Mad About Marco

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.

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Marco Belinelli
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.”