Former North Carolina guard Dante Calabria spent 15 years playing in Europe, shooting his way around teams in Italy, Spain, Greece and France -- and also competing for the Italian national team.
And he might still be overseas, had the coaching bug not hit a few years back. Another former Tar Heel, Buzz Peterson, offered him a job as director of basketball operations at UNC Wilmington last fall.
“I love playing basketball,’’ said Calabria, who scored 1,098 points, played on the 1993 national championship team at UNC, and ranks fifth all-time for the Tar Heels in 3-point field goal percentage (41.2). “Now, I’m excited to learn more and more about coaching, and work my way up.”
The hardest part of his new gig is not actually being able to work with players during practice or do any recruiting off campus. But after making his summer home in Wilmington, N.C., since 2000 (he has dual citizenship -- US and Italy), this is his first step toward returning to the bench in a suit rather than the trademark lowtops he was known for in Chapel Hill.
I caught up with Calabria earlier this week:
When did you know you wanted to coach?
Dante Calabria: I’ve always liked to do it. I used to run summer camps here. I’d go up to the Carolina camps and work there, and I did some private lessons for kids around Wilmington. The big thing is, my last four, five, six years of playing, I was able to coach some of the 17-and-under, 19-and-under teams for some of the club teams I played with. They allowed me to do it.
I wasn’t the head coach, but I was able to coach and be at the practices and go through all of the stuff and basically get an idea of what coaching is all about. And that was very, very beneficial for me -- and I got to do it all in Italian. Basically, I was dealing with kids the same age, or maybe a little bit younger, than what I am dealing with here, so it gave me a lot of good experience.
Does playing so long in Europe affect how you want to coach?
DC: We -- and I’m speaking as a European -- do a lot of things different than in American basketball. Obviously, some of the rules are different. … But the biggest thing I see is that the players in Europe are much more fundamental. Better shooters, much better passers. They may not be as athletic, but they’re much better basketball players as far as the fundamentals. And part of that is in Europe, you practice in the morning, you practice at the end of the day, and when you’re young, fundamentals are emphasized. In practice, you may only work on the fundamentals. … And that’s what I’ve learned to emphasize.
When I was working with kids in Wilmington the last four or five years before taking this job, I always emphasized fundamentals. And hopefully, as I move up in coaching, that’s what I can bring to it: blending the best of European and American basketball. If you’re athletic and have the fundamentals, you have a pretty high ceiling.
What’s special, to you, about being a North Carolina basketball alum?
DC: One of the things I love about Carolina -- and I was actually speaking to Buzz about this the other day -- is how the generations of guys, no matter when you play, there’s always that common bond. For the past six or seven years, I’ve seen so many guys that maybe I met when I was in school, but even though I’ve been away, that bond is still there. Whether it’s the ‘50s or ‘60s, or even in the 2000s, you always have that bond with those guys.
It would be tough for you to tell me that there are other schools out there that have that. And it’s something I’ll always cherish -- seeing guys, and sitting down and sharing stories, because we’ve all got stories.
Do you have a favorite memory of your playing days at UNC?
DC: Basketball-wise, one of my favorite memories in college was that I went 7-1 against Duke. It’s always a big, big rivalry, and I was one of the fortunate guys, that we were able to win when we played them.
… I guarantee you that everybody that played at the University of North Carolina, everybody that played at Duke, always have that rivalry in their head [on game week]. It’s such a great rivalry, but it’s a fun rivalry because there’s a lot of respect for each other, a lot of will to win that game. I want to have bragging rights, I want to say, ‘I won.’ It’s a big deal.
I remember I was in Italy one time, and I was playing with Trajan Langdon. And we always talked about it, and kind of laughed about it, and always gave each other some grief. But it’s always there, it’s always going to be there. It’s one of the best rivalries in sports, and I love it.
You’re now part of the ever-expanding Carolina coaching tree. Why do you think so many coaches come out of Chapel Hill?
DC: My generation, I played under Coach [Dean] Smith. And when you play under Coach Smith, you learn so much about basketball, you learn so much about life, you learn so much about teaching -- there’s so much that he gives you. And Coach [Roy] Williams, he’s the same way. And you just learn, being around coaches like that all the time. And it makes you want to pass on what you’ve learned, too.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.