Feb. 28, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His official visit to the University of Virginia, in April 2017, included a tour of Grounds. Among Francesco Badocchi’s stops was Old Cabell Hall, home of UVA’s music department.
Badocchi’s explosiveness on the court had piqued the interest of the Cavaliers’ basketball coaches, but they didn’t know the full extent of his talents. He sat down at a piano, all 6-7 of him, and played a rendition of the soul classic “Me and Mrs. Jones.”
“I was so impressed,” UVA associate head coach Ron Sanchez recalled. “I don’t know much about music, but I thought he was excellent.”
A native of Italy, Badocchi (pronounced Baa-Dokey) has been playing piano since he was 5 years old, and he’s also an accomplished guitarist. His favorite musical genres are jazz and blues, and he’s a fan of John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck, among other artists.
“He’s got different interests,” Sanchez said. “He’s traveled a lot, so he’s seen and touched a lot of different things. He’s a fun kid to just visit with and talk to about his own life experiences and some of these things that he’s been around. He’s mature.”
The son of an American mother and an Italian father who live in Milan, one of the fashion capitals of Europe, Badocchi came to the United States before his junior year of high school. He moved in with his aunt and uncle and cousins in the Kansas City area.
Badocchi, who goes by Frankie, committed to UVA about a week after his official visit. After graduating from Bishop Miege High School in Mission, Kansas, he enrolled at UVA in June 2017. Not long after arriving in Charlottesville, he had surgery on his right kneecap to correct an injury with which he played as a 12th-grader.
A long period of rehabilitation followed. Badocchi wasn’t cleared to practice until December, and he’s redshirting this season for top-ranked Virginia (26-2 overall, 15-1 ACC), which plays Thursday night at Louisville (19-10, 9-7). But UVA fans will see soon enough why Badocchi’s coaches rave about his potential.
A left-handed shooter, Badocchi has used his redshirt year “to grow, to study, to get stronger,” head coach Tony Bennett said on his radio show recently.
“He’s very unselfish and team-oriented. There’s just some things he’s doing that I think are going to be fun for the fans and, of course, us to watch as the years progress.”
Badocchi is “very elastic, very bouncy,” said Mike Curtis, UVA’s head strength and conditioning coach for basketball. “He can be special as an athlete. I just think the more exposure he gets to training and to what Tony wants him to do from a basketball standpoint, he’s going to blossom into a contributor for us.
“He’s been a joy to work with. I think early on he had some apprehension, just because he hadn’t had very much experience from a structured training standpoint, but over the last few months he’s really embraced weight-training. We’ve set some objectives, and he knows what we’re trying to get to, so that drives him when he comes in. It’s been a good metamorphosis into someone who’s liking the weight room a lot more than he did when he first got here.”
When he arrived at UVA, Badocchi weighed 185 pounds. Working with Curtis, director of sports nutrition Randy Bird and head athletic trainer Ethan Saliba, Badocchi has bulked up to 205. Curtis hopes his pupil can hit 215 by the start of next season.
“He has the potential to do what Isaiah does for us, but in a more athletic body,” Curtis said.
Isaiah Wilkins, of course, is one of the Cavaliers’ mainstays, a 6-7, 227-pound senior who’s a team captain and a three-year starter at power forward.
Asked about Wilkins, Badocchi said, “I’ve watched him and how he visualizes the game defensively, and what he looks at, and what details he does to make his defense and all his teammates around him much better. He just has a vision for the game that is amazing.”
Sanchez said: “Frankie doesn’t have Isaiah’s weight, but they have very similar dimensions, similar makeup. Now, Isaiah takes it to a completely different level internally, with his competitive nature. So I don’t know if Frankie has that yet. That has to be seen. However, there are some similarities in the size and the mobility, and he does have a little more pop, and probably at the same stage as Isaiah as a first-year he might have a little more perimeter shooting.”
Bennett said he’s urged Badocchi to learn all he can from Wilkins. “There’s some similarities. There’s some differences,” Bennett said. “But Frankie’s talented. I think he’s a hidden gem, and we were fortunate to find him late.”
Marco Anthony, a guard from San Antonio, Texas, was the only player to sign with UVA in November 2016. The Cavaliers wanted to add another player to their 2017-18 recruiting class, and a scout whose opinion they trust recommended they check out Badocchi.
As chance would have it, Virginia’s coaches never saw Badocchi play in person. The first time they were scheduled to see him in action, he was sidelined with an ankle injury and couldn’t play. The second time, Badocchi missed a game with a foot injury.
“But we probably watched every single one of his high school games [on videotape],” Sanchez said. “Tony did a lot of work evaluating him on film.”
The ‘Hoos liked what they saw and offered Badocchi a scholarship. Still, they never guaranteed him a spot in the rotation.
“Honestly, the picture that was painted for him was not one that would make him jump at UVA,” Sanchez said. “It was brutally honest, and then we talked about the rehab [from surgery] and the amount of work he was going to have to do to get to a place where he could even have an opportunity to earn a chance to play. We were very, very transparent.”
The coaching staff wanted to make sure Badocchi and his parents “knew what they were getting into,” Sanchez said. “If he decided to choose Virginia, it was going to be knowing the exact situation that they were walking into.”
Other schools painted more a positive picture. “They told me I was going to get playing time from the jump and that I was more of a necessary player for them, but that didn’t really dissuade me from coming here,” Badocchi said.
“From the first time that Coach Sanchez and I talked, he said that he wanted to be brutally honest and tell me that first year I was going to redshirt, and then I was going to have to earn my playing time. I was fine with that, because I knew that anywhere I’d go I’d have to earn my playing time.”
In the end, Badocchi chose Virginia over Illinois.
“This turned out to be probably the best decision of my life,” said Badocchi, who plans to apply to the McIntire School of Commerce next year. “I just find myself at home here at Virginia, and it just feels like a family here.”
As a boy, Badocchi attended an international school, and he’s fluent in both Italian and English. He speaks both languages regularly in Charlottesville.
“When I talk to my mom [on the phone], sometimes in the middle of a conversation we switch from English to Italian,” Badocchi said. “The guys just look at me like I’m weird, but it’s pretty normal for me.”
His mother, a stylist, moved to Italy to pursue a career in fashion, and her taste is apparent in the clothes her son wears when he comes to John Paul Jones Arena for home games.
“Me and Justice [Bartley], we have a ritual of dressing up for game days,” Badocchi said. “Just for home games. Away games, we don’t. That would be a little too much.”
Badocchi’s fashion sense hasn’t gone unnoticed. “He has his suits, and they fit him perfectly. His mother dresses him, let’s put it like that,” Sanchez said with a smile.
When he was young, Badocchi used to spend his summers with relatives in Kansas, “so it wasn’t that much of a culture shock for me,” he said of the United States. “Still, going to live there was a very big change.”
For newcomers, the frenetic pace of life in the U.S. often requires an adjustment. In many European nations, more emphasis is placed on balancing work and pleasure.
“Where I live in Milan, it’s more of a work-oriented city, but we still take time to enjoy our life and take little breaks during the day and take little naps,” Badocchi said, smiling.
He misses his family in Italy and, naturally, his native cuisine, though he’s become a fan of the pizza at Lampo, an acclaimed restaurant in Charlottesville.
“I took my mom and my dad, and they actually liked it too,” Badocchi said.
He marvels at the atmosphere at JPJ during Virginia’s home games and admits that watching from the bench can be difficult.
“Of course, sometimes I just want to go out there and play,” Badocchi said. “But I’m glad I chose this process.”
As he has throughout his life, he gets pleasure from not only listening to music, but playing it. (Former UVA guards Rick Carlisle and Roger Mason Jr. also are talented pianists.) And so it’s not unusual to find Badocchi at Old Cabell Hall when he’s near the Lawn.
“They have pianos down there,” he said, “and when I have time, I just jump on them and start playing.”