DiBartolomeo vs. the Lakers

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John DiBartolomeo shoots over the top of L.A. Lakers guard Lou Williams, with Kobe Bryant under the basket.
Photo by Seth Ribnick, Maccabi Haifa Basketball Club 

By Jim Mandelaro

The photo is frozen in John DiBartolomeo’s mind.

There he is, No. 12 in green, shooting a 3-pointer over Los Angeles Lakers guard Lou Williams while future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant waits under the basket.

“It’s my favorite photo of all time,” DiBartolomeo says, his voice crystal clear on the whatsapp app from his home in Haifa, Israel. “Is it too early to frame it?”

DiBartolomeo was playing for Israeli Basketball Premier League team Maccabi Haifa in an Oct. 11 exhibition against the Lakers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was a long way from Westport, Conn., where DiBartolomeo grew up, and the University of Rochester, where he honed his skills as a three-time All-American before graduating in 2013 as the Yellowjackets’ third all-time leading scorer.

Three nights earlier, the 6-foot guard had played in another NBA venue, the FedEx Forum, in Memphis against the Grizzlies. He played 19 minutes and recorded three points and assists in a 97-84 loss while guarding eight-time All-Star Vince Carter.

As cool as the Memphis game was, the Lakers game was a dream come true. He played 22 minutes, scoring five points and adding four assists in a 126-83 blowout loss to the 16-time NBA champions, one of the most famous and successful pro sports franchises on the planet.

“The whole thing was surreal,” DiBartolomeo said.

The highlight came when he guarded Bryant, the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer.

“It was brief but awesome,” DiBartolomeo says. “I got switched on him once. Fortunately, he never got the ball.”

Another surreal moment came when he grabbed a loose ball, felt a shove and instinctively shoved back. He discovered the opponent was Lakers forward Metta World Peace – who, contrary to his name, has never shied away from a confrontation.

DiBartolomeo wisely walked away.

Before the brief NBA tour, DiBartolomeo had never played before more than 5,000 people. There were 12,171 on hand in Memphis and 14,810 in Los Angeles.

“My teammates and I joked before the Lakers game if it would be appropriate to get autographs,” DiBartolomeo said. “I found my mind going back and forth. I was trying not to get distracted and just play the game. But it was one of those experiences I didn’t know I’d ever have again. I just wanted to look around.”

John DiBartolomeo was the 2013 D3hoops.com Player of the Year.
2012 University of Rochester athletics photo

He graduated from the University of Rochester in 2013 as one of the top Division III players ever to come out of the Greater Rochester area.

He is UR’s third all-time leading scorer (1,779 points), second in career assists (533), seventh in career scoring average (17.8) and second in free-throw percentage (.865). He was named 2013 Division III Player of the Year by D3hoops.com his senior year, when his 22.6 scoring average was the third-best in Yellowjackets history.

“UR prepared me tremendously for a pro career,” he said. “There’s no doubt I would not have played overseas if not for my career at Rochester. I’m well aware of that.”

DiBartolomeo signed with CAI Zaragoza, a top-level team in Spain, which loaned him to Palma Air Europa in Spain’s third tier. He helped Palma to two successful seasons, and his rights were sold last June to Maccabi Haifa, which won the Israeli Premier League in 2013.

He is one of five Americans on the team (there were just two on his Spanish club), and the only Division III graduate. The other four all played Division I ball. He is an occasional starter but usually the first guard off the bench. In Maccabi Haifa’s season debut on Oct. 16, DiBartolomeo scored 14 points.

University of Rochester coach Luke Flockerzi says DiBartolomeo left a lasting mark on the program.

“John was truly a special player for us at Rochester,” he said. “He is simply the hardest-working and most-dedicated player I’ve ever coached. His humility drives him and has created a work ethic that is unmatched.”

That work ethic has led to DiBartolomeo’s pro career, the coach says.

“I don’t think there is a ceiling on what he can accomplish professionally. Competing at the highest level against a team like the Lakers only fuels his fire to achieve. It’s fun to see him out there competing against Kobe Bryant, but we’ve known for a while that is where he belongs. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes him.”

Maccabi Haifa’s season last 30-plus games and runs into spring. DiBartolomeo, 24, is taking it season by season as he decides the next chapter in his life.

No matter what happens, he will always have the memory of playing two games in NBA arenas. The Lakers game took place with 15 friends and family in attendance – everyone from his parents, brother, cousin, three best friends from high school and even a great-aunt.

“I’ll never forget it,” he says.

And just in case he does, he has that photograph. That amazing photograph of him shooting, and Kobe watching.

“Unreal,” he says. “Just unreal.”