To Rome's impassioned basketball fans, he's known as the "Alain Delon of GBC Lazio." To Washington Bullets fans, he was known simply as Tom Kozelko. And to the consolation of no one - least of all Kozelko - he has traveled more than 4,000 miles to do exactly what he did for three years with Washington: sit on the bench.
The lanky curly haired 25-year-old center, cut by the Bullets last fall, has rebounded into the hands of a second-division team in the Italian basketball league but it has been a winter of discontent and pain for Kozelko.
Hobbled by a lingering back injury suffered in last year's D.C. Summer League, he has exiled himself to street clothes and bench duty, impassively watching his GBC Lazio teammates struggle to win promotion into the first division and seemingly oblivious to the banners and tom-toms, the cat-calls and smoke bombs endemic to Italian basketball.
"It's kind of discouraging," admitted the soft-spoken Kozelko at a recent practice. "In Washington I was on the bench most of the time, and then I've had the chance to play, but with the back injury, it's been a little disappointing. Other than that, I've enjoyed it so far.
"That first month was difficult," he continued. "The adjustment was hard. But after that, it's been a lot of fun."
There was a lot of adjusting to do. Instead of the cavernous Capital Centre, Kozelko's home court is the Palazzetto dello Sport (Little Sports Palace) with a capacity of 3,500. Instead of belonging to a roster with names like Hayes and Chenier, he share bench space with Maurizio Sforza and Paolo La Guardia. And while two years ago he played with the Bullets in the NBA finals, he now plays in a league which, in its worst moments, can resemble college intramurals.
The transformation from an NBA back-up to a Renaissance player was set in motion when Kozelko got his final notice from Bullet coach Dick Motta last fall. "When I was cut by the Bullets. [general manager] Bob Ferry said that there was an opening on a team in Europe," Kozelko explained. "He said if I wanted to go over, they'd take me.
"Basically, I came for two reasons. I didn't want to stop playing, I wanted to continue my career. But it wasn't only to play basketball, but to get to see another part of the world, I though by coming here I'd also get to travel a bit."
Playing in the second division has meant traveling to Goizia and Rieti (Italian versions of Dayton) as well as Venice and Florence, but it's all new territory to the Traverse City, Mich., native, one of some 50 American baseketball players currently working in Italy.
The back injury is a sore point not only for Kozelko but for the coaching staff and the Italian press.
Kozelko's prolonged absence from play (his last game was Jan. 2 and frequent shuttles between Rome and Washington three trips since last fall to consult with the Bullet physician Stan Lavine) prompted a sportswriter for the respected Milan daily Corriere della Sera to refer to him as the "mysterious object." Kozelko, happily ignorant of the Italian language, is barely aware of and unruffled by, the press childing.
Even GBC Lazio assistant coach Claudi Vandoni regards the back problem as "partly psychological." ANd Kozelko hasn't made any friends in the Italian medical prfession, either, by insisting on traveling across six time zones to see his personal physician.
"The players understand it," he said. "It's the management that doesn't. They've been very good to me, but they don't understand how you can get hurt, I guess. They think that if you can walk, you can play. They've said to me, 'You're not in a cast. Why can't you play'?"
When Kozelko is healthy, however, no one is disappointed. Before reaggravating the injury, he played in 12 games, averaging 20 points (on 53 per cent accuracy from the field) and eight rebounds an outing. Team officials hope he'll be back in action by mid-March. "He's a great player," agreed team secretary Ruddino Lucci, "but he has this little problem of nostalgia."
Kozelko makes no bones about missing America and finds some aspects of Italian life difficult to swallow, including, as unlikely as it seems, the food. Likably undiplomatic, he says he doesn't care for Italian cuisine ("too starch,"), has no desire to learn the language and has only one ready word to describe driving on Italian highways: dangerous!
"As far as life-style goes," he said, "with the language barrier it's difficult to communicate. I miss the little things you take for granted in the States. Like television. I miss just sitting down and watchin a program on TV. Or like going out to get a hamburger. It's not that easy to find one here."
When he sets out to track down the elusive burger, however, he simply walks out of his team-rented apartment in a northern neighborhood of Rome (shared with Italo-American teammate Phil Melillo), climbs into his team-purchased gas and, if he finds a hamburger, pays for it with teamsupplied meal money, all fringe benefits which are not that easy to find in the States.
Those are part of the extras in Kozelko's tow-year, no-cut contract with GBC Lazio, beyond a salary "basically the same" as the one he received from the Bullets. But there is one catch.
"The quality of basketball isn't what it is in the States," said Kozelko, pointing out the hidden clause. "Each team has two or three good players, but after that the quality drops off considerably.
"On the average, it's maybe at college level, but not at the level of the teams would beat these teams on a regular bases." Nevertheless, with American players matching up against each other in most games, Kozelko calls it good competition.