Bargnani lovefest over before it started

STEVE BUFFERY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

ROME -- Maybe something got lost in translation, but the lovefest that is supposed to be the Andrea Bargnani homecoming has turned out to be much ado about nothing.

Bargnani may be one of the best athletes out of Italy, but it is painfully obvious that he is not one of the most popular.

And that's quite a surprise, as Bargnani's handlers have sold the second-year Raptor as being a big star in his home country, and especially here in his hometown.

But there is a definite air of indifference surrounding Bargnani's monumental return to The Eternal City. Most basketball fans here seem more excited about the presence of the big three from the Boston Celtics -- Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett -- than about Bargnani or the Raptors, and that's why tonight's pre-season game between the two NBA sides at Pala Lottomatica is sold out.

It seems that Bargnani is not Italian enough for Italians.

"I don't want to say it the wrong way, but he looks like a soldier, a German soldier, just boom, boom, boom," said Maurizio Gherardini, the Raptors' Italian assistant GM, who recruited Bargnani to play for Benetton Treviso four seasons ago. "But that's also his strength."

Bargnani comes across as stoic and sullen, on both sides of the Atlantic, but Gherardini said that those characteristics have put him in good stead in terms of being able to handle the pressure of playing in the NBA as a first-overall pick. But it has also prevented him from being a true star in his homeland.

"I think with the quality of his game and the kind of player he is, he can turn into an all-time sport great for Italy. But he has to understand also that no matter what kind of person he is, he needs to open up a little more often and bring up these emotions a little more often," Gherardini said, adding that it took him a long while for Bargnani to warm to even him.

"I had to follow him for six months like a beautiful lady to try to convince him to come to Treviso," he said, with a laugh.

And then there's the Italian media. Bargnani's relationship with that very influential group can be described as strained -- at best. And it became even more strained during this summer's European championships. The talented Italian team failed to qualify for next summer's Olympics, and also failed to make it into the last-chance qualifying tournament. So they're out until at least the 2012 Games. It also didn't help that during the tournament, Bargnani averaged 12.7 points and only 5.0 rebounds, shooting only 38% from the field.

"By the end of the European championships, he had alienated every single Italian writer that was there," said Massimo Oriani, a respected writer with La Gazzetta Dello Sport. "Every time you ask him something it's like: 'Why do I have to talk to you?' "

Conversely, Oriani said Italy's other young basketball star, Marco Belinelli, was engaging and co-operative during the event and took much of the blame for Italy's poor play on himself.

Still, one can't blame Bargnani for not smiling from ear-to-ear while in Rome. The NBA has the poor kid running from one event to another. After practice yesterday, he was scheduled to visit his friend Walter Veltroni, the Mayor of Italy, at City Hall, followed by a trip to a mall to unveil his EA Sports game and then a visit to some Nike function. All of that, and he is supposed to get in the proper mindset for tonight's game.

"You know, I don't even know if he's happy to be home," said Bargnani's teammate, Chris Bosh. "It's hard to tell."

To his credit, Bargnani has said all the right things about being home, but his true feelings came to the surface yesterday when asked if he was looking forward to going to Spain next week.

"I can't wait," he said.


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