When Luigi Datome was traded from the Detroit Pistons to the Boston Celtics last month, he was a rarely utilized second-year reserve who had appeared in just eight games this season. After an initial handful of DNPs on his new team, he responded when Celtics head coach Brad Stevens called his name.
Datome scored 10 points in as many minutes on Sunday against the Orlando Magic. He followed that up with a 13-point game the next night against the Miami HEAT, surpassing the 11 points he had scored all season for the Pistons.
Datome has quickly become a fan favorite among Celtics followers, but there is still much to be learned about the 27-year-old forward from Italy. What was his life like prior to the NBA? Why was he at TD Garden for the 2010 Finals? And what’s the story behind the hair? Basketball Insiders got to know “Gigi.”
Where It All Began
Datome was born in Italy and played 10 years of professional basketball there before moving to the United States.
“Olbia is my hometown in Sardinia,” he said. “It has two big islands underneath it — Sicily, which is more famous all over the world, but Sardinia is another lovely place. We are famous for the seaside, so there are a lot of tourists in the summer. It’s a normal city with 50,000-60,000 people. Not too big, not too small. I’m so, so lucky that I grew up over there.”
Runs in the Family
Basketball is a popular sport in the Datome family. Between his father and brother, he has had a ball in his hand for what seems like his entire life.
“(I started playing because) my older brother was,” he said. “My dad still is the president of a little club there. It’s a little team, there are a lot of teams where kids play basketball. I didn’t even remember my first day playing because I was so little.”
Part of the 2010 NBA Finals
Datome was part of the Celtics’ 2010 NBA Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers — kind of. Five years ago, Datome was still playing pro ball in Italy. He took a 10-day vacation to the United States with his brother and a friend to catch Game 4 at TD Garden and Game 6 at the Staples Center with a stop in Las Vegas in between. Datome had no idea he would end up playing on the parquet.
“I was 23 and I never thought about maybe one day maybe I’d be coming here,” Datome said. “I never thought about it then, in this life. I was far away, third from the last row. I remember Rasheed Wallace was taking halfcourt shots during warmups. Everybody was on the two line, but him and Nate Robinson and Big Baby (Glen) Davis were at halfcourt. I remember Boston led the game since the beginning. Kobe (Bryant) had a little run, but the game was never in doubt. It was the game Nate Robinson jumped on Davis’ back.
“Here (I was a fan of) Boston, there (I was a fan of) L.A. When we went to fly back to Boston to go back to Italy, when we landed Game 7 was finishing so we were cheering for Boston. I didn’t have a favorite team, I just enjoyed the Finals.
“Now I’m here. It’s special because it’s something so big, but then it’s something more because of the trip. You don’t plan (to be a member of the Celtics) and then it’s so nice.”
An Unexpected Reality
Datome envisioned himself becoming a professional basketball player. But doing it in the NBA? That was another story. Datome thought he would play ball in Europe, until scouts began to take notice. He signed with the Pistons in July of 2013 at age 26, making a distant goal his new reality.
“I wanted to come before, but nobody called me,” Datome said. “The scouts came and watched me my last season in Italy. There was this possibility when my season was over. Free agency started, then the talks became real. I started figuring out maybe it could be something real.
“It’s the NBA. Every kid growing up is looking at the NBA and it was something so far from me. It wasn’t even my target to be in the NBA. I had a very good season and I felt I was the right age to come here and have this opportunity.”
From Admirer to Opponent
As a basketball fan in Italy, Datome got his fill of the NBA. He now competes against the players he enjoyed watching.
“Growing up I watched Kobe Bryant a lot for sure,” Datome said. “I was too little when MJ won the second three-peat. I watched Vince Carter a lot because that was the year he was making the Dunk Contest. I watched Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol because I paid attention to the Euros.”
Before games, Datome can be found with a cup of coffee in his hands. Unlike other players who prefer sports drinks, he sticks with a hot beverage.
“It’s just something to wake me up a little bit,” he explained as he stirred. “I got used to a shot of espresso back in Italy. Here, everywhere I go, I just find a big quantity of coffee and I enjoy it. I drink it straight black. I just need caffeine.”
Hair Today, Gone …?
Datome is recognizable on the court by his beard and ponytail. His Instagram profile even reads, “Long hair don’t care.” He likes his locks now, but doesn’t plan on keeping them forever.
“I started growing my hair in 2011. I’ve had the ponytail since the summer of 2012,” he said. “I just tried it and I liked it and stuck with it. I will cut it. I can’t be 35 years old with a ponytail. (laughs) I’ve got to be serious at a certain point in my life.”
Outside of basketball, Datome plays the guitar. He learned the instrument three years ago and is modest about his musical skills.
“I play easy stuff because I’m not that good,” he said with a smile. “But sometimes I can listen to the rhythm and think, O.K. this should be easy. I try the chord and then I can follow the song. I feel good, I feel very nice (when I’m playing). I can play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ from Led Zeppelin. My former teacher trusted me a lot. I can play it up to a certain point. It’s like three or four minutes of the song.”
Datome often gets approached by fans when he returns home to Italy. He doesn’t mind it, though. He appreciates the support he receives from afar.
“Because of the NBA, I have more popularity over there,” Datome said. “Not too crazy, I can still go out and have fun but people recognize me. I like it because it means I’m doing something nice in my life. These two games I played (against the Magic and HEAT) after such a long time, I got so many messages on Facebook from Italy, fans that were hoping something like that would happen. So I feel the love from people back home.”
Hello, My Name Is …
Luigi or Gigi? Datome prefers to go by his nickname.
“Fans should call me Gigi,” he said. “Everybody called me Luigi in the beginning. Then when I moved from my hometown, everybody started to call me Gigi and I just stuck with it. Most of the guys in Italy call Luigi Gigi. I like it, it’s easy. Especially here, Luigi, people don’t know how to spell it. Gigi is G-I-G-I.”
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