Matt Babcock shares his experience of living in Bologna, Italy as an assistant coach of a professional basketball team prior to becoming a sports agent.
Nearly 14 years ago, I received a call from sports agent and family friend, 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 continued to explain that the team's season had already begun and if I wanted to accept that job I would need to pack my bags and fly to Italy pretty much 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 parents home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to travel nearly 5,000 miles to Bologna, Italy without knowing many details, other than there was a job awaiting me. I was 22-years-old at the time and set to embark on an 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; it was 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 also when he played a minor 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, who had been 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 brought in to be his teammate. I’m sure he was a bit 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, in Italy, Travis was a star, and widely known throughout Bologna as “The Best.” He was clearly 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. On our team, we had big man Kris Lang who had played at North Carolina, Danish forward Christian Drejer from Florida, sharpshooter Brett Blizzard from UNC-Wilmington, Ilian Evtimov from North Carolina State, and even a fellow Arizona Wildcat, Bennett Davison, who had played at UofA before I did and was college roommates with my former assistant coach, Josh Pastner. Their team won the National Championship in 1997. Bear Down!
It would be great to be able 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. Actually, it was quite the opposite of that, as I quickly found myself out of my element. Let me explain... Our team was conducting what is commonly called a “shell drill,” a traditional exercise for a team to work on their defensive positioning and rotations. I had seen and done the shell drill what had felt like a million times at that point in my life. I would have been completely confident to explain the principles of the drill and provide extensive direction to anyone, at any time, and without any preparation. Everything started out with that drill as I would have expected. The players on the offensive team each took a stationary position around the perimeter and moved the ball from one player to another. Depending on where the ball was, each member on the defensive team would shift their positioning. Up to that point, everything was normal for me. 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, I think 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 to myself, “this isn’t going to be as easy as I had thought.”
I would come to learn that there are many things that Europeans do differently in regards to 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, what I needed the most was to learn and develop. Having worked for a coach that had extremely different coaching methods than what I was used to, challenged me and allowed me to open my mind to new ideas. It also forced me to make some decisions for myself internally about how I saw the game and how I thought it should be played — and for those reasons, I’m very grateful!
I had been provided a car by the team, but I was lucky to have my apartment right in the city centre (downtown), so I could easily walk around the city. I was a short walk from the Piazza Maggiore, which is the main square in town, and I spent much of my personal 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, which is the oldest university in the world — it’s still considered a college town. Another part that is worth noting is that Bologna is in the Emilia-Romagna region, which is known for its food and wine, in a country that is famously known for its culinary excellence. Yes, the food was mouth-watering good! During my time there, 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! Needless to say, my culinary experience while in Italy was indescribably good, but my off-the-court experiences in Italy weren’t summed up that easily. The more people I met and the more I experienced while in Italy, the more my eyes were opened to the fact that Italians generally choose to intently live every part of their lives with a substantial amount of passion. That was something that made an impactful impression on me. I have tried to adopt and apply that approach to my own life, even to this day.
Throughout Italy, soccer is the top sport. However, not in Bologna. There, basketball is king. During the 2006-2007 season, that was especially the case as my team, Virtus, and our cross-town bitter 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. Belinelli went on to be selected by the Golden State Warriors with the 18th pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
During that time, 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, which is a favorite of mine. 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 have ever crossed paths with. I did and still do consider him to be “the most interesting man in the world.” Dennis Lindsey, who was the assistant general manager for the Rockets at the time, has been a good friend of my family for years and someone I have always looked up to. He is now the “head honcho” for the Utah Jazz. I have certainly been fortunate to have had many opportunities like that dinner with people like Jacinto and Dennis where many thoughts, opinions, and stories have been shared. Those types of experiences have perhaps 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 more and more. I also became close with the players and my co-workers on the team. Socially everything was great, I loved living there! However, I had gone there blindly without really knowing any details about the job. Once I had arrived I was informed that I was unable to 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, which made me a little uneasy. Also, I was given little direction in terms of what was expected from my role. In hindsight, I needed direction and structure, as I was really young. All in all, I really just 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 really any work for me to do. I remember driving around by myself on Christmas night, lost and hungry, desperately searching to find somewhere to eat dinner because the restaurant I usually went to was closed, to my surprise. 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 really miss my family, and subsequently homesickness crept in — something I had never really dealt with before. The following days I began to look at the glass as half empty and magnified the negatives of my current situation, which certainly was a mistake and immature of me. I called Sam Goldfeder who had become a close friend and mentor. I talked with him about my frustrations, and over the course of 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 in order for any job to come to fruition, I would need to meet with his partner and the owner of the company, Jeff Schwartz.
I ultimately decided to leave Bologna, Italy prematurely to fly back to the United States to meet with Sam and Jeff in Los Angeles.
That’s when my career as a sports agent really began…
Which leads me to the next installment of the series: “My Past Life as a Sports Agent.”