Editor's note: This article appears in the March 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Years from now -- when it's routine to see him dropping three-pointers over the outstretched arms of clumsy, lumbering big men and SportsCenter regularly features him spinning on the block and posterizing clawing defenders, when his uncanny passes draw comparisons to those of Bill Walton and Chris Webber -- we'll point to a cold November morning in Denver as the NBA birth of Andrea Bargnani.
It was a Sunday, and the Raptors were coming off back-to-back road games. Coach Sam Mitchell had wanted to give his team the day off, but they were 2-7, losers of five straight and playing softer than smooth jazz. So he "invited" six big guys, including his tentative and unproductive No. 1 draft pick, to join him at a local health club.
You couldn't really call it a practice; there was no shooting, dribbling or passing to be seen. With patrons watching from stationary bikes and weekend warriors playing pickup on adjacent courts, Mitchell put one ball beneath the basket and two players at the foul line. One man's job was to get the ball, the other's was to keep him from touching it. By any means necessary.
"It was like a fight," Bargnani says three months later. "Nothing dirty, just a tough, physical practice. It was the right thing to do."
After Bargnani and his teammates banged bodies for nearly two hours, Mitchell pulled the rookie aside. This was the type of aggressiveness he wanted to see, he told him. The next night in Utah, Bargnani was unrecognizable, nearly quadrupling his then-season average with 15 points.
"From then on, he's played like a man," says star teammate Chris Bosh.
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Last June's critics didn't expect such compliments to be lobbed Bargnani's way when the Raptors made him the first Euro ever taken at the top of the draft. At least not this soon. In spite of Dirk's dominance and the capable contributions of imports like Mehmet Okur and Boris Diaw, many incoming Euros suffer the indignity of being compared to high-lottery busts Darko Milicic and Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Twice-bitten scouts won't soon forget that, blinded by overseas hype, they once overlooked Bosh, Carmelo, D-Wade and Amaré for those two. So when Bargnani's name was the first one David Stern called, a common sentiment was, Who'd the Raptors leave on the table by banking on the next Euro-bust?
The skeptics have been shamed. With a stroke as pure as bottled water, Bargnani is already one of the league's top sixth men and Brandon Roy's chief competition for Rookie of the Year honors. During the Raptors' surge to the top of the Atlantic, Bargnani averaged 13.5 ppg on 50% shooting in February. Fact is, not even his biggest supporters expected so much so soon. Before the season, if he hadn't done enough to earn a spot in the Rookie Challenge during All-Star Weekend, Raptors management wouldn't have been the least bit discouraged. But there he was in Vegas, foiling Andrew Bogut with a nasty scoop shot and earning raves from none other than the big German himself.
Nowitzki, sitting in the bowels of the Thomas & Mack Center, first scoffed at the rush to compare the two: "Every tall, white shooter who comes over is going to be compared to me." But then he made the parallel himself. And he finds himself lacking. Dirk says that at 21, the newcomer is better than he was: "Sky's the limit for him."
Another prodigy confirms it. "He's like a junior Dirk," LeBron says after Bargnani's 18-point, seven-rebound effort in a one-point loss to the Cavaliers in their first game after the break. "He's going to be a very, very, very impressive player in this league."
More than skill level separates Bargnani from the Euros who have come before him. For one, Raptors management has surrounded him with a strong support group that's made playing in Toronto the next best thing to playing in Italy. While team president Bryan Colangelo claims it's all coincidence, he signed two of Bargnani's former teammates -- Spain's Jorge Garbajosa and Slovenia's Uros Slokar -- and named Bargnani's former GM at Benetton Treviso, Maurizio Gherardini, the club's assistant GM. With five other international players on the squad, Bargnani, who speaks English well, has no problem finding a teammate to converse with in Italian, too.
Critics have also ignored the fact that while Milicic and Tskitishvili played sparingly in Europe and thus were drafted solely on potential, Bargnani has been a key player in the top ranks of European basketball.
You'd never know Bargnani was a future force (or even a nouveau riche pro jock) by visiting his Toronto digs. Sure, he lives on prime downtown real estate on the shore of Lake Ontario, but a request for a tour of the tiny two-bedroom apartment draws embarrassed laughter from the big man. "This is it," he says, spreading his arms in the den and nearly touching the dining room table.
Mom, Luisella Balducci, was a roommate through January, and she's to be thanked for whatever sparse furnishings Bargnani has. Since she returned to Italy, he's added a 46-inch flat-screen on the wall, and that's about it. There's an iPod sound system for music, a tan couch and love seat for lounging, a closet full of multicolor Air Force 1's, and a PlayStation 3 console. Problem is, with just one controller, he's forced to play his video games solo. "Every time I go to the store, they're sold out," he says innocently, never thinking that a person of his stature could have one hand-delivered to his door.
About the only hint that someone with special gifts resides here is on a wall near the bedrooms, where several framed, self-made collages featuring Bargnani's exploits, as captured by Italian newspapers, hang. There's a picture of him blocking Lamond Murray's shot in an exhibition game he played against the Raptors two years ago and a portrait of him attempting a ferocious dunk over three defenders, one of whom is grabbing his arm. "They called a charge on me," Bargnani says, smiling. "But see right there? He fouled me."
It's telling that there are no photos of Bargnani sinking soft jumpers or steering clear of contact. This is at heart one tough Euro. Curse at him, as Bosh did after Bargnani surrendered four straight offensive rebounds against Golden State on Dec. 17, and get instant improvement. Five of his 10 rebounds that night were offensive, and all five came after Bosh went off on him. Challenge him after he fails to grab a single rebound in a game, as Mitchell did Feb. 14, and get seven boards the next time out. Throw an elbow his way, as several opponents have, and you'd better duck. Unlike most Euro bigs, Bargnani yearns one day to set up in the post. He works on his inside game daily with assistant coaches and can't wait until he can regularly use his size advantage to exploit folks down low.
"He ain't no punk," Mitchell says. "He is Italian! Them Italians ain't backing down!"
He'll match your trash-talk, too. Even if you might not be able to understand a word of it. After being hounded by Mike Dunleavy, Bargnani faced him up, sank a jumper in his face and yelled something in Italian. During the next timeout, Raptors vet Darrick Martin ran to him to find out what he'd said. Bargnani just smiled.
The Raptors get a kick out of Bargnani's verbal mischief. Whenever he screams something after a dunk or in the heat of competition, the bench guys go crazy, then run to Slokar for a translation. He's often hesitant to give up the goods.
"He'll say, Andiamo!" Slokar says. "That means 'Let's go!' The other stuff? Let's just leave that where it is: on the court."
Everyone has a theory about where Bargnani gets his toughness and unusual swagger. Slokar believes it comes from his hometown. "In Europe, Roman people -- not necessarily Italians, but Romans -- are known for being confident," he says. "They're proud of their background." Others point to Bargnani's family backstory. The elder of two boys whose parents divorced when he was 13, perhaps Andrea was forced to develop a man-of-the-house persona early on.
Teammate Anthony Parker cuts through all the psycho-babble. He says, "He's absolutely fearless. Why? I think he was just born with it." Bargnani himself brushes off talk of his extraordinary self-confidence. "I'm just a normal person," he says. But the trait is real, measurable, in fact.
For years, NBA teams have used the Caliper Profile to evaluate potential draft picks. The Caliper is a personality profile used by numerous corporations and organizations to measure one's capacity to excel in specific situations. Over the past 24 years, Caliper has assessed more than 20,000 athletes, including NBA players from Detroit, San Antonio, Denver and Phoenix. Colangelo has long been sold on the system. When he heard how Bargnani measured up, he nearly dropped the phone.
"They said his upside and potential were off the charts," Colangelo says from the tunnel of the Air Canada Centre as Bargnani drains a three against the Cavaliers. "They said, 'Out of all the athletes we've profiled, we've never seen anything like this.' "
The test showed that Bargnani is virtually oblivious to what others think of him. And his tremendous ability to block out such potentially negative pressures enables him to focus completely on the task at hand. So the expectations and anxieties that come with being the No.1 pick, or the only Italian-born player in the league, or even taking a game-winning shot, don't even register with him.
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Skills? Check. Confidence? Check. But does he know how to play the game?
Rewind to a home contest against Atlanta on Jan. 5. Bargnani streaks down the right sideline on a break, heads toward the left block and receives a pass from Parker. In one motion, he catches the ball and throws a no-look bounce pass behind his back, past his defender and into the hands of Bosh, who is fouled as he attempts to finish with a dunk. The pass instantly earns YouTube status.
"That showed he's got a phenomenal basketball IQ," Martin says. "To see Bosh behind him and have the presence of mind to make that pass while he's running down the floor in transition? Some point guards can't see that."
The 35-year-old Martin, in his 12th season, has taken Bargnani under his wing. He's the one who coined the nickname everyone in Toronto uses: Big Rook. Bargnani likes it, but he likes what fans in Italy called him even better: Il Mago. Translation: The Magician.
"He's got a little ways to go before I call him that," Martin says with a laugh.
Yeah, it will be a cold November morning before that happens.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.