Four years ago, in a land far, far away ...

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

It all began when a former Benetton player named Esposito phoned Maurizio Gherardini about a 16-year-old basketball kid with indescribable skill.

This is an unlikely story of what Gherardini calls "a beautiful coincidence.'"

The Esposito on the phone was Ricardo, not Vincenzo, and certainly not Phil.

The kid happened to be named Andrea Bargnani.

"Esposito had played for me on the same team with Toni Kukoc," said Gherardini. "I was surprised to hear from him. He wasn't the kind of person you would think would call. So I figured I should listen.

"He called and told me about this 16-year-old kid. He said: 'You've never seen anything like this in your life. You have to come and see him.'"

Gherardini, now an assistant GM with the Raptors, made the five-hour drive to Rome to see this skinny teenager play tier-two professional basketball. He couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"Immediately, I was surprised by, how you say, his athleticism. I was surprised my how smooth he was. He could move. It was then, the flirting began."

For almost eight months, Gherardini offered and Bargnani declined. He said no. His parents said no. The push continued.

For almost eight months, Gherardini asked and offered the kid contracts to come to the No. 1 team in Italy, until finally it happened.

"It took a long time, believe me," said Gherardini.

That was the beginning of the story.

This is the middle.

The end we don't know about, yet.

Maurizio Gherardini, the No. 1 basketball executive in all of Europe, has been a Raptor for about half an hour, give or take a minute. Bargnani, the first pick of the Raptors last night and the first pick in the NBA draft -- first time ever for an Italian kid -- has been here for about 10 minutes.

"Nobody ever would have believed this," said Gherardini. "The fact that I'm here, in the NBA, doing this in this city. The fact he is here, in the NBA, doing this, in this city. Well, it's just not believable.

"I didn't come here to bring him with me. He didn't get here because of me. In all the conversations I had with Bryan (Colangelo), I don't think we talked once about Andrea before I came here."

That's why this is so nice a story.

The kid who was playing semi-pro with washed-up basketball players did not grow up dreaming of the NBA. Nobody in Italy does.

It's not real. It's not possible. Getting to Benetton Treviso and the league championship last season was supposed to be a dream come true.

This would be absolutely impossible except it happened last night.

"You have to see him," said Gherardini, his eyes lighting up. "You won't believe it until you see him. You have no idea no strong he is. You have no idea how smooth he is. He is not a kid anymore. Now he is not afraid.

"He still has so far to go, but he has come so far. I've never seen anybody do what he does, with his size and his shot."

In their 11 seasons, the Raptors had never had the first pick in the NBA draft until last night. They have been denied the possibility of Allen Iverson and denied by lottery losses along the way.

NO LEBRON

This year, the lottery went their way and some figured the draft didn't. This isn't a class with LeBron James. But this is a draft with a 7-foot-1 jump-shooter who hits from three-point land.

Sometimes you have to get what you can.

The kid from Benetton via Rome was taken ahead of the forward from Texas and the diabetic shooter from Gonzaga. He was taken despite all the xenophobic screaming from American commentators who have yet to acknowledge the changing face of the NBA.

He is now part of the forever change face of the Raptors, another building block for a franchise still in need of a foundation.

Andrea Bargnani has played in Toronto once before, in one of those exhibition games we pay so little attention to. He was 18 at the time and his job was to cover Chris Bosh.

He didn't embarrass himself.

He likely won't, any more.


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