There's a saying among coaches about the unheralded players who arrive with no hype or expectation, who play with a chip on their shoulders and something to prove, never taking a moment of their time in uniform for granted: They're "hungry.”
For his entire career, Lexington native Dane DiLiegro has been starving.
Unwanted and unrecruited out of high school, even by Division III colleges initially, DiLiegro has traveled a winding path to become an international pro. At every stop on the way, he has been told that he wasn’t good enough – to start in high school, play in college, or play professionally – knocks that he says have only driven him to excel.
“People can say or think what they want and that is fine with me -- it just makes me work harder,” DiLiegro said.
Relaxing at a café in Ostuni in southern Italy, where he’s enjoying his first season of professional basketball, DiLiegro reflected on his trek along basketball’s road less travelled. The one-time bench-warmer for the Lexington High School Minutemen signed with the Italian team Assi Basket Ostuni, in the Italian Second Division, in August. On the night before Halloween, he scored a team-high 22 points and ripped down 16 rebounds in a thrilling 70-69 victory.
“The idea of making money to play basketball is still a fresh one for me,” he said. “I always figured, I’ll just play basketball until all my opportunities run out, [and] I’d be just some kid at home, working for some random company, playing ‘The Legend of Zelda’ in my off time.”
So it had seemed back in high school, when DiLiegro had a hard enough time just setting foot on the court. He didn’t make varsity until his junior year, spending his first two seasons riding the pine on the freshman and JV benches. He didn’t start for the Minutemen until he was a senior and had grown to almost 6’8”. Even then, his main role was to take up space in the paint, put a body on players and stay out of the way on offense.
DiLiegro's college prospects were non-existent, as he wasn’t offered a single Division I or II scholarship and barely garnered interest from the Division III level. His father, Frank, recalls countless coaches telling his son he couldn’t play at the next level.
At the urging of his father – who had played basketball at the University of New Hampshire – DiLiegro enrolled for a post-graduate year at Worcester Academy. His game grew as he played against Division I college prospects.
“I remember thinking, the first time I saw him play, ‘I really don’t know about this kid. I don’t think he could really compete for us or play at the Division I level,’” recalled New Hampshire head coach Bill Herrion.
But the more Herrion watched DiLiegro, the more he liked what he saw. “He had a great motor," Herrion said. "I haven’t seen many kids work as hard as him.”
Late in the spring signing period, Herrion offered DiLiegro a scholarship to play at UNH. In his four years there, DiLiegro became a fan favorite, exciting the crowds with rim-rattling dunks, while carving out a niche doing the dirty work: setting screens, taking charges, throwing elbows and becoming one of league’s best rebounders.
“Toughest but nicest guy you’ll ever play against,” said Tommy Brenton, who spent two seasons trading elbows with DiLiegro while playing for rival Stony Brook University. “He’ll knock you down fighting for a rebound, but then put his hand out to help you back up.”
Off the court, DiLiegro was known as outgoing, gregarious, irreverent. In the UNH Wildcats media guide, he listed “Urban Exploration” -- the practice of exploring off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial facilities, such as shuttered hospitals and abandoned prisons -- as his favorite hobby.
“There are a handful of things Dane knows how to do, and knows how to do well,” said Eric Coplin, sports information director at UNH during DiLiegro’s career. “Rebound, take charges, eat, talk, get himself in unnecessarily bad predicaments (and) needle people to the brink of going postal."
His junior year was up-and-down, DiLiegro said. He had spent a summer playing for then-Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl on the US entry in the Maccabi Games, where he competed against seasoned professionals and helped lead his team to the Gold Medal.
But he hit a rough patch in his personal life and battled through injuries. In a home game against the University of Maine, DiLiegro took an elbow to the face during a defensive stop, leaving his nose gushing blood. With no whistle called, he sprinted to the offensive end, where he took a bounce pass and hammered down a dunk over an outstretched defender.
The play landed him on Sports Center’s “Top Plays” and summed up his career in microcosm.
"Dane is the hardest working big man – the hardest working player – that I’ve ever been around," said UNH team captain Alvin Abreu, DiLiegro’s teammate and roommate for four years.
Heading into his senior season, expectations were high for the Wildcats, who were eyeing entry into the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. The team began the season 5-2, nearly pulling off a shocker against national powerhouse UConn. But a litany of season-ending injuries to key players derailed the Wildcat’s title hopes. DiLiegro became increasingly invisible in the offense and was suspended for three games for what was termed a “violation of team rules” (in actuality, misuse of a parking pass).
“It was a very disappointing [year] for all of us, with guys getting injured -- and my performance," he reflected. "I’ll be honest – I know I let a lot of people down."
DiLiegro left UNH with the second all-time record of rebounds in school history (854) and a strong academic showing. But after graduation, he heard again and again that his basketball career was over.
His gut told him otherwise. He got his foot in the door of the professional ranks, thanks to the dual-citizenship which allowed him an Italian passport.
Overseas, he has hit the ground running, embracing the chance for a new start at the game he loves. He currently is among the team's leaders in scoring and rebounding.
“I honestly don’t consider myself a great basketball player. I’ve just been in the right spots, at the right time,” he said.
"It’s not the destination, it’s the journey," he summed up. "You have to take it one day at a time and just enjoy the ride.”
This article was reported and written by Northeastern University journalism student Sam Perkins, under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (email@example.com), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.