Watching Andrea Bernardi talk about basketball is almost like Jimi Hendrix playing “All Along the Watchtower,” even if it is less historically impactful. The way he vocalizes the game and his passion for it, something he’s maintained since he was four; how the game differs in level-of-play between Italy and America. Okay, so the Hendrix comparison extreme. But it is awfully stimulating, watching someone’s passion overflow as they discuss the thing they seem meant to discuss.
It’s a fascinating conversation made even more fascinating by the fact that he hasn’t played on an organized level in over a year, a decision that was nowhere near in his control. That’s where the glow disappears, the one you otherwise see when he describes what he felt while studying and playing the game; he’ll openly discuss his unfortunate, albeit uncontrollable exit from the Marist men’s team, though his demeanor, in turn, will openly deviate.
The beam he enjoys as he talks about playing on the pro level in Italy alongside players like Aaron Craft and David Lighty, gone. He once played professional ball against Alex Antetokounmpo. Yes, Giannis’ youngest brother, who is “not as good skill-wise” but is still “insanely good athletically.” He smiled recalling that, too, but didn’t so much as see his lip tremor toward a grin as he discusses his Marist career. The memories are there, sure. The daily experience, though, doesn’t exist anymore.
When Marist fired Mike Maker in 2018, the team, apparently, was as shocked as the coach. “We thought it was just a regular meeting before starting practice,” Bernardi said. “He comes in… and he says, ‘look, guys, I didn’t really see that coming. They fired me.’” The staff followed suit – aside from assistant coach CJ Lee, who stayed on during the transition between Maker and now-coach John Dunne – while the players worried.
“We didn’t really know about NCAA rules [with] these things,” he said. “We thought that based on the previous experience of other players… it [would] be the same. We’re not going to have much chances to play, but we’ll still be on the team.” When he says “previous experience of other players,” he speaks of that year’s seniors, Connor McClenaghan and Obi Momah, whom Maker didn’t recruit but kept on when he was hired. What a concept, right? Keeping players who have committed to your program – some of whom had to relatively uproot a piece of their lives and travel great distances in order to do so — regardless of the coaching philosophy?
Bernardi’s worries turned to fears, and the fears to realized fears. He explained that Dunne told the team he’d be evaluating them, though Andrea wasn’t sure to which degree. Dunne’s evaluation, in length, was a process that dragged on until the school year ended. Frankly, Bernardi was more worried about the fact that “[Dunne] wasn’t telling [him] anything,” and that he needed to travel back home for the summer (a measly 4,242-mile trip). When Bernardi finally asked Dunne what “was going on,” Dunne told him that it was unlikely he’d be on the team that following season.
“He said he didn’t know if I was athletic enough, he didn’t know if I was good enough, he didn’t know if I could shoot the ball good enough,” he said. “I remember these things pretty clear.” According to Bernardi, Dunne first cut him and Lasse Gummerus after just one season, then later cut Aleksandar Dozic and Austin Williams. “At the end of the day, he [kicked] us out.” Andrea kept leaning forward in his chair throughout this portion of the conversation, his leg bouncing and hands clasped together. Whenever they came apart, it was only to push up his glasses and rub his eyes. His emotion wasn’t fury or vitriol, and there weren’t any tears to wipe away; it was more exasperation than anything. It’s something that naturally comes with revisiting a moment much less pleasant than playing pro ball in Italy with Rayvonte Rice.
He didn’t get it; Dunne’s assessment, that is. He described a scenario in which he and another player on the team stole the ball and raced down to the other end and dunked, the first play probably minutes apart from the second. He said that practice continued when he made the play, but was stopped by the coaches after the other player’s dunk. “That’s what I’m talking about!” he recalled, paraphrasing what Dunne said that day. “That’s what we want more of!”
Why the differentiation in reaction? Bernardi’s not exactly sure, though he didn’t mince words once we were off the record. Reverting back to when we were on the record, his feelings can be summed up with one statement, one that Bernardi believes was truly behind these “evaluation” periods. “I believe he had his own plan in his mind already,” he said. “Like, pretty clear.”
Bernardi wanted to keep playing. That was his whole goal: to play basketball and to go to school. “It was really my dream coming true, coming to the states and playing basketball,” he said. He had it all planned out: come here, play basketball at a Division I school, graduate, and go back to Italy (he emphasized that he “didn’t want, of course, to go to the NBA… I’m pretty realistic”). Plans change, and he’s not oblivious to such realities, but reality can be harsh.
They do things differently overseas, as he said, which led him to call the transition out of playing basketball essentially full-time “one of the toughest moments of [his] young life.” In Italy, everything is separate. There’s school, and there’s sport. Bernardi wanted both, and unless he came to America, he’d have to choose. As the time for Bernardi to decide whether he’d play basketball or go to school neared, Mike Maker called. He had seen some tapes, chatted with some coaches and teammates, and wanted to give Bernardi a four-year scholarship to attend Marist.
“What I believed was to be four years,” he added.
He wasn’t sure at the time, though. Marist didn’t have a history that particularly drew him in. He had an offer from an academy in Maine to consider, too, one that he thought could perhaps lead to opportunities at schools of a loftier standing in NCAA basketball. He said that the advice from Craft and Lighty – both of whom played college ball at Ohio State – was the most influential. They urged him to go right to the NCAA – a backward idea from the popular straight-to-the-NBA dreams of today – and Bernardi bit. Maker’s offer was a guaranteed four years in his mind, an opportunity that few players get.
The transition from Italy to Poughkeepsie was one thing; the ensuing transition from all basketball to no basketball was an unexpected animal. “Basketball became a constant part of my life,” he said, again pushing away the glasses to rub his eyes. “I never thought of not having basketball in my life. Facing that possibility… was pretty shocking to me.” He would eventually “accept quitting basketball” and point his focus toward his future. No more class schedules based on practice conflicts. No more blocking out time for the athlete study hours. “I had to restructure my schedule, my life, and know that I didn’t have something that was rotating around it as basketball [was].”
It almost didn’t change. He tried walking on to the football team in order to keep busy and maintain a commitment to a sport-environment. He went out for wide receiver, naturally, relying on his athleticism and 6-foot-4-inch stature to make plays, but found trouble adjusting to the game. “The team was great,” he said. “I don’t understand anything about football, so I’m telling you, they were so nice.” The 6:30 a.m. practices were additionally a bit of a difficult change to make. He explained that he enjoys doing his own stuff at night and in the morning – “study, chill, watch Netflix” – and eventually decided that he’d serve the team best as a fan.
So things changed, “for real.” He’s eyeing a career in the competitive business administration and finance field and is required to spend 20 hours a week in Hancock’s investment center. He traded his endless supply of Marist athletics apparel for suits; to be in finance, you have to look the part. That’s how the schedule is constructed now. Class and his career. Well, not solely those facets of his life.
Last semester – following his stint with the football team – Bernardi was approached by Brian Girogis, the head coach of the Marist women’s basketball team, about being a practice player for their team. He’d run plays, play defense, and help to prepare the women for their weekly matchups. It isn’t totally required; it’s a way that some guys can get a run in while also helping the women improve every day.
“Honestly, the first time he asked me, I was like, ‘there’s no chance I’m gonna do it,’” he said, chuckling and shrugging as if to say, “things change, I guess.” Andrea said he takes pride in his physicality and intensity on the court and wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep it at bay against the women. But after talking with some of the players on the team, he felt encouraged to at least try. He promised to do it for that semester with no further guarantees. He’ll be back again this season.
“I think, for the most part, guys don’t really seek us out just because they don’t really know we use guys in practice, so that’s probably the biggest difference with him,” said Maggie Gallagher, an assistant coach for the women’s team and the practice player “liaison,” of sorts. “He sought us out and really wanted to be a part of it. [He] kind of did the work on his own.”
The “work” obviously derives from a life in the game. Even without the constant abundance of basketball that came with being on the men’s team, he’s not without the game. He’s still able to get shots up, to sweat, to exercise his “his sense” and “basketball IQ,” both of which Gallagher openly praised and appreciates having as an asset to her players and Bernardi’s fellow practice teammates. “Pretty much ask him to do anything, and he can do it, which makes our job really easy.”
Though it’s not the same, it’s something. “It’s kind of painful coming to the gym and not being on the team, but at the same time, it’s a good way to run, sweat, like, stay a little bit in shape,” he said. “It was painful to see my teammates have practice before or after me, but I got over it.”
He got over it because, admittedly, he sees a bigger picture now. Even if he doesn’t totally appreciate the freedom that a clearer schedule offers – he’d rather be studying on the bus to Siena than in Hancock without a game around the corner – he “started finding satisfaction” in other areas. He ended the year with a 4.0, “for what it matters,” and is proud to explore life in the field his suit and tie may represent.
For Bernardi, it could be Italian pro ball, Marist Division-I ball, youth-league, or being a practice dummy. It doesn’t totally matter. Not anymore. “It’s just basketball at the end of the day.”
Edited by Alex Azarm
Header Image by Kristin Flanigan