Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni talks about the end of...

Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni talks about the end of the 2009-10 season and the future of next year's team. (Apr. 15, 2010) Credit: Richard Harbus

MILAN - The Palalido, a crumbling basketball arena surrounded by tall, spiked iron gates along Piazzale Carlo Stuparich, has seen better days. And Mike D'Antoni has seen most of them.

It was here that a West Virginian became a star for Olimpia Milano, which won five European championships during his playing career. It was here he stood yesterday, three decades removed from that time of his life, and allowed himself a brief smile as he looked around this dusty time capsule while his Knicks team practiced. A feeling came over him.

"That I'm old,'' he said with a laugh.

The Knicks play his old team, now called Armani Jeans Milano, Sunday in an exhibition at a more modern facility, the 12,000-seat Mediolanum Forum. The visit here is a homecoming for Danilo Gallinari, who grew up in nearby Graffignana and played for Milano before the Knicks drafted him in 2008. But the trip is equally special for D'Antoni, 59, who hadn't been back in almost a decade.

The memories returned as quickly as his ability to transition from West Virginia twang to impressively fluent Italiano. There was the time he was in training camp with the Bulls in 1978 and Rod Thorn, then their general manager, was impressed enough to put the four-year veteran of the NBA and the ABA on the roster. But D'Antoni's heart still pulled him back to Milan, where he had just completed two very successful seasons, and the team desperately wanted him back. D'Antoni knew that even if he made the Bulls, he probably wouldn't play much. He certainly wouldn't do the things he could do in Milan.

So in the darkness of the early morning in Chicago, D'Antoni packed his bags and caught the first flight out of O'Hare.

"It was the best decision I've ever made in my entire life,'' he said. A few years later, he met his wife, Laurel, who was a model working in Milan. In 1993, their son, Michael, was born at a nearby hospital, and D'Antoni recalls proudly that the bill was a mere $10.

"National health care, baby!'' he said.

D'Antoni's brilliant playing career - he finished as the team's all-time leading scorer and once was the idol of a kid named Kobe Bryant, who grew up in Italy while his father, Joe, played in the Italian League - turned into a successful coaching career.

It began - where else? - in Milan. He coached Phillips Milan from 1990-94 before he moved on to Benetton Treviso, where he won an Italian League championship. The experience compelled him to go back to the NBA, where it took a few tries (and one return to Italy in 2001-02) to find the golden opportunity in Phoenix.

The years have gone by quickly, and here he is back where it started.

D'Antoni owes his career to what he had here in Milan. If he didn't return that fall of 1978, he says, "I'd be running a restaurant somewhere.''

Instead, he'll be the host at a restaurant here tonight, when he and Laurel have organized a reunion of about 70 former teammates and players from his years in Milan. Said D'Antoni: "I'll see a lot of people that mean a lot to me.''