I own a No. 17 jersey worn by Dante Calabria during his preseason stint with the Chicago Bulls in 1997. A precious few can write that sentence, probably just me and Calabria himself and maybe one of his close relations. The jersey was a gift from my wife on our wedding day, which arguably ranks among the coolest things ever.
The reason that my blushing bride scoured the Interwebs for that present is that Calabria is among my favorite players of all time. And since Calabria recently retired after 13 successful seasons in Europe, it seems an appropriate time to sing his praises.
Most U.S. basketball fans, of course, remember Calabria from his four years at North Carolina, where he was around for some heady times with the Tar Heels. Despite being a 2,000-point scorer under legendary coach John Miller at Black Hawk (Pa.) High School, Calabria was an under-the-radar recruit. Nonetheless, Calabria earned limited action as a freshman and played a minute in the Tar Heels’ 77-71 victory over Michigan in the 1993 NCAA championship game. Calabria’s role expanded from there, and his well-rounded skill-set meshed with Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse for two years, then with Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter for one season.
Dean Smith always praised Calabria’s hands. UNC’s coaching deity also loved Calabria’s passing ability and versatility, sometimes even inserting the 6-4 wing player at point guard. Calabria was also skilled practitioner of one of the game’s subtle arts: the entry pass to the post. If you watch a highlight package of Wallace’s college dunks, a lot of them came on gorgeous feeds from Calabria that perfectly led Wallace away from the defense and into scoring position.
Calabria’s most overt skill was his shooting touch. He had classical form on his jump shot, learned from his father, Chad Calabria, who starred at Iowa in the late 1960s. Dante Calabria shot 41.4% (188 of 454) on three-pointers during his four years with the Tar Heels. His best season came in 1994-’95, with defenses keyed on stopping Stackhouse and Wallace. That space allowed Calabria enough good looks to finish a remarkable 49.6% (66 of 133) on three-pointers.
Rare was the game in which Calabria carried the scoring load for UNC, but it happened in the third-ranked Tar Heels’ 100-70 victory over Florida State on Jan. 25, 1995. Seminoles coach Pat Kennedy started out with Bob Sura on Calabria, who drilled his first three-pointer after the defense lost track of him at the 17:40 mark of the first half. After the first eight minutes and a variety of zone looks by Florida State, Calabria had 11 points and made his first 3 three-pointers. He finished with 8 three-pointers in the game, including three during the game-clinching run in the second half, to tie Hubert Davis’ UNC record.
Calabria’s persona was also essential in his appeal. He played with a remarkable placidity, a common trait among great shooters. Calabria rocked low-top white sneakers with no socks showing, a rebellion against what was sartorially popular at the time (think of the high socks and heavy black shoes of Kerry Kittles and Glenn Robinson). Calabria’s singular style also often included an arm band just below his shoulder with the initials “C.S.” a tribute to his friend Chris Street, the Iowa player who died in a car wreck during the 1992-’93 season.
Calabria was categorized as a “grunge” player, a designation that was as cringe-worthy then as it is dated now. He was tagged with the label mostly because of his unkempt locks and an often-cited affection for Pearl Jam. It seems benign now but it went against the often buttoned-down approach of most UNC players under Smith. The cultivation of this “alternative” image, along with his leading-man looks, undoubtedly explained Calabria’s popularity with the female demographic.
All of this explains why I was such a fan of Calabria. Being in high school during Calabria’s heyday, all I wanted to do with my life was shoot threes, listen to “Vitalogy,” impress girls with my indifferent demeanor and be the cool white dude who got to play with the likes of Stackhouse and Wallace.
Calabria wasn’t drafted by an NBA team, but quickly found his niche overseas. He would surface Stateside during the summer leagues and show flashes of brilliance for the Utah Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers (including 33 points on 14-for-16 shooting for L.A. against the Rockets in a 2001 summer league game).
But Calabria never played a regular-season game in the NBA. The closest he came was his preseason run with the Bulls in 1997-’98. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman weren’t playing because of injuries, so Calabria filled the team’s need for warm bodies. Calabria accompanied Chicago to the McDonald’s Open in Paris, where adoring crowds filled the Palais Omnisport de Bercy for a chance to watch Michael Jordan.
Calabria didn’t see any action as the Bulls wore their red jerseys in an 89-82 victory over PSG Racing. But in the championship game against Olympiakos Piraeus, with the Bulls leading, 93-70, Calabria and his white jersey checked into the game with 4:12 remaining. He shared the court with Rusty LaRue, Keith Booth, Boris Gorenc and Joe Klein. Calabria brought the ball up the court, got an offensive rebound, missed two shots and notched a steal during garbage time of the 104-78 victory.
I remember watching that game and fervently wishing Calabria could reprise that game against Florida State and earn a spot on a team that was destined to win its sixth championship of the 1990s. That didn’t stand to reason because the Bulls didn’t have a roster spot and Calabria’s game was more suited for Europe. He was waived shortly after the Bulls returned home. I didn’t give up hope for an NBA career, though, because that was my guy and there are always players who hit you at just the right times. And, little did I know that I would one day own that Bulls jersey.