Virtus Segafredo Bologna’s 21-year-old guard Nico Mannion went through all the steps expected of an American basketball prodigy. He was on magazine covers in high school, was a five-star college recruit and – after just one season in college with the Arizona Wildcats – was drafted in the NBA and made his debut in that league with the Golden State Warriors while still a teenager.
While following that basketball path, Mannion also embraced his family’s Italian roots. Nico was born in Siena, Italy, to two professional athletes. His mother Gaia is a former volleyball player, who was born and raised in Rome, and his father Pace is a former basketball player, who played six seasons in the NBA and more than a decade in Italy.
“Actually, when I was born, my dad was an Italian citizen, so technically I was born to two Italian parents,” Nico explained. “He was already here for 13 years, he speaks fluent now, and he has embraced the culture just as much as I did growing up.”
“I think that my mom did a really good job of keeping the Italian culture.”
When Nico was less than three years old, the Mannion family decided to move back to the United States and that’s where he would grow up. However, a big part of his upbringing was the strong connection he kept with his native country, mainly thanks to his mother’s sense of family.
“I spent one month out of every summer in Rome. My mom’s whole side of the family still lives in Rome, so we’d spent a month of our time back there.”
Young Nico’s constant contact with Italy helped him develop a sense of awareness that kids of his age didn’t necessarily have. On top of that, his mother always went the extra mile to keep the Italian ties strong in the household.
“I think that my mom did a really good job of keeping the Italian culture. In America, for instance, family dinners are not a huge thing. People go about their own day, they eat when they can,” Nico recalled. “My mom made it a habit for us to sit down together every night as a family. She would cook or my dad would grill, but we’d sit down together as a family. It was later dinners of course, like Italians. Americans like to eat earlier.”
Nico was also fluent in two languages from the cradle, even though, at the beginning, he needed some guidance with that.
“When I was little and started speaking, I would mix the languages, because I didn’t know the difference between Italian and English as I heard them both,” Mannion said. “So growing up, my mom would only speak Italian to me, and my dad spoke in English, and that’s how I kind of learned how to separate them. So I never really got to learn a language, I just had them and had to learn how to separate them, which was interesting.”
Being born to two professional athletes, it’s no big surprise that Mannion ended up following the same path and even inheriting a competitive side. From his dad or his mom? He has a theory about that.
“My mom… she’s a badass. She’s super-competitive. Both my parents were athletes, of course, and I think I get my competitive side from both of them, but my mom is very competitive. She played volleyball,” Nico explained. “I like to joke with my dad like ‘I got my athletic ability from mom, you’re not that athletic’ to mess with him. She’s my rock, one of the best people I have ever been around. She’s there for me through thick and thin, she’s really my support system. She’s like superwoman to me, she can do it all.”
Mannion has been playing for the Italian national team since he joined the U16 team in 2017 and in 2019 he made his debut with the senior national team. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that he had the opportunity to get back where it all started, with an offer from Virtus. The fact that his father had been a professional player in Italy for more than 10 years in the late 1980s and the ’90s, was another factor that helped him make the big decision to play on this side of the pond.
“She’s my rock, one of the best people I have ever been around.”
“He was telling me stories and saying ‘You’re gonna love it over there,’ because when I decided to come over here… he was pumping me up about how much he loved it, and he said he got over here and never wanted to go back home to the United States. He’s not wrong, I love it here as well,” Nico said.
Mannion won the 7DAYS EuroCup last season, his first with Virtus, to match his father’s count of continental trophies. Pace helped Cantu capture the 1991 Korac Cup; he averaged 34 points in the two-game total-points finals against Real Madrid. Now the younger Mannion is enjoying his first season in the EuroLeague and appreciating that his upbringing made him more open-minded to this experience than perhaps some of his American counterparts.
“You never really know where life’s going to take you and I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs,” Mannion concluded. “Having that open-mindedness of ‘that’s not where you’re stuck’, knowing that tomorrow’s gonna come, knowing that there is always going to be a brighter day, and also knowing that when you are having a good day you can think ‘It’s okay to have a bad day or not feel good one day’… it helps you see through all that. Nothing is set in stone, you have to take the good with the bad, roll with the punches and continue to strive and do what you love to do.”
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