Singing a different tune

STEVE BUFFERY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:48 AM ET

TREVISO, Italy -- The normally jovial Maurizio Gherardini, the Raptors VP and assistant GM, was less than thrilled last week when head coach Sam Mitchell started grumbling about having to conduct training camp 8,000 kilometres away from home.

Gherardini, after all, has a personal stake in the Raptors being in this part of the world and it's vastly important to him that the experience here turns out to be a positive one for the club.

Benetton Treviso, the first-division Italian league team, is where Gherardini made his name in international basketball. During his 14 years as GM in Treviso, Benetton teams captured a slew of championships and made four appearances in the Euroleague's Final Four.

Needless to say, Gherardini's stock at the state-of-the-art Benetton training facility (La Ghirada), a former cow pasture, is sky-high. So much so that the Raptors players and front office types have taken to calling him "The Emperor."

"At first we called him The Mayor," GM Bryan Colangelo said with a laugh. "But that didn't seem enough, so we changed it to The Emperor."

Gherardini has pulled out all the stops to make the "Raptors family" comfortable and to provide the players with every convenience possible, on the practice court and off.

So when Mitchell whined to the European media in a conference call last week that holding training camp overseas was an inconvenience, a distraction, and everything else, Gherardini felt somewhat disappointed -- and naturally so.

Mitchell, however, is now singing a totally different tune -- to the extent that if the Treviso Chamber of Commerce needed an English-speaking spokesperson, he'd be the perfect guy.

"I would recommend to any NBA team that if you have the opportunity to go abroad for training camp for a couple of weeks, you should do it," he said yesterday.

Talk about an about-face.

"We paid him under the table to change his mind, that's how we do things here," Gherardini joked.

Yes, there have been some complaints by some of the players. These are spoiled, rich athletes, after all.

Nobody's thrilled that the team hotel is in the middle of nowhere. Actually, it's located smack in the middle of a vineyard.

Some of the players also have complained about how long it takes for the restaurants in Italy to deliver food to the table, unimpressed, it seems, with the laid-back European style of dining.

But overall, the Raptors are satisfied with the facility and the setup in Treviso, although there is a sense that they're looking forward to moving on to the bright lights of Rome at the end of the week to playing the Boston Celtics and the local professional team Lottomatica Roma in a series of pre-season games before moving on to Madrid, Spain.

As for the coach, Mitchell admitted yesterday that, yes, he did squawk about coming over to Europe, but it wasn't the idea of spending time in another country that threw him off, just his concerns over the logistics of the move.

REFLECTIVE MOOD

After the morning workout yesterday (the Raptors have been conducting two training sessions per day), the fourth-year head coach retreated into a reflective mood for a few minutes, reminiscing about his days as a young pro in France and, indeed, second-guessing himself for having any doubts about this trip.

After being cut by the Houston Rockets, who selected him 54th overall in the 1985 draft, Mitchell toiled for three seasons in the Continental Basketball Association before heading overseas to play, a huge eye-opener for a kid who grew up in rural Georgia.

He might as well have moved to the moon.

Everything threw him for a loop, the food, the public toilets, which he said were holes in the floor, and, especially, the language barrier.

"All I knew was oui and non," he said.

But after a couple of months, the young pro, who went on to play 13 years in the NBA, began to adjust and has nothing but fond memories of his time on this side of the Atlantic.

"I tell people all the time now, that it was the best two years of my life," he said.

That's what he's telling his players as well.

Of course, if anyone from European media asks him about it, he'll probably say it was a living hell.


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