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Former NBA player’s return to Italy uncertain amid coronavirus lockdown

Chris McNealy, a onetime Knick, remains in California due to travel restrictions

Former New York Knicks forward Chris McNealy will remain in America longer than expected after his return to Italy was delayed due to the coronavirus.

On Monday, Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, put the entire country of 60 million people on lockdown to fight the coronavirus outbreak that has led to the deaths of more than 600 people and infected more than 10,000 in Italy.

“My wife was on the phone with me from Italy listening to [Conte] say that they were shutting the country down and they would be in an orange zone. No one could travel. No one could move around,” McNealy said in a phone interview from Fresno, California, on Tuesday. “I heard the news before it came out in the States. I was a little concerned for her, my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law. And I was also concerned about when can I go home.”

McNealy, 58, stays in Fresno, CA for family reasons but has dual-citizenship in Italy, spending significant time in Northern Italy with his wife Daniela, who is Italian. He made a name for himself in Italy after playing professional basketball there, and he owns Italian citizenship. But he returned to his hometown of Fresno in mid-December to visit his ailing mother and tend to business. McNealy’s date of his return is now uncertain. McNealy said a current return to Italy would likely require him to fly to another country first. He and his wife have been communicating daily through WhatsApp.

Chris McNealy (left) and his wife, Daniela Negroni McNealy (right).

Courtesy of the McNealy family

“My wife is fine,” he said. “She is not worried about herself or her family.

“She is more concerned about me being here than being in Italy. The health care in Italy, I don’t care who, what and where, they do more than above of what is needed to take care of their citizens. Why don’t they do that in the United States?”

McNealy began his professional basketball career in Italy, playing in the northeastern seaport city of Trieste in 1983. (He was drafted by the then-Kansas City Kings with the 38th overall pick in the second round of the 1983 NBA draft, but the Kings dealt McNealy’s rights to the Chicago Bulls, who didn’t sign him to a contract.) During his stint in Italy, he began falling in love with the country despite the language barrier and other challenges.

“My agent was telling me it was a city similar to San Francisco,” McNealy said. “It is on the sea and has some hills, but doesn’t compare. It was my first experience driving Italian small cars. The team gave me a small stick shift Fiat and I didn’t know how to drive stick. … When I was settling into my new apartment, I plugged in my television and it started smoking and almost caught on fire. I didn’t know they used 220 current compared to our 110 voltage.”

After one season in Italy, McNealy returned to the States to pursue his NBA dream. Before the 1985-86 season, he was waived by the Golden State Warriors. But on Feb. 12, 1986, the defensive specialist signed a 10-day contract with the Knicks that resulted in him being signed for the remainder of the season. McNealy would go on to play in parts of three seasons with the Knicks, averaging 4.3 points and 3.4 rebounds. The Knicks waived McNealy on Dec. 15, 1987, under first-year head coach Rick Pitino.

“He was a hard-nosed defensive player,” former Knicks guard Trent Tucker said. “He understood the game really well and was a good teammate to have. Came to work every day and played hard. Even though it was a short time as teammates, he had some good qualities you don’t forget.”

McNealy tried to return to the NBA through the CBA, but ended up playing in Europe.

“Playing in the NBA helped me to prolong and continue my career in Europe. I had a chip on my shoulder that helped me have a career outside of the U.S.,” McNealy said. “Once I got overseas, things went really, really well for me. At that time, I couldn’t get another guaranteed contract in the NBA. But I got a call from my agent to go back to Italy, so I went back.”

McNealy returned to Italy in 1988 and played for Aurora Desio near Milan. He loved life in Milan, where he saw a lot of Americans, dug the fashion and earned a comfortable living. He later played in Bologna and Tuscany until 1995, and became fluent in Italian.

McNealy played against then-NBA players Micheal Ray Richardson, Bob McAdoo, George Gervin, Norm Nixon, Mike D’Antoni and Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the father of late retired Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant. McNealy remembers seeing a young Kobe on the hardwood in Italy.

“Kobe used to come on the court before the games and shoot around,” McNealy said. “He grew up in Italy and you would see him in town walking around and shopping. I would see Joe all the time and we would hang out. All the Americans would stick together, celebrate Thanksgiving and hang out on the weekends. I would see Kobe a lot.”

McNealy played in Spain starting in 1995 until he retired in 1999. He returned to the United States shortly thereafter and opened a shoe store called Modelli Shoes of Italy in downtown Oakland, California, where former Warriors bought shoes from McNealy. He said Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal also received some as gifts from teammates, according to SFGate.com. McNealy also had an in-game sponsorship with the Warriors at home games.

But McNealy began the process of closing the store in 2002. He also yearned to return to Italy. Coincidentally, McNealy received an offer from then-Warriors executive director of basketball operations Otis Smith that he couldn’t refuse.

“I told Otis, ‘You know, I’ve been in the States for a while, but I am looking to move back to Italy,’ ” McNealy said. “Otis told me right then, ‘You know, we are looking for a scout in Europe.’ I told him I would be interested in that. I went to the office, talked to [then-Warriors assistant coach Garry] St. Jean, and within a month I was closing my store and moving back to Italy to become a scout for the Warriors.”

McNealy worked as an international scout based in Italy for the Warriors from 2002 to 2009. In 2007, it was his strong recommendation for the Warriors to draft Italian sharpshooter Marco Belinelli, who is still in the NBA and currently plays for the San Antonio Spurs.

“I played a role for sure. I saw him more than anyone and believed in his skill set,” McNealy said. “I thought he could play with the league with the determination.”

McNealy and his wife currently own and operate a bed-and-breakfast in Grizzana Morandi, lead American tours of Tuscany and host golf excursions in Tuscany. He said they are also a partner in an Italian clothing company. McNealy said their bed-and-breakfast typically opens in April, but the coronavirus concerns will delay that.

McNealy said Italy is doing a good job of prioritizing its citizens’ health ahead of financial gain in this tragic situation.

“Italy was one of the first countries apart from China to come out and admit they had this, knowing that they would take a hit from the economy,” he said. “But their first thing is to take care of the citizens and make sure they know what is going on. Economy is second, and that is what the Italian president is saying. …

“Even with an Italian health system that is good, if there are too many people, it is difficult to handle.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.