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As basketball star lives dream in Italy, Armwood retires his jersey

Adam Sollazzo, right, helped East Tennessee State University reach the NCAA tournament twice.

East Tennessee State University

Adam Sollazzo, right, helped East Tennessee State University reach the NCAA tournament twice.

SEFFNER — Jab step left. Dribble drive right. Crossover and step back. Fade-away jumper. Adam Sollazzo repeated that cycle countless times in Armwood's gymnasium, honing his basketball chops.

Now his old jersey is a permanent fixture in that same Hawks' field house.

Armwood retired Sollazzo's No. 20 on Thursday, making him the first Hawk basketball player to gain that honor.

"I spent so many hours in that gym, working on my game," said Sollazzo, 23. "To see my jersey hanging up there is going to be something special."

Sollazzo could not attend the ceremony, because he is playing pro ball in Italy. However, a number of Sollazzo's relatives stood in for him, including dad Paul and mom Terry.

"I have a very close family, and none of this would be possible without them," Sollazzo said. "My mother made her first trip outside the United States this year to come see me in Italy, and I talk to them by some form of communication once a day."

Sollazzo, a then-St. Petersburg Times All-Suncoast first team pick, averaged nearly 22 points per game en route to being named the Tampa Bay Basketball Coaches Association player of the year as a senior in 2008. Off the court, Sollazzo was just as good, earning the Alston "Mac" McGahagin Award as the county's top academic boys basketball player.

"Adam was a terrific basketball player, terrific in the classroom and a great person," Hawks coach Jeff Pafunda said. "He really just excels at everything he does."

Sollazzo graduated magna cum laude in 2012 from East Tennessee State, where he twice led the Buccaneers to the NCAA tournament and as a senior was named the Division 1 national scholar athlete of the year.

"His success in the classroom had a lot to do with why we wanted to honor him," Pafunda said. "He was a true student-athlete in every sense of the word."

Sollazzo got workouts with New York and Atlanta after graduating, and although he said "both teams really liked my game," they told him to play overseas "to work on a few things."

"They both were impressed but thought I need some time to grow," he said. "When I came overseas, I wasn't much of a 3-point shooter. But I've been putting in the work and now have one of the better percentages in the league."

After a successful stint in Germany last season, Sollazzo this year became the first American to sign with Acmar Ravenna in Liga 2, an Italian second-division pro team. He's averaging 19.1 points per game and pulling down 5.4 rebounds.

"I remember in Spanish class writing a paper and saying my dream was to play pro ball in Italy," Sollazzo said. "And I love it over here."

And due to his heritage, Sollazzo is finalizing the necessary paperwork to qualify for a possible slot on the Italian National team.

"It would be amazing to come home and play against the U.S. National teams," he said. "A dream."

For now, the 6-foot-6 American is integrating himself as well as he can among the natives in the small Italian beach town. Ravenna is about 45 minutes from Bologna and is roughly a two-hour train ride to either Florence or Venice.

"I'm actually starting to understand the language, and I've had a lot of fun exploring all the country and taking in the history," Sollazzo said. "And of course, the food is outstanding. Most people around here know me because I was the first American to sign with the team, so I've been invited to dinner a lot. I've had about 15 Italian grandmas cook for me."

As much as he loves the country, the NBA is still in the front of Sollazzo's mind. But if that doesn't work out, there could be worse careers than playing pro ball in Italy.

"I want to make it back home and into the league, for sure," he said. "But I could also see a life here in Italy. I just have so much love for the game and am so happy I get to wake up every day and get paid to play basketball."

As basketball star lives dream in Italy, Armwood retires his jersey 01/22/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 4:55pm]
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