A s a boy in Italy, basketball was my life. All of my friends played soccer, but for me and my older brothers, Umberto and Enrico, basketball was always our game. We grew up in this tiny town in Bologna called San Giovanni in Persiceto. We put up a hoop outside our house on this patch of pavement, and we’d just play one-on-one against each other until the sun went down. That’s really all there was to do.
Oh, yeah — did I mention that Enrico is 10 years older than me? And that Enrico is a pretty big guy?
Not the best matchup.
But playing against my older, stronger brothers made me become a better player, faster. It didn’t hurt that I grew to be about 6′ 6″ by the time I was 14 or 15. By the time I was 16, I was playing professionally in Italy for the club Virtus Bologna, the same team as Manu Ginobili and Marko Jaric. It was one of the best teams in Europe and they had a lot of success. I was learning a lot from these incredible players. So by the time I was eligible for the NBA draft, I felt ready to come to the NBA.
But there was one small issue.
I couldn’t speak the language. Like, at all.
So there I was in the Summer League in 2007, feeling very nervous. The thing I don’t like about Summer League is that everyone there is trying to get noticed, so it’s a messy game. I thought, How will I stand out? I could understand my teammates some … but I couldn’t speak back to them.
But then I decided, you know what, screw all of that — every time I’m touching it, I’m shooting it. It’s just basketball, right? Everybody understands that.
When I looked up, I had 36 or 37. It’s Summer League, sure, but this showed me that I belonged and could score against NBA players. On the court that day, I didn’t need to speak English — basketball was the language that I knew best. It was almost like it was in my blood.
Now, I’ve been in the NBA for 10 years — which is just unbelievable. But I couldn’t have gotten here without learning the language of basketball from some of the best players in Europe.
Here are the best of those best — the five best European guys I ever competed against.
Like a lot of European players around my age, I got to watch Dirk as a teenager before he became a huge NBA sensation. He was considered an unknown when he got picked in the NBA draft, but we all knew who he was and what he could do.
So, when someone asks me this question, about the best European players I’ve ever played against, Dirk is the first person I think of.
In 2005 or 2006, I played my first game for Italy against the German national team. Everyone knew Dirk could shoot, so when I switched onto him, I pressed up as much as I could to prevent him from getting a shot up. He was only a couple years older than me, I thought I could meet his energy level and stop him.
But it was impossible.
He drove right past me. He could move like a point guard, and he was so tall that I couldn’t block his shot. What he was doing didn’t look real. He changed basketball in so many ways. Me and my teammates were so amazed by the way he moved, how easily he got baskets. When he came to the NBA, we all knew he would be a big deal even before everyone in the NBA did.
Dirk is one of the five best players of all time, in my opinion. He is amazing.
When I first met Hedo, I’ll admit, I was a little starstruck.
I’d grown up watching him compete for Turkey, and I’d always looked up to his all-around game. Hedo wasn’t really a shooter like most of the European guys at that time, so he always used that to his advantage. Less prepared players would defend him and play him like a shooter because he was European. When he and I both played for Toronto, I’d always try to pair up with him in practice. He took me under his wing.
It was a surreal feeling.
So, something about me — I could always shoot the basketball. I feel like that’s all I did my entire childhood. When I play basketball, the best feeling for me is getting to play how I want to play as much as possible — I like an open, free-flowing game. But I learned that you’ve got to keep growing as a player to find that zone, and always be practicing and adding new things. Hedo was the best at that, so I had a lot to learn from him.
Hedo is a big body. He was a lot stronger than me, but he was also very quick and very good at the pick and roll so he could be so difficult to guard. He could make a pass and get the ball to guys like me exactly where they needed it on the floor. Remember that one playoffs when Hedo led the Magic to the Finals, driving and passing and setting up Dwight? That’s all you need to see. Hedo just knows basketball.
We’d always play one-on-one in practice, almost every day. I won’t tell you who won more games, but that was a treat for me to watch him. He could just beat me in so many ways, he was so clever.
He still could never touch my shot, though.
Like I told you before, I could always shoot the ball.
But I was a bricklayer compared to Peja.
Peja was another guy that I had watched in Europe, but I never really got to know him until we both were in New Orleans. But early on during my time there, during a practice, Peja challenged me to a three-point contest. For fun.
He kicked my ass.
I was speechless. I mean, of course I had lost a three-point contest before … but not like this. To start off, he made 40 in a row. It was — excuse my language — fucking amazing. For my money, he’s the best shooter I’ve ever played with, probably the best ever in the NBA. And he is such a professional — he’d get on me to be better, to prepare more and to always be ready. And I needed that at the time.
Years later, I got to work with Peja again in Sacramento, but this time he wasn’t on my team — he was in the front office. And he is just the best person. He has taught me so much about how to be a professional and how to carve out a career in this league. I’m not sure I’d still be playing in the NBA if it weren’t for him.
This is a little bit of a cheat, because Anthony Parker is an American who became one of the best players in Euroleague history.
But I have to tell you what it was like to watch him.
One year, while I was playing with Skipper Bologna, we faced off against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Anthony’s team, in the Euroleague final. And we just got blown out — by 40-plus points. Anthony had 21 and I don’t think he missed a shot, maybe one or two, max. I was 18 or 19 at the time, so I was very impressionable — and Anthony Parker, for Europeans at least, wasn’t just like Jordan.
He was Jordan.
Anthony was so fast. He could take off from the free-throw line. He could go in between his legs during games, which I don’t think anyone in Europe had ever seen before. He would do those chase-down blocks like LeBron does.
Of course I felt bad that we lost that game but at the same time, as a teenager dreaming of the NBA, I felt lucky to be on the same court as him. It was an honor. Later on, Anthony came to the NBA in Toronto and I got to guard him from time to time. We’d always exchange a smile with each other like, We have been doing this a long time
We are old.
This is another cheat — Manu is Argentine — but it’s a better one, I think. Manu played on my hometown team, Virtus Bologna, and he was the team’s absolute star. He was a sensation in my town. So when I got called up to the senior club, I was eager to meet him and see what he was really like.
What’s it really like to play with your hero? I thought. I was about to find out.
Something I don’t think people know about Manu is that he is a very positive person. He wants the best for his teammates, and throughout the two years I played with Manu, he was constantly coaching me. He taught me how to move with the ball on the court, which is something I hadn’t done much of at Virtus. I was already pretty good at moving without the ball, so I could find a good shot, but Manu taught me all these new tricks I had never even thought of.
To put it quite simply, Manu is a champion.
Another thing I don’t think people quite understand about Manu is his focus and his attention to detail. I’ll be honest, the coaches and staff give us a lot of information about the team we are about to play, and sometimes that information slips. It happens to most players and it’s fairly common, because there are a lot of players in this league and a lot of things to keep in mind. It’s hard to remember all of it, all the time.
Not for Manu. He remembered everything, like he had been up all night memorizing every possible fact about the other team. When I got to play with Manu again in San Antonio, he took it to another level in the playoffs. One time, I can’t remember who I was guarding, but it was a player from the deep bench who no one expected to get in. We were winning the game, and my man went into the corner and hit a corner three.
“Marco,” shouted Manu.
I knew I did something wrong, but I could not have told you what.
“Don’t you know that guy has a corner three? Close out!”
He knows everything about everyone, even guys he knows he has no chance of facing. That’s who he is.
That’s Manu. How is he still in the league, you wonder?
It’s because he’s still like that.