BasketballNews.com's Senior NBA Draft Analyst Matt Babcock presents a series that will peel back the curtain from his time as a sports agent, giving a glimpse at some of his personal experiences working in the sports agency business for over a decade.
In the fifth entry of his series, Babcock shares his
experience of living in Bologna, Italy as an assistant coach of a
professional basketball team before becoming a sports
A little over 15 years ago, I received a call from sports agent Sam Goldfeder. On that call, he notified me that he had successfully brokered an assistant coaching position for me with the professional basketball team, Virtus Bologna, in Bologna, Italy. He explained that the team's season had already begun, and if I wanted to accept the job, I would need to pack my bags and fly to Italy right away. Although it was an unorthodox approach to chasing my dream of following in my family's footsteps and working in basketball, I decided to take a chance. I accepted the job. Before I knew it, I left my family's home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to travel nearly 5,000 miles to Bologna, Italy without knowing many details. I was 22 years old and set to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
I vividly remember walking into the gym for my first team practice. I was excited but nervous. The first person I saw had a familiar face: former NBA player Travis Best. I had never met him before, but I had seen him play many times when he was the backup point guard of the great Indiana Pacers teams during the late 1990s and early 2000s, and he also played a role in the basketball movie "He Got Game." Travis approached me, introduced himself and kindly welcomed me to the team. He mentioned that he had gotten to know my uncle, Pete Babcock, the general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, while Travis had been in college at Georgia Tech.
We continued to chat, and it became apparent that he mistakenly thought I was his new teammate. I'm sure he was surprised when I told him I wasn't his teammate but his new assistant coach. Travis was 34 years old at the time and twelve years older than me. Ironically, I was there to start my coaching career as a 22-year-old kid, and he was winding down his playing career, which included ten years in the NBA. Although more of a complementary player while he was in the NBA, Travis was a star in Italy and widely known throughout Bologna as "The Best." He was our team's top player. He treated me well, and despite our age difference, we developed a friendship during my time there.
Following my conversation with Travis, I met the rest of the team. Many of them I had seen play numerous times when they were college stars in the United States. We had big man Kris Lang who had played at North Carolina, Danish forward Christian Drejer who played at Florida, sharpshooter Brett Blizzard from UNC-Wilmington, Ilian Evtimov from North Carolina State and even a fellow Arizona Wildcat, Bennett Davison, who was at U of A before me. He was also a college roommate of my former assistant coach, Josh Pastner. Their team won the National Championship in 1997. Bear Down!
It would be great to say that I finally felt at home in this foreign country once my first practice with the team had started. However, that wouldn't be true. It was quite the opposite, as I quickly found myself out of my element.
Let me explain.
Our team was conducting what is commonly called a "shell drill," which is a traditional exercise for a team to work on their defensive positioning and rotations. I had seen and done the shell drill what felt like a million times at that point. I would have been entirely confident to explain the principles of the drill and provide extensive direction to anyone at any time and without any preparation. Everything started with that drill as I would have expected. The players on offense each took a stationary position around the perimeter and moved the ball from one player to another. Each defensive team member would shift their position depending on the place of the ball. Up to that point, everything was normal. However, one of the players threw a skip pass and drove baseline to force the team to make a more dramatic defensive rotation. That is when things got kooky.
Rather than the nearby post player sliding over to the baseline to cut off the driving ball-handler, which is the standard way of doing it in the United States, the weak side guard sprinted from the opposite end of the court to cut off the man instead. When that happened, my mouth opened, and my jaw hit the ground in disbelief. I had never seen or heard of anything like that before. Travis Best looked at me and started cracking up. He said, "I was waiting for that to happen. I knew that you would be shocked." The other American players caught on, and everyone had a nice laugh before resuming practice. I thought, "This isn't going to be as easy as I thought."
I learned that Europeans do many things differently regarding practicing, playing, coaching and preparing for the game. And although I can't say I agree with all of the philosophies, I am happy I was able to experience something new. As an ambitious 22 year old, I needed to learn and develop. Learning from a coach with significantly different coaching methods challenged me and allowed me to open my mind to new ideas. It also forced me to make decisions internally about how I saw the game and how I thought it should be played.
I had been provided a car by the team, but I was lucky to have my apartment in the "city centre" (downtown), so I could easily walk around the city. It was a short walk from the Piazza Maggiore, the main square in town, and I spent much of my time just wandering and exploring. Rich in history, Bologna was one of the most prominent cities in Europe during the Middle Ages and is the home of the University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world. It's still considered a college town.
Another part worth noting is that Bologna is in the Emilia-Romagna region, which is known for its food and wine in a country famous for its culinary excellence. Yes, the food there really was good! During my time in Bologna, I established a newfound love for gelato, espresso, vino tinto (red wine) and numerous traditional Italian dishes, including ragu alla bolognese (bolognese sauce), which originated in Bologna. I ate so much pasta! My culinary experience while in Italy was indescribably good. However, my off-the-court experiences in Italy can not be summed up that easily.
My eyes were opened more and more as I met new people and experienced different things. I learned that Italians generally choose to intently live every part of their lives with passion. That was something that made an impact on me. I have tried to adopt and apply that approach to my own life and "stop and smell the roses," even today.
Throughout Italy, soccer is the top sport. However, in Bologna, basketball is king. During the 2006-2007 season, that was especially true as my team, Virtus, and our cross-town rival Climamio were the top two teams in all of Italy. To add to the excitement of being a part of that great rivalry, Climamio had the top international NBA prospect on their team, Marco Belinelli, who attracted many NBA personnel to town to evaluate him. The Golden State Warriors selected Belinelli with the 18th pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
I was regularly invited to dinner by NBA scouts who were in town to see Belinelli,which was a terrific experience for a young guy like myself trying to learn and grow within the basketball world. Ristorante da Nello was the usual choice for NBA folks. I remember on one occasion going to dinner with Jacinto Castillo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Dennis Lindsey of the Houston Rockets. Jacinto, a Spaniard from Malaga, Spain, worked with my dad for years and is one of my favorite people. I did and still do consider him to be "the most interesting man in the world." Dennis Lindsey, the assistant general manager for the Rockets, has been a friend of my family for years and someone I have always respected. He has been an executive in the NBA for years.
I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities like that dinner with people like Jacinto and Dennis. Some of my most valuable learning experiences throughout my life and career have been at dinners where I've been a sponge listening to veteran basketball people share thoughts, opinions, and stories. Those experiences have probably contributed to my development as a basketball person more than anything else, and I'm certainly thankful for them.
Days and weeks passed, and I continued to fall in love with the city, the country and the culture. I also became close with the players and my co-workers on the team. Socially everything was great for me, and I loved living in Bologna. However, I had gone there blindly without really knowing any details about the job. After I arrived, I was informed that I could not travel with the team until I received a coaching license. They talked to me about getting the license and having me commit to a two-year contract. However, I was unsure if I wanted to commit to being away from home for so long. Also, I was given little direction in terms of what the expectations were for my role. In hindsight, I needed guidance and structure, as I was young and immature. Honestly, I wasn't ready for a job like that yet, and I struggled to find my footing workwise.
When winter break came, all of the players went home for a couple of weeks, but the team had me stay in town, although there wasn't any work for me to do. I remember driving around by myself on Christmas night, lost and hungry, desperately searching for somewhere to eat dinner because the restaurant I usually went to was closed. During that pitiful drive, the song by Stevie Wonder, "I Just Called to Say I Love You," came on the radio, and I began to miss my family, and subsequently, homesickness crept in.
It was something I had never dealt with before, and in the following days, I began to look at the glass as half empty and harped on the negatives. I called Sam Goldfeder, who had become my mentor. I talked with him about my frustrations, and over a few weeks, we discussed the idea of me working for him and his agency, Excel Sports Management. He said he would do his best to push the idea through, but for any job to come to fruition, I would need to meet with his partner and the company owner, Jeff Schwartz.
I ultimately decided to leave Bologna, Italy, and fly back to the United States to meet with Sam and Jeff in Los Angeles.
And that's when my career as a sports agent really began.
Read the last entry of this
series: "My past life as a sports agent: Bologna,
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on BabcockHoops.com.