been drafted with the first pick by Toronto, a huge moment for him and for Italy. Andrea and I played together on the national team, so part of me wondered, “Maybe I can do that, too.” At the time, there were three or four Americans on each team in the EuroLeague, and I’d hear them tell stories about major college basketball. Playing against those guys was a confidence boost. You start to tell yourself, “Maybe I’m at their level.” Then you see the NBA scouts walk in.
Between the playoffs and the draft workouts in 2008, I only took three days off. I came to the United States and every team asked me to do a lot of weight work, a lot of squats. I wanted to show what I could do, but I wasn’t used to all the weights. I started experiencing discomfort in my lower back. The first game of summer league with the Knicks, I drove to the basket and Tractor Traylor fouled me hard, to the floor. Everybody assumed I was injured because of that play, but I’d been in pain for about a month. I had a pinched sciatic nerve, so the pain shot down my whole left leg, from my butt to my calf.
I was the sixth pick in the draft and I didn’t want to have surgery. So I tried everything else. Three times I took epidurals, which is what doctors give pregnant women in labor. The first and second time, the epidural was ineffective. The third time, they put so much medicine in the needle that I passed out. I tried walking around the recovery room with my dad and fell down. For eight months I couldn’t sleep more than two hours a night. I couldn’t even sit in a chair. I ate breakfast kneeling on the floor. With sciatic pain, the more you move, the better you feel, so the best part of the day was going to the gym. I tried to play for a stretch of that season, but every time I came to the bench, I had to lie down on my belly. When I finally opted for back surgery, I wasn’t nervous. I was the happiest guy in the world.
Living in New York was not a huge step for me. I moved four times between 14 and 20. A lot of players don’t like The Garden because the fans are tough, and if you lose, they scream at you. I loved it. Every day, there was somebody in the front row, like Armani all over again. My first two years, we lost a lot of games, but the third year, they built a real team, with Amare’ Stoudemire, Raymond Felton and Wilson Chandler. We believed we were going to win.
Then, in February, everything disappeared. I was eating dinner at Moscato, one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Scarsdale, with Ronny Turiaf and Kelenna Azubuike. It was 10:30 p.m. and my agent called. I looked at my teammates and said, “Uh oh.” I walked into another room and my agent told me, “You’ve been traded for Carmelo Anthony and you have to go to Denver tomorrow.” I was upset. I needed time to process everything. All the players who were traded – me, Wilson, Raymond, Timofey Mozgov – spent the next two days in New York. We went to dinner. We went out. Then we took a private plane to Denver. On the flight, we were all looking at each other, wondering what happened and what was going to happen.
Somehow, it worked. In Denver, we were a great running team, a great offensive team, with incredible chemistry. In my third season there, we won 57 games, the most since the Nuggets were in the ABA. We were the No. 3 seed, set to face the Warriors in the first round and the Spurs in the second. The Spurs played a much slower pace. We didn’t think they could keep up with us. We saw a pathway to the Finals.
“Health is everything. When I’m healthy, I have no doubt about what I can bring.”
Then I tore my ACL. I still remember the date: April 4, 2013. It was the end of our team and the beginning of the Warriors. Instead of undergoing surgery immediately, I waited about three weeks, and finally chose a doctor in Vail who was recommended by NBA players and even some Italian soccer players. Because I tore both the meniscus and the ACL, the doctor performed the meniscus surgery first, then put me on crutches for six weeks. After that, I went in for the ACL surgery, but instead of the regular operation they tried a less invasive technique. The operation was supposed to last an hour and a half, but it only took 45 minutes. That was strange. I remember my mom going nuts with questions in the waiting room.
After eight months of rehab, my left knee still didn’t feel like my right. The team doctor took an MRI and saw that the ligament remained torn. So I underwent the standard ACL operation, but my left knee was so damaged, the surgeon had to take the ligament from the right knee and mix it with the donated ligament in the left. Then I started another six months of rehab. It was a nightmare. It felt like an entire season had been stolen.
Health is everything. When I’m healthy, I have no doubt about what I can bring. I had two more good years in Denver, and when I hit free agency in ’17, the Clippers were the best team that wanted me. They still had Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Chris Paul was the only one leaving. I met with Steve Ballmer, Doc, Blake and D.J. at Doc’s house. I felt like, if they plugged me in, we could keep it all going.
“I’m not just talking about basketball. I crave competition no matter what I’m doing. It drives me.”
I had a new contract, a new city and I wanted to prove right away what I could do. At the beginning of the season, I had this pain in my glute, but everyone thought it was just a bruise. So I played. It got to a point, in the ninth game against Miami, I couldn’t walk. I was like, “This is not a bruise.” An MRI showed a 40 percent tear of the glute muscle. I did treatments, a PRP injection and came back after four weeks. It was too soon. The muscle tore in the same place. After another six weeks, I came back again, and we played well for 10 games. Then, against Golden State, Draymond Green came down with his elbow and fractured my hand. I was like, “This only happens to me.”
I could tell in training camp that I was going to bounce back and have a really strong season. This is such a mental game. I turned 30 in August and I feel more prepared, more consistent, than ever. The team compensates me well for what I bring to the table and I don’t take that lightly. If there’s a big guy who needs to be guarded one-on-one, I want to defend that guy, and my coaches know it. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.
Italy has to win one game in February to qualify for the World Cup, and if they do, I’d like to play this summer. Where I come from, representing your country is the most important thing, and when the national team calls, you always go. I haven’t played for the national team in a long time. Two years ago, I broke my hand during a friendly game against the Netherlands. In European basketball, there is more dirtiness and ugliness, and I thought the Dutch were going after me and my teammates. But I fell for it and threw a punch. It was my mistake. Last year, I wanted to play, but I had to stay in Los Angeles and make sure I was at full strength for the season. That was hard, because people back home thought I didn’t want to play, and I took a lot of criticism in the media. But the media is not my real life. Real life is going to the gym every day and trying to get better.
I’m not just talking about basketball. I crave competition no matter what I’m doing. It drives me. My second-best sport is ping pong and we have a table in the lobby of our facility. I’m the best in the building. Lawrence Frank, the team president, is second. He’s a lefty and lefties are tricky. I play golf, too, usually at Westchester or Penmar. I love it, but I’m not good. Like with everything else, I want to improve.
I’ve endured a lot with all the injuries. When you’re in the NBA, and you aren’t in the lineup, you can feel invisible. But I never questioned my ability. The injuries have given me a greater appreciation for every day that I wake up, ready to do what I love.