By David Hein
The Italian players who shocked Lithuania to reach the semi-finals of the U20 European Championship were only five or six years old when Walter Magnifico played the last time for the Azzurri in 1995.
But with the help of the legendary Dino Meneghin, Magnifico is helping the U20 players deal with the highs and lows on and off the court of playing for the Italian U20 team.
"It is very interesting because personally I came back to the national team after so many years away when I was a player. And it gives me great pleasure. And I think my experience of living through these championships can be very good for the players," said Magnifico, who is in Greece as the Italian team's head of delegation.
The idea of Magnifico serving as the delegation head was the brainchild of Italian basketball federation president Dino Meneghin.
Magnifico is one of three former Italian legends who have been appointed as heads of delegation for Italy's three men's youth teams. Andrea Niccolai is with the U18 team in Metz, France, and Fabrizio "Ciccio" Della Fiori will be accompanying the U16 Italian side in August in Kaunas.
"I lived the national team life since I was 16 years old. And I saw that every time an old player quit the national team it was like he was in limbo. Nobody takes care of him. Nobody remembers him. And it's a pity, especially for the young kids because they don't know the history of Italian basketball," explained Meneghin.
"I had the opportunity after I quit playing to work with the national team. And I saw that all the people around Italy and the players still knew me because I was working with the national team. So I didn't want that the great players to be forgotten, especially by our young kids. That's why I invited Walter here and have Andrea and Ciccio with the other teams."
"This is a great thing that the federation did. It's also great for me. Most of these kids never saw me play. But we are the players who wrote the history of Italian basketball and we have something to give back to the kids and the sport," said Della Fiori.
He said he plans on listening to the youngsters and helping pick up their morale and deal with their problems, besides teaching them some technical things.
"They know they can trust you when they grow up with you. I think this can really help the development of the kids," added Della Fiori.
Meneghin said the move also helps the coaches since some times it's easier for players to relate to players than their coaches.
"It's much easier hearing something from a former player than hearing it from the coach. And some times the young players go to them and ask what it was like to play in the old times, also the rules and the system.
"It's kind of like a father and son relationship."
Magnifico has been very pleased with the response of the Italian U20 players.
"It has been very, very beautiful, very kind. They ask very simple things, about moments how I lived a situation on the court or they ask how to react when something positive happens or negative situation. They are very respectful to the former players," said Magnifico, who won two Italian league championships and played in five EuroBaskets as well as the 1990 FIBA World Champship and the 1984 Olympics.
"They know who I was. They didn't see me play. But they know because in their clubs their coaches or mangers are ex-players and they talk about other old players. It's like me knowing the players who played 15 years or so before me. That's how they think about me.
"Their reaction has been very strong. Very interested in it."
Meneghin added that he has already started to implement the move in Italian women's basketball as well with legendary women's player Mara Fullin serving as team director for Italy at the 2009 EuroBasket Women in Latvia
"Even more in the women's game, the older players are forgotten. And it's a pity for the history, for the tradition, for the memories," said Meneghin, who plans on appointing former players as heads of delegation for the Italian women's youth teams starting next summer.
"And maybe these old female players if they see that they are involved in the system, maybe they keep on working on it. Maybe they can become coaches or general managers. Many old players just forget completely basketball and work on other things. And it's a great pity."
Luckily Meneghin is not ready to let people forget.