Marco Belinelli: Italy's Latest Hero

By Lorne Chan Spurs.com

Marco Belinelli is giving an interview in Italian, moments after the Spurs won the NBA title in June. He thanks his family for believing in him when his emotions take over.

When he mentions his small hometown of San Giovanni in Northern Italy, Belinelli can no longer speak. The first Italian NBA champion wipes his tears with only cloth he can grab – an Italian flag draped over his back.

“It just felt so good to win something big for Italian people,” Belinelli said of that interview.

Posted on YouTube, the minute-long clip has 400,000 views and continues to resonate in Italy. In a soccer-crazed country, Italy found its newest hero in a 6-foot-5 long-range shooter.

When the Spurs won the NBA Championship, one player received congratulations from his Prime Minister, had three biographies written about him, appeared in a rap video and signed a high-end fashion deal:

Marco.

“America just had a guy become famous from nothing with an interception in the Super Bowl,” said Alessandro Mamoli, an Italian sportscaster for Sky Sport. “In Italy, we don’t have that many underdog stories like that. For us, Marco is that story.”

Belinelli’s season of championships began last February, when he was the first Italian to win the 3-point contest. “First Italian” would become a common introduction for Belinelli a few months later.

First Italian to reach the NBA Finals. And five games later, the first Italian on an NBA champion.

“I know I’m the first, but I haven’t really thought about that,” Belinelli said. “I want to do more. I want to be a better player, and I don’t want to stop at these firsts.”

Belinelli may not think about those firsts, but many in Italy do. The morning after the Spurs won the title, Belinelli received a congratulatory call from Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Belinelli’s return to Italy was a true hero’s welcome.  He received the Nettuno d’Oro - which translates to Golden Neptune - a prize given by the city council of Bologna for some of its most celebrated citizens. His hometown, San Giovanni, declared September 24 as “Beli Day,” and he was the guest of honor at a slew of other events.

In Rome, Belinelli met Giorgio Napolitano, the President of Italy.

In Lake Como, Belinelli brought the Larry O’Brien trophy along with him to the Ambrosetti Forum, an annual economic conference featuring Nobel Laureates and government leaders such as Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Another perk of being a hero in Italy:

Honorary guest judge of Miss Italia 2014.

“This summer, everything was crazy,” Belinelli said. I got meet some really important people and it was amazing having everybody recognize you.”

Belinelli landed a fashion deal with Dolce and Gabbana and appeared in a commercial for Fiat-Chrysler, where he competed in a 3-point shooting contest against a robot built by the company.

Italian rapper Ghemon made Belinelli the star of the music video for “Nessuno Vale Quanto Te,” which translates to “No one is as good as you.”

And any Italian needing some reading material could pick up the biography “Marco Belinelli” by the Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, or “Alla Fine ho Vinto” (“At last I won,” a quote from Belinelli’s tearful interview) by journalist Daniele Labanti, or “Pensare Marco Belinelli” (“Thinking Marco Belinelli”) by Italian think-tank Lo Spazio della Politica.

“We love winners in Italy,” said Mamoli, who is currently working on his own Belinelli biography. “It’s difficult to give space to other Italian athletes here if they are not soccer players, so we give that space to the winners. We’re emotional people, too, so I think Italians were especially impressed by Marco because of his emotion, his tears.”

Italy’s basketball success has been marked by a few scattered moments over decades.  The Italians have won the biennial Eurobasket tournament twice (1983 and 1999) since the tourney’s inception in 1935. They also won a silver medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics, when Manu Ginobili led Argentina to the gold medal.

The growth of the NBA internationally was eveident in Italy in 2006 when Rome’s Andrea Bargnani was the first European player to be drafted No. 1 overall. Two years later, Danilo Gallinari was the No. 6 pick in the 2008 draft. In between the two, Belinelli was a less heralded Italian, picked No. 18 in 2007.

“You have to think where he came from,” Mamoli said. “He was in the shadow of Gallinari and Bargnani for a long time before he went to the Spurs, and they were his fifth team in seven seasons.”

When Belinelli arrived in San Antonio, he found an immediate fit. Averaging 11.4 points per game, he was fifth in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage at 43.0, making 126 of 293 threes.

His accolades included a 3-point challenge championship during last year's All-Star Weekend.

Some Italians watched Belinelli win the 3-point contest live at 4 a.m., as he hit eight of his last 10 shots in the final and Sky Sport’s Flavio Tranquillo said of Belinelli, “‘e’ caldo come una stufa”:

He is as hot as a stove.

“I remember when I was really young, I would watch the 3-point contest and Larry Bird,” Belinelli said. “And everybody in Italy was so happy because that was the first trophy I won in the NBA. That trophy was for my family and my friends, but also for Italy.”

Belinelli has avoided letting the sudden fame affect his focus or routine.

He hasn’t gotten other Spurs wearing Dolce & Gabbana either, keeping his Italian influence to giving coach Gregg Popovich restaurant recommendations on the road.

After missing almost a month because of a groin injury, Belinelli returned to action last week. On Monday, he hit the game-winner in the Spurs' 95-93 victory against Indiana, helping Gregg Popovich earn his 1,000th career victory.

His sole focus is bringing more trophies back to Italy, beginning with defending his Foot Locker Three-Point Contest on Saturday in New York City.

This year’s 3-point contest field is stacked, with Golden State’s “Splash Brothers” Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Houston’s James Harden and Atlanta’s Kyle Korver in the field.

Belinelli said more Italians will be watching him live at 4 a.m. now that he’s brought home some hardware. He can’t wait to give his fans at home more to cheer.

“Winning more is the next step,” Belinelli said. “Yes, there are so many great players in this year’s 3-point contest. When nobody expects you to win and you do, that’s the best part.”

 

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