“They always told me to focus on school first, and then basketball,” Gabe Stefanini, a first-year on the men's basketball team recalled about advice his parents gave him growing up.

That seems like pretty standard guidance from the parents of an aspiring college student-athlete, but for the Italian-born Stefanini, those two things laid the foundation for a very special path.

High school level athletics are very different in Italy than they are in the United States.

“School is separate from basketball,” Stefanini said. “Teachers most of the time don’t really care about sports.”

For this reason, Stefanini had to travel one hour away from his hometown, Bologna, each day to play and practice for his club team, Reggio Emilia, during his first two years of high school. There was a lot of eating and studying on those daily car rides and even more sleeping. For Gabe’s father, Giancarlo, there was a lot of driving.

“That’s how much sacrifice and passion he put into it for me,” Stefanini said. “He is my mentor and my hero.”

That dedication to basketball by Stefanini and his family paved the way for a life-changing trip just a bit longer than a car ride. Before Stefanini’s junior year of high school, he left his family to attend Bergen Catholic, an all-boys high school in nearby Oradell, New Jersey.

“I wanted to leave Italy because I knew it wasn’t going to give me the future that I wanted,” Stefanini said. “That’s why I wanted to put myself in this position; To know if I was ready to do something that not a lot of people from my country have done.”

Instead of traveling an hour away from home for basketball, Gabe now just had to travel a few blocks for both school and for basketball. The level of basketball was much higher, and Gabe's dream of playing college basketball became more realistic. He lived with three host families in his two year’s there and picked up three awards during his senior season: First Team All-League, All-County and Second Team All-State.

His success put Gabe on the recruiting map in the U.S. From around two-dozen college offers, he narrowed his choices down to Columbia, Santa Clara and Penn. Morningside Heights felt like home.

“There was no reason I could say no,” he said.

So Gabe chose the Lions, to the delight of assistant coach in charge of recruiting, Jared Czech, who began his job at Columbia just two weeks before the spring recruiting period started in 2016. Stefanini was his first recruit.

“Gabe is a very emotional kid – it’s probably his greatest strength that he plays with a ton of emotion, passion and pride,” Czech said. “He was a kid that quite literally used basketball to get him to the United States. I thought he was somebody that would always play with a chip on his shoulder.”

The Lions are no stranger to players from Europe. Gabe is the only native Italian on the team and only one of a handful of Italians playing Division I basketball in the US. But his teammate, Lukas Meisner is from Germany, and there have been a handful of foreign players in recent memory that made the Columbia program more attractive to Gabe.

“I really think Columbia opens doors not only in school but in sports,” Stefanini said, referencing the basketball success of Maodo Lo ‘16CC in Germany. “I want to play somewhere after college but I know if that doesn’t work out, Columbia provides an opportunity for something else.”

For now, Stefanini’s focus is on Columbia basketball and how he can impact the Lions team as they strive for a trip to the second annual Ivy League Championship tournament.

“All I care about is winning. My dad taught me, ‘every ball that you see, it’s yours,” he said. “It's just the mindset that I grew up with.”