Italian journalist Stefano Valenti writes for the weekly magazine Superbasket. He is widely considered as one of the most respected basketball experts in Europe.
Eurobasket 2003, Stockholm - 14th September.
It's Finals day, four teams on the court going for the medals. Vassilis, a good friend of mine as well as a good colleague, comes to me with a little package.
"Stefano, this is the official tie of Athens 2004, with the logo of the Olympics. Italy have just eliminated Greece here (in the Quarter-Finals) but friendship is another story."
And then he starts laughing.
The Olympic spot for the Azzurri had not been played yet and was going to be, against France.
The two teams had already met in the Preliminary Round, in the northern city of Lulea, with les Bleus winning by 33 points.
It's warm-up time ahead of that third-place game now.
|Giacomo Galanda (sans tie yet) celebrating Italy's bronze medal at EuroBasket 2003 in Sweden|
Suddenly Bulleri suffers a muscuolar pain and has to go back to the locker room with the therapist for treatment.
Just minutes into the game, Gianluca Basile sprains his ankle and he's out.
Italy's backcourt is now in trouble, losing its starters at the point and shooting guard positions.
But the Azzurri play with a lot of heart and take a 12-point lead at the half.
Basile comes back into the game but Bulleri does not.
The tie Vassilis gave me earlier is still in my bag: a kind of "lucky gift"? I think about that. But France is shooting 0/11 from three-point range in the first half. Can they do the same, in the second half?... No.
Tony Parker gets himself going in the third quarter with eight points and France follows his lead.
Boris Diaw misses a tap-in at the buzzer of the period that would have tied the game.
With just five minutes to go, Parker scores to give France their first lead of the game.
Italy seem to be on their knees. Sitting behind me, a French colleague can finally breathe, now, after almost a whole game of holding his breath.
Pierre, another good guy I've had the chance to meet in my years of covering international basketball, says to me: "It's not over, Stefano, stay strong. With France you never know..."
He was joking, clearly.
Immediately I take the Olympic tie from my bag and give it to him.
"You have a better team, you deserve to be there, Pierre... This is for you, so that you're ready»."
I was joking, too.
What happened in the closing stages of the game is well known: Parker missed a crucial free throw and seconds later took the last shot trying to force overtime, but he was short on it.
Marconato grabbed the rebound, Italy took bronze and booked its ticket to Athens.
"Stefano, as I told you it was not over. Don't forget your tie, it's here," says Pierre.
A few minutes later, in the mixed zone, team captain Giacomo Galanda is wearing the Olympic tie over his jersey with number 6.
"What's this?" somebody asks him.
"It's the Olympic tie, but it's a long story" he answers looking at me.
"And you have no idea how long it is, Jack," I think to myself...