Our International Basketball Voice
By Dan Peterson
So, they have noise that reaches 137 decibels in Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, a ‘domed’ arena. They used to have this in baseball in Minneapolis. Pardon me for being a stick-in-the-mud but I think 137 decibels is over the top. Jumbo jets don’t make that much noise. Now, Kansas City has its ‘open’ stadium and they make just about as much noise. Oddly, I have nothing to say about that. Hey, it’s outdoors. Make all the noise you want in an outdoor stadium. Indoor football or baseball stadium? I have to wonder about ‘unfair advantage’ or ‘damaging the product.’
Now, this may sound strange, coming from a former basketball coach, whose teams ALWAYS played indoors! And, yes, I have heard a lot of noise in some of those places. Maybe not 137 decibels but enough that I could not make myself understood by my players at time-outs. But, I have no comment on that because ALL basketball arenas have a roof! That is, it’s the same for every game. There is no ‘unfair advantage.’ In fact, I adjusted my play-calling system to all visuals, just to avoid my point guard not being able to communicate in a noisy arena. So, no problem there.
But, football is a little different. They call plays in football and call audibles at the line of scrimmage. That is impossible if the crowd ups the noise level. Again, if that happens in an ‘open’ stadium, so be it. But, if it happens in a ‘closed’ stadium, I really wonder about the so-called ‘level playing field.’ Understand, there is nothing that can be done about this. The NFL would look pretty silly if they said, “OK, Seattle fans, quiet during the other team’s huddle and when they are calling audibles at the line of scrimmage.” That would get them laughed out of their offices.
Here’s the question I have: Has this so-called ‘home dome advantage’ meant that Seattle has gone ahead, while a better team has been eliminated? I don’t want to say that’s like ‘fixing’ a game but we’re on the edge there. Well, coach Jim Harbaugh and his San Francisco 49ers had better be able to communicate plays in the huddle (hand signs?) and at the line of scrimmage (foot position?) when the two teams square off this weekend. If Seattle wins, I’ll hold my tongue. They have a great team and a fine coach in Pete Carroll. It should be the Game of the Year.
Put ‘Is Dennis Rodman … ” up on Google. Back comes a long list of possible answers: Is Dennis Rodman sick? Is Dennis Rodman broke? Sober? Bisexual? Dead? Going to die young? On that last one: What is young? The man is 52 years old. You can even find every sort of psychological profile on Rodman. Just put up “Dennis Rodman psychological profile.” You’ll have more reading than you can handle in a year. Yes, I have two minors in psychology but, as I’ve said before, that adds up to almost nothing. All I can do is identify behavior. Here’s a try on that:
1. Attention-seeking devices. That’s a term I remember from one of the first psych courses I took. This pretty much sums up Dennis Rodman. From this, we get a man that has dyed his hair, tattooed his skin, pierced his body, worn dresses and written (well, dictated) a tell-all book. And, trust me, this guy has a lot to tell. So, we have someone that is constantly looking for attention, whatever that takes. Let’s add in the possibility that he may also ingest or otherwise assume substances that are considered out of bounds by the NBA and out of order by the Law.
2. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That is, vanity: Look at me! Being the center of everything, no matter what. If he does something crazy on Monday, he can’t do that on Tuesday. People will say, “Hey, that’s old. He did that on Monday.” So, the guy has to ‘top himself.’ If Monday was a 50 on a scale of 1-100 for craziness, well, on Tuesday, he has to go to 51. That way, on Wednesday, people will say, “Hey, did you see what he did yesterday?” But, sadly for these people, they eventually run out of ways to top themselves. That’s when they become dangerous to themselves, as in …
3. Self-destructive behavior. Well, no one will ever be able to talk Dennis Rodman back from the ledge. He likes it out there. It fits his pattern of what is known as self-destructive behavior. Well, as one of the articles I saw said: “It’s time to stop paying attention to Dennis Rodman.” Amen to that. Of course, the media feeds off this sort of zany behavior. They don’t really come out and say, “Dennis, do something crazy for us, so we’ll have something to write about.” No need for that. All they have to do is be patient. Dennis Rodman will give them title, story and sidebar. Every other day.
Everyone has seen the semi-circle under the basket in NBA (and FIBA) games. It’s said that the rule was put in, in 1997, to make the game ” … safer and easier to referee.” I don’t think that’s the case. I think it was put in to let the great dunkers …. dunk. I’ll get specific: to let Vince Carter dunk. The rule is this: if a player (Vince Carter) takes off at the free throw line for a spectacular dunk, well, if some clever defensive player steps into that semi-circle to draw a charging foul …. hey, it’s not a charging foul! So, Vince Carter, dunk to your heart’s content.
What was the result of this? Safer? Hardly. Guys are getting killed going for dunks. Then, my opinion, it stunted Vince Carter’s growth as a player. Why? He saw he could go for the dunk on almost every play, so he looked only for that. He became a ‘limited’ player. He no longer had to be a smart player. A smart player makes good choices. What choice was there for Carter? None! So, he tried too many dunks and got some blocked, missed some, got blind-sided on some. People thought of him this way: “Great talent but you can’t win with him.” Amen to that.
Let’s back up. Did you ever see Julius Erving, the supreme dunker of his time, miss a dunk shot? No. Never. Did you ever see him get a dunk blocked? No. Never. Why? One, Dr. J was a smart guy, so he picked his spots for his dunks, rarely, if ever, forcing one. Remember the clinching dunk for the NBA title, vs. the Lakers, in LA, in 1983? Erving intercepted a pass and had nothing but hardwood and daylight in front of him. Did he windmill or tomahawk it? He could have! But, did he? No, he put down the easiest 2-hand dunk of his life. Game over. Title won.
I could ask the same questions about Michael Jordan, who never missed a dunk and never had one blocked. Well, Erving and Jordan knew how to play basketball. They knew this: “If I go for a dunk here, I’ll charge.” So, they opted for the pickup jump shot. There was no semi-circle dumbing them down. They had to be smart, so they were. We hear complaints about how dumb players are today, about how many dunks they miss or get blocked. Well, take out the semi-circle and you’ll reverse that trend. Just my opinion. But, you know, I’ve been right before.
Gregg Popovich, as they say, ‘paid his dues.’ That meant he had the discipline to make it through the US Air Force Academy, to serve five years in the US Air Force, to deal in intelligence work that had his address in life being in the CIA. But the Air Force also gave him the chance to extend his basketball career and eventually return to the USAFA as an assistant coach. He also coached 8 years in NCAA D-III, learning his trade, then assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, assistant with the Golden State Warriors, GM with the San Antonio Spurs, then head coach from 1996 to the present.
In those 17 years, he’s done this, all with the Spurs: 4 NBA titles, in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007; five Western Conference titles; two times NBA Coach of the Year, in 2003 and 2012. Going into this 2013-14 season, his overall regular season career record was 905-423, for a WL% of .681, which is outstanding, winning more than 2 of every 3 games played. His career playoff record is 133-83, for a WL% of .616, thus winning more than 3 of every 5 playoff games coached. If you subtract the 17-47 mark his first year, when he took over in mid-season, he’s 888-376, for a WL% of .703.
What is his secret? First of all, he’s flexible, adjusting first to a ‘Twin Towers’ offense with 7-footers David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Then, he went with one center, in Duncan, then back to two, with Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Third, he may be the NBA coach with the best eye for international talent: Tim Duncan (Virgin Islands), Tony Parker (France), Manu Ginobili (Argentina), Marco Belinelli (Italy), Boris Diaw (France), Beno Udrih (Slovenia), Fabricio Oberto (Argentina), Tiago Splitter (Brazil). Fourth, he excels at re-cycling older players, some considered finished.
Like every great coach, he is demanding and, at the same time, inspires confidence. He expects effort and will not tolerate anyone that does not give that 100% of himself. He has his own ideas on how to win: get back on defense being one of his main themes. He follows the Hubie Brown philosophy of multiplying the shots of his three best players: Duncan, Parker, Ginobili. He and GM R. C. Buford work well together, gradually transforming the oldest team in the league into a much younger club. Finally, he’s a superb bench coach, always in control of the game. He has it all.
Glenn ‘Doc’ Rivers was All-State at Proviso East HS in Maywood, Illinois. He was MVP for the USA in the 1982 World Championship. He was an All-American mention at Marquette University. He was a 2nd round NBA Draft choice and played 13 years in the NBA, as a 6’4″ point guard, averaging 11 points per game over his career and making one All-Star team. He was considered a winner, a leader, a character person. He took both the NY Knicks (1993) and the San Antonio Spurs (1995) to the NBA Semi-Finals. He was, as they say, a ‘coach on the floor.’
He then became a coach on the bench. In fact, he was NBA Coach of the Year in his very first season as a head coach, in 1999-2000, with the Orlando Magic. In those first 14 seasons, 1999-2013, and including part of this 2013-14 season as coach of the LA Clippers, he has a lifetime regular season record of 603-482, for a WL% of .556. He has a playoff record of 64-57, for a WL% of .529. He’s won one NBA title, in 2007-08, with the Boston Celtics, and has one runner-up, in 2009-10, with the Boston Celtics. He won seven division titles in his first 13 years as a head coach.
Why is he such a great coach? I think you have to start with the man himself: everybody likes him and everybody respects him. How many coaches combine those two things to the upper limit? Then, he’s demanding and inspiring at the same time. We’ve all heard him in time-outs. If he’s not happy with his team’s effort, he says so: “We can’t play like this.” That ups the intensity but also says, “You can reach a higher standard of performance.” So, he’s a straight talker. No big speeches. No reciting for the TV cameras and microphones. This is Doc Rivers, period.
As a technical coach, he excels at blending talents into a team. How many coaches could have taken new arrivals like Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and fit them so nicely with Paul Pierce to win the NBA title in 2008? I had the most serious doubts about Rajon Rondo as that team’s point guard but Rondo blossomed under Rivers. I had doubts about Kendrick Perkins as their center but he was just what they needed. So, we are talking about a coach with great practical intelligence. Or, as they say, ‘applied intelligence.’ That’s why the Clippers wanted him so badly. He’s a champion.
George Karl has a polarizing effect on basketball fans: they either like him or they really don’t like him. Well, if they don’t like him, they’d better not say that to his face because the man was a sensational linebacker in high school in that hotbed of HS football in Western Pennsylvania. The 6’2″ Karl, though, played four years of basketball at North Carolina, under no less than Dean Smith winning an NIT title in 1971 and making the NCAA Final Four in 1972. He then played all or part of five years in the ABA and NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, as a hard-nosed defender.
In a coaching career spanning almost 30 years, 1984-2013, he compiled a regular season record of 1131-756, for a fine WL% of .599. Anyone that wins 60% of his games in the NBA is definitely ahead of the curve. His playoff record is 80-105, for a WL% of .432. That included one NBA Final, in 1996, against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Not many NBA coaches have over 1100 wins and not many have more than 80 playoff wins. And, most of the time, his teams were over-achievers. He only had three losing seasons, in three of his first four years, in building situations.
He’s also had two 60+ win seasons and only a handful of NBA coaches have done that. And, he’s had 11 seasons of 50+ wins and not many have done that. Finally, in 2012-13, he was NBA Coach of the Year with the Denver Nuggets. Why was he so successful? First of all, great clarity. He sets down clear objectives: “We want to get to the FT line 35 times; we want to score 35 points in the paint; etc.” His players might not remember the specific numbers (and I may not even have them right here) but they sure do think: “Hey, we have to get to the line!”
Secondly, with this clarity, he gets tremendous effort from his players. They think, “Hey, I have to get into the paint!” That is coaching subtlety at the highest level. Also, players blossom under him. He brings them along. He gives them the clearest of instructions. He never puts them in a position to fail. Yes, they may have a bad game, but not because of poor coaching. At the present time, he’s not coaching but he may be back before we know it. Can he surpass Don Nelson as the NBA coach with most wins (1335). That’s four more years at 51 wins a year. It’s on his radar.
Rick Adelman had a 7-year playing career in the NBA, 1968-75. He had a career scoring average of almost eight points per game. So, the 6’1″ point guard and off guard out of Loyola Marymount was not All-Star Game material. But every coach in the NBA wanted him on his roster because Adleman had three things going for him: (a) great basketball intelligence; (b) excellent fundamentals; (c) perfect execution of any play his team was running. Mora of the story: If he played for you, your team looked well-coached. So, coaches like Dick Motta, of the Chicago Bulls, loved him.
Adelman brought that over-achieving mind set with him when he embarked on his NBA coaching career. Over a 25-year span, 1988-2013, he became one of a handful of coaches in NBA history to win over 1000 games, with a 1013-719 record going into this season, for an outstanding WL% of .585. His playoff record is 79-78, for a WL% of .503. And not many coaches in NBA history have more than 80 playoff wins. He’s had two of his teams win 60+ games, another rarity. And, he’s had 11 of his teams win 50+ games. Again, a figure few have been able to top.
What are the reasons for his success? Now, I may favor Rick Adelman because his teams run the system I loved most: the old UCLA set: high post, two wide forwards, two guards. Like many coaches of my generation, I ‘stole’ this offense from great coaches like Red Auerbach (Boston Celtics); Adolph Rupp (Kentucky); Ray Meyer (De Paul); Forddy Anderson (Michigan State); John Wooden (UCLA); Dick Motta (Dallas Mavericks) and others. I like the concepts, the movement, the positioning, the spreading of the floor, the many simple options, the offensive rebounding possibilities.
But that’s just an offense. Adelman’s secret is that his gets his teams to believe in it and run it beautifully. Secondly, his teams are highly disciplined and are excellent at ‘reading’ the defense and taking the options that present themselves. That is so simple to say but so hard to do. I also think he’s an excellent game coach, making simple but logical moves at the right time. He has recently taken a horrible team, Minnesota, and has built it into a playoff contender. The man is a master of his profession. What club would not love to have their team play as his teams play?
Rick Carlisle was NBA Coach of the Year in his first season as a head coach, with the Detroit Pistons, in 2001-02. In fact, he assembled the team that would win the NBA title under Larry Brown in 2003-04. By that time, Carlisle was with the Indiana Pacers, putting together a 61-21 regular season record. Not many NBA coaches, over the years, have won 60+ games in a year. Carlisle’s record, through last year, was 533-376 in regular season play, a WL% of .586. His record in playoff competition was 53-50, for a WL% of .515. And he’s just 54, so he has a lot of career ahead of him.
I will admit that, despite his early accomplishments, I was not overly impressed with Carlisle. His teams were well-coached but did not seem to have that ‘extra’ quality that a great coach is able to give a team. I was too hasty in my judgment. Carlisle, like any young coach, like any start-up coach, was learning his trade. If he seemed too low-key, too detached to me, well, that was my mistake. So, fine, he was not a fireball like Red Auerbach. He was more like Red Holzman, transmitting icy calm to his players, something necessary when a team is in a pressure situation.
I never questioned his technical abilities. His teams were drilled in their offensive schemes, were well-prepared for games, had a simple but effective concept of how to play. It all came together in 2010-11, when he took the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA titles, blowing out Phil Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers, 4-0, in the first round, coming back from 1-2 to take the title from the Miami Heat in the final. They played beautifully and Rick Carlisle used his personnel perfectly. Most of all, he got them to play together, stars like Dirk Nowitzki and top subs like Jason Terry.
With that, I understood that Rick Carlisle had arrived among the elite coaches. The 4-0 sweep in the first round sent that message, loud and clear. No one beats Phil Jackson like that. The fourth game of that Dallas vs. Lakers series was a devastating blowout, 122-86. No one beats Phil Jackson like that. Well, Rick Carlisle did. He’s an even-keel coach and that is how his team plays. He gets them to execute the basics, to play together and to play hard in all phases of the game. If he keeps this up for another decade or so, he’ll be Hall of Fame material.
Don Nelson had an outstanding playing career: All-State at Rock Island, Illinois, High School in 1958; All-American at Iowa in 1962; first-round NBA Draft choice; 14-years in the NBA, winning two titles with the Boston Celtics, in 1974 and 1976. He was a 6’7″ forward with all-around skill: shooting technique; one-on-one moves; an excellent defender and rebounder. He was the consummate team player, passing the ball, setting screens, making sacrifices for the team. He was also a supreme clutch player, often the author of the game-winning play.
Upon ending his NBA career in 1976, he immediately embarked on his coaching career. When he retired, in 2010, after 34 years on the bench, he had 1335 regular season wins, most in NBA history. His regular season record was 1335-1063, for a WL% of .557. His playoff record was 75-91, a WL% of .462. He also coached Team USA to an 8-0 record and gold medal in the 1994 World Championships. He was NBA Coach of the Year three times; was voted one of the 10 greatest coaches in NBA history and was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame as a coach in 2012.
He was the NBA coach that most ‘pushed the envelope,’ that was always ‘thinking outside the box.’ While coaching the Milwaukee Bucks, he had the idea that every player on his 12-man roster had to be able to play at least two positions, therefore giving him a … 24-man roster. At Golden State, he went ‘small ball’ with three outside men: Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. He experimented with 7’7″ Manute Bol. He was, without doubt, the first NBA coach to make full use of the ‘international’ player, starting with Sarunas Marciulonis of Lithuania.
Yes, some of his ideas did not work out as designed. Some even blew up in his face. That did not deter him and did not slow him down one bit. With this, no opposing team really knew what Nelson was going to throw at them on that particular night. His teams over-achieved. When his 8th-seeded Golden State Warriors (42-40) knocked out the 1st-seeded Dallas Mavericks (67-15), 4-2, in the 2007 NBA Playoffs, that was the classic example what overcoming one’s limitations is all about. That was the way Don Nelson’s teams played and that’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame.
Chuck Daly, as they say, come up through the ranks: head coach at Punxsutawney HS in Pennsylvania; assistant under Vic Bubas at Duke; head coach, taking over for Bob Cousy, at Boston College; head coach, taking over for Dick Harter, at Penn; assistant coach under Billy Cunningham with the Philadelphia 76ers; head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers; head coach and two NBA titles with the Detroit Pistons, gold medal with the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics; head coach New Jersey Nets; head coach Orlando Magic. As they say in coaching, a ‘lifer.’
He was also a fighter. After his first head coaching experience in the NBA, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, ended badly, he did not give up. When he got his second chance, in a good situation, with good people, like GM Jack McCloskey, he made the most of it, one NBA Final, two NBA titles, Olympic Gold Medal, Hall of Fame. His greatest quality is hard to explain. It’s this: players flourished under him. Drazen Petrovic was traded away to his Nets by the Trail Blazers. Daly turned Petrovic into a Hall of Fame player. And that is just one example. What else?
He was, first of all, a brilliant coach, with a mind that grasped the biggest picture and found the smallest solution. Then, he was an organizer; which meant he knew how to pick a staff (Dick Harter, Ron Rothstein, others that went on to become head coaches) and he knew how to get the most out of those people, often running things like an NFL coach, with a defensive coach and an offensive coach. He was ahead of the curve in using statistics. He may have been ahead in conditioning programs. He was, also, one of the true geniuses at drawing up plays, like the Philadelphia ‘Five.’
He was also one of those rare coaches that is able to give an identity to his team: The Bad Boys. Then, he not only got the most out of stars like Isiah Thomas but also from discards, like Rick Mahorn, James Edwards, Bill Laimbeer. Those players reached their greatest heights under Daly. Finally, he was just simply an excellent game manager. He knew when to call a time out, when and who to substitute, when to change tactics. If he had to make 48 such decisions in a 48′ game, he hit all of them. That is the rarest thing in coaching and he had it.
It’s easy to make light of the many teams Larry Brown has coached in his career. They have nicknamed him “Next Town Brown.” But he has had a remarkable career. As a player, he was on the USA’s gold medal-winning Olympic team in 1964 under coach Hank Iba. He played NCAA Basketball at North Carolina under Frank McGuire and Dean Smith. He won an AAU title with the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots in 2004. He was a 3-time All-Star in the ABA. He was a 5’10″ ‘New York City’ point guard, who knew how to play, how to win and how to make his teammates look better.
He was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 2002. He was NBA Coach of the Year in 2001. His NBA regular season record is 1327-1011, a WL% of .568. His playoff record is 120-115, a WL% of .511. That does not include his ABA totals: a regular season record of 229-107, a WL% of .682, and a playoff record of 20-22, a WL% of .486. That adds up to a total (not including NCAA play) of 1556 wins at the pro level, a record that may never be broken. His presence assured success almost everywhere he went. What was his secret?
First of all, he is a tireless teacher of the skills of basketball. He will work long hours with a player on techniques and small details in order to help him improve his game. Secondly, by changing jobs often, he developed the ability to adjust quickly to a new situation, to new players, to a new organization. Thirdly, he was not a slave to any particular system of play, tailoring his offense to the personnel on hand. Fourth, he was an excellent game coach, reading and anticipating situations as they came up. Fifth, he never hesitated to surround himself with top-level assistants.
I can speak to his game coaching. In 1982, my Olympia Milan team faced a team of NBA All-Stars he was coaching, just an exhibition game, played here in Milan. I tried everything we had in our playbook, even our famed 1-3-1 zone, something I don’t think he was expecting. He adjusted to everything faster than any coach I ever faced. As I like to say, I could feel his ‘pull’ in our mental ‘tug-of-war.’ He won both the tug-of-war and the game. I knew I had faced not only a better coach than I was but one that fit nicely in that ‘coaching genius’ category. He had it.
Jerry Sloan had an outstanding playing career: All-State in Illinois with McLeansboro in 1950; NCAA D-II All-American at Evansville University in 1965; 2-time All-Star with the Chicago Bulls; 4-times All-Defensive Team; No. 4 jersey retired by the Chicago Bulls. He was the hardest of the hard-nosed players. He would take a charge on anyone. Had the NBA kept track of charges drawn back then, he would have led the league every year of his career. He was a complete player: scorer, passer, defender, rebounder, leader, example, the utmost professional.
After his playing career ended in 1976, Sloan went into coaching. He had the Chicago Bulls for almost three years but that ended badly. He then became assistant coach of the Utah Jazz under Frank Layden and took over as head coach of the Jazz in 1988-89. What he did there between 1988 and 2011 (the longest term with one team in NBA history) got him elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame as a coach in 2009. Why not? He won 50+ games in 10 different seasons and took the Jazz to the playoffs in 15 consecutive seasons. What was his secret?
One, his players respected him as a coach and as a person, a huge start toward success. Two, he was a coach that adapted to his players and built carefully constructed offensive schemes with that in mind. Three, he kept things simple; construction, yes, but with simplicity in mind, as his use of the Pick & Roll with John Stockton and Karl Malone indicates, as everyone knew the play was coming but no one could stop it. That helped him make two NBA Finals and be NBA Coach of the Year in 2004, in addition to retiring as the fourth-winningest coach in NBA history.
What else? He got his players to work hard; over-achievers, in many cases. Then, he developed players. Not many expected John Stockton to become a Hall of Fame player. Karl Malone went above the already-high expectations for him. Deron Williams, has not been the same player since he left Sloan’s system. That shows great pragmatism on the part of Sloan. Finally, he was tough and demanding. He was hard on everyone: his players, the officials, himself. That sort of intensity takes its toll over a period of time but it also adds up to a Hall of Fame career.
Phil Jackson re-wrote the NBA Record Book. For years, it looked like nobody would ever surpass Red Auerbach’s total of 9 NBA titles and 99 wins in playoff games. Well, Phil Jackson retired with 11 NBA titles and 229 playoff wins. Yes, they have more playoff series and longer series (4-of-7 from start to finish; as opposed to starting in the quarter-finals in Auerbach’s day and having some series that were 2-of-3 and 3-of-5). But those are remarkable numbers in this day of parity. His WL% for regular season play is .704 and his WL% for playoff games is .688. Staggering.
Some might say, “Well, he won six titles in Chicago with Michael Jordan and he won five in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant.” That’s true but he also helped those super stars to their greatest seasons. People forget that Jordan was not considered a winner at the NBA level until Jackson took over the Bulls and that Kobe had not won any NBA titles until Jackson took over the Lakers. So, he lifted teams and players — even super stars — to their greatest possible level of performance: NBA titles, MVP awards, NBA Final MVP awards. Everyone reached his maximum under Jackson. His secret.
One, self-assuredness; he was not afraid to surround himself with capable people. Two, organization: he knew how to delegate responsibility. Three, conviction: he believed in the Triangle Offense and that’s what his teams ran. Four, security: he had no problem asking Triangle genius Tex Winter to install and run the Triangle for him. Five, loyalty: he had a staff that was with him, virtually, his entire career; Frank Hamblen, Tex Winter, Jim Cleamons. Six, flexibility: he had his system but he let stars like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant express themselves.
We could only hear him at time-outs but they were things of beauty. He was demanding but inspired confidence: simple info given in a calm voice. He always gave his team something they could use immediately, and his success after time outs was off the page. He could be tough, asking Pau Gasol: “Are you happy with the way you are playing?” No reply. All this gave his team the sense that everything — including him — was under control. And it was. His records may never be broken, which is the most you can leave behind when you call it a career.
In the 1990s, when the Dream Team was dominating world-wide basketball conversation, Sports Illustrated picked its all-time NBA team, its 12 greatest players ever. The coach they picked was Pat Riley, over no less than the legendary Red Auerbach. Why not? He was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a coach in 2008. He had a career regular season record of 1210-694, for a WL% of .636. He had a career playoff record of 171-111, for a WL% of .606. He won four NBA titles with the LA Lakers and one with the Miami Heat. He was NBA Coach of the Year three times.
Pat Riley played 9 seasons in the NBA, coming out of the University of Kentucky, where he played for the legendary Adolph Rupp. So, he played under great coaches: Adolph Rupp at Kentucky; Bill Sharman with the Los Angeles Lakers. Still, when he was thrust into the job as head coach of the Lakers, in 1981-82, he made sure he had qualified people around him, like long-time Lakers’ assistant Bill Bertka. So, though his slick hair and Armani suits projected a high-stepping image, Pat Riley worked with great humility and notable work ethic when he got the head job.
Just after that 1982 season, in which Riley won the NBA title, I had him at my camp in Salsomaggiore, Italy. The jury is always out on a young and inexperienced coach but the verdict on Pat Riley after that week was: “Brilliant.” I had over 40 different NBA coaches there in 15 years of camp but none better than Riley on the court and none better at the coaching clinic. He was totally prepared, totally sure of himself, totally into his program. He was like a veteran coach of 15 NBA seasons, not just one year on the job. Every camper and every instructor loved him.
We also talked basketball. We both used the 1-3-1 zone trap with our teams. I called it the ’3′ defense and he called it the ‘Blue’ defense. He showed me his analytical skills. He said his guys lost faith in the 1-3-1, concerned about giving up too many wide-open shots and too many dunks. Riley and Bertka reviewed films, charted stats and showed the team that they give up fewer easy threes and fewer dunks with the 1-3-1 than in man-to-man. That’s coaching and selling your product. And he coached Hall of Fame players to their greatest success. The complete coach.
Billy Cunningham was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1986. Why not? He’d won a New York City title with Erasmus Hall HS of Brooklyn; started three years at North Carolina; was on the Philadelphia 76ers’ 1967 NBA Champions. He was High School All-American, NCAA All-American, NBA All-Star, and voted one of the Top 50 players in NBA history in 1996. He was even MVP in the ABA with the Carolina Cougars in 1973. Finally, he has his No. 32 jersey retired by the Philadelphia 76ers. That’s a career in itself.
But Billy Cunningham also had an enviable record in his 8 seasons as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, 1977-85. His regular season record was 454-196, for a superb WL% of .696. His playoff record was 66-39, for an outstanding WL% of .629. He took the 76ers to the playoffs all eight years he coached them. His 76ers lost the NBA Final to the LA Lakers in 1980 and again in 1982 but came back to win the title, vs. those same Lakers in 1983, with Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney. So, he knew how to coach at the highest level.
What was his secret? Obviously, he had experience, having played for superb coaches: Al Badain at Erasmus Hall, Dean Smith at North Carolina and Alex Hannum and Jack Ramsay with the 76ers. But his greatest asset may have been his humility. He took over the 76ers for Gene Shue just six games into the 1977-78 season. His first move was to surround himself with great coaches on his staff: Chuck Daly from the U. of Pennsylvania for the offenses, defenses and practice work; NBA veteran coach Jack McMahon for player evaluation and scouting.
Cunningham, thus, was one of the first manager-coach figures in the NBA. Jerry West had done the same thing when he took over the LA Lakers, bringing in college veterans Jack McCloskey and Stan Albeck for the day-to-day work. Cunningham also knew how to take responsibility. When his team was accused of ‘choking’ early in the 1982 playoff semi-finals vs. Boston, he took the arrows in his chest and the team came back to take the series, 4-3, and go to the Final. He only said, “I’m happy for the 12 guys in that locker room.” Teams are made of that stuff and he brought it.
Bill Fitch was named one of the NBA’s Ten Greatest Coaches of All Time, in 1996, when the NBA selected its top 50 players and top ten coaches of its first 50 seasons. There was good reason to name Fitch. He won division titles with an NBA division title with three different teams: the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1976; the Boston Celtics in 1980, 1981 and 1982; the Houston Rockets in 1985-86. He was also NBA Coach of the Year with two different teams: Cleveland in 1976 and Boston in 1980. He won an NBA title with Boston in 1981 and took Houston to an NBA Final in 1986.
His overall record was 944-1106 in regular season play, a WL% of .460. But no one should be fooled by that, as he took over the newly-formed Cleveland Cavaliers in 1970 and his first four seasons were 15-67, 23-59, 32-50, and 29-53. After building his team, he won the division title his sixth year with the team. It was called “The Miracle of Richfield.” He had a career playoff record of 55-54, for a WL% of .505. He coached all levels of talent, from the castoffs on the expansion Cavaliers, to a fleet of Hall of Fame players with the Celtics, to rising stars with the Houston Rockets.
What was his secret? No need to look very far here. Fitch was a former Marine Drill Instructor and brought that attitude with him, something Larry Bird, his star with the Boston Celtics, would later cite as Fitch’s greatest quality: to be demanding, to get people to work hard, to put a spirit of team into everyone. He was also extremely flexible, characteristic of that generation of coaches that came from 12 years of coaching NCAA Basketball. They called him ‘Captain Video’ because he was one of the first to utilize VHS tapes in scouting, evaluating, teaching, planning.
He also had great strategic and tactical flexibility: at Cleveland, he got the most out of Austin Carr; at Boston, he utilized the abilities of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to the utmost; at Houston, he got Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon to play beautifully together in the Hi-Lo or the Double Low Post. He was an excellent game coach, as you would expect from someone with 12 years of college coaching. His services were always in demand because people knew he’d get the very best out of every player on his roster.
Hubie Brown is in the Naismith Hall of Fame as a Contributor. That is an accomplishment in itself but even more amazing when it is realized that he had a losing career record in the NBA: 424-495, for a WL% of .461. Of course, he was also a coach in the old ABA, with a record of 104-64, for a WL% of .619. In the playoffs, he was 14-24 in the NBA, for a WL% of .368. In the ABA, he was 17-8, for a WL% of .680. He won the ABA title with the Kentucky Colonels in 1974-75. He was NBA Coach of the Year twice, in 1977-78 and in 2003-04. That’s a gap of 26 years, a record.
Hubie Brown just may have been the greatest teacher of the game … ever. His coaching clinic lessons were the best. His camp lessons were the best. His presentations were like Academy Award performances, perfect in delivery and clarity. He had the best drills, the best teaching method, the most demanding learning process possible. In a phrase, he ‘prepared’ his players for what they would face in games. So, he was extremely pragmatic. He was also ahead of the curve on stats: big man touches, multiply shots for the 3 best players, etc.
He taught everything in four steps. Jump shot? 1-2-3-4. Lay-up? 1-2-3-4. Boxing out? 1-2-3-4. And so forth. So, his players did not have a long discourse to digest. Hubie Brown had done the digesting for them. He had broken it down into four easy steps. Four things they would not — could not — forget. This made his teaching … fast. So, he was able to do more in one practice than anyone else. He taught offense and defense the same way. So, his first secret was method … simplicity, clarity. So, his players not only learned …. they also did not FORGET.
He was a demanding, in-your-face, coach. If a player did not give him 100%, he heard about it. He always said he had just two rules: be on time; work hard. Understand, his style didn’t go down well with everyone. He had those that did not like him at all: his players, the referees, colleagues. Someone wrote of his rapport with (same last name) Larry Brown: “No relation, no relationship.” Well, anyone that is CoY in the NBA at the age of 70, after a quarter-century on the sidelines definitely has the answer. What answer? This: My way or the highway. It worked.
William ‘Red’ Holzman had an NBA coaching career that covered some 30 years, from the early 1950s to the early 1980s. In that time, he won two NBA titles with the New York Knickerbockers, in 1970 and 1970, was runner-up in 1972; was NBA Coach of the Year in 1969-70; was voted one of the 10 greatest coaches in NBA history, in a poll conducted by the NBA itself, in 1996-97; and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, as a Coach, in 1986. He had a career regular season record of 696-604, for a WL% of .535, and a playoff record of 58-47, for a WL% of .552.
When talking about Red Holzman, I like to relate this personal story. I was the coach at Delaware when I ran into him at the luncheon before the NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia in 1970. I asked if I could ask him a question. No problem. I said, “How do you structure your pre-season work?” He said, “Dan, we go 1-on-1, then move to 2-on-2, then progress to 3-on-3, then work 4-on-4 and then arrive at 5-on-5.” I wondered if he was putting me on. In 1980, his former player, John Gianelli, came to play for me in Milan and said that’s just what they did. I began that approach immediately.
Yes, Red Holzman had some wonderful players with his NY Knicks, and many are in the Hall of Fame today: Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Jerry Lucas. All were extremely intelligent players and all were great TEAM players. But the greatness of Red Holzman was to blend all those talents together into one of the most beautiful basketball machines ever assembled. They made everything look so easy, so simple, so effortless, so … correct. Bill Bradley wrote a book on the subject, “A sense of where you are.” They had that, all right.
My definition of a great team is two things: one, everyone is willing to make a sacrifice for the greater good; two, everyone is willing to help a teammate. That sounds so simple but it’s extremely difficult to have that sort of team. Well, Red Holzman’s NY Knicks had both, to the utmost. As a result, they took what was there, never forced anything, and played hard all the time. For any young coach of the times, watching the Knicks of Red Holzman play was like getting a free coaching clinic. That was the way the game was supposed to be played and that’s how they played it.
Dr. Jack Ramsay could have made the Hall of Fame as a College Coach or as a Professional Coach. That’s how good he was. Let’s clear the decks with the college end first. He coached St. Joseph’s of Philadelphia for 11 years, 1955-66. His record was 231-71, for a WL% of .765. He took the Hawks to their first NIT ever. He took them to the NCAA Tournament seven times, including one Final Four, and to the NIT three times. He won the Big 5 a then-record 7 times 11 years. So, his place in college basketball history was secure, also due to the integrity of the man.
In the NBA, he coached 21 consecutive seasons: 1968-89. His regular season record was 864-783, for a WL% of .525. His playoff record was 44-58, for a WL% of .431. He won the NBA title with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1976-77. What was his secret? First of all, everyone held him in respect. Yes, in part due to his PhD. Yes, in part because, in WWII, he was in the elite unit called UDT, Underwater Demolition Team, better known as Frogmen. He was in Group 30 of … 30 groups. He said, “Unfortunately, or fortunately, we were the only ones not to see action.”
Says former NBA coach Don Casey: “Dr. Jack was of the generation that figured out the game and then adapted that to the personnel on hand. In the NBA, he adjusted to the 24″ clock and was the first to use the ‘Turn-Out’ offense, which the Los Angeles Lakers and Pat Riley took to the highest level possible. He also used big-on-small and small-on-big to great advantage. This was relatively new to the NBA, pioneering stuff. The ‘illegal defense’ rule notwithstanding, he started to ‘contain’ the dribbler, with Walton and Lucas back to patrol the lane and the boards.”
Casey goes on: “Yes, he used his famous 1-3-1 in the NBA and, for a while, had success with it, especially in Philadelphia, but when teams began to solve it, he dropped it, so he was highly flexible. Then, he held open practices, a University of Hoops for coaches. Amazing times.” My own input: Jack Ramsay was demanding and inspiring all at once. He had knowledge, method, culture. He was a brilliant practice coach and a brilliant game coach … and those two things do not always go hand in hand. He was the gold standard for a generation of coaches.
The other day, I said only two men had gone into the Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach: John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens. May the Gods of Basketball forgive me! Bill Sharman also achieved that rarest of honors! His work as a player was based on his consummate shooting skill: the first man to shoot over 40% from the floor; the first to shoot over 90% from the free throw line. He was an 8-time NBA All-Star and played on four NBA Championship teams with the Boston Celtics, forming a legendary back court, together with the incomparable Bob Cousy.
Where do you begin with his work as a professional coach? He was the only coach to win titles in three different pro leagues: the ABL in 1962 with the Cleveland Pipers; the ABA in 1971 with the Utah Stars; the NBA in 1972 with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was Coach of the Year in the ABA in 1970 and in the NBA in 1972. In that storied 1971-72 season, his Los Angeles Lakers set a record that may never be broken: 33 consecutive wins, behind Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, Happy Hairston and Jim McMillian. So, he knew how to win in every conceivable situation.
What was his secret? I would say a starting point was the respect people had for him. When the Lakers won that 1972 title with a then-record regular season 69 wins (69-13) and rolling through the playoffs (12-3), his star player, Jerry West, said, “He did it all without raising his voice.” So, he was demanding but inspired confidence and respect. Then, he got the absolute most out of Wilt Chamberlain, a player many said was difficult to coach. Not for Bill Sharman. Wilt played beautifully, setting picks, blocking shots, rebounding, passing the ball, helping the team.
He brought his ‘road map’ to victory with him, his ‘culture’ of winning, certainly learned and perfected with the Celtics. He brought method, as well, surely much of which he learned from Red Auerbach. Then, he has a practical sense of coaching. He was not a slave to any one system. He adapted to his personnel, which is what a coach should do when he does not have the players that fit his philosophy. Finally, his charisma. His players loved him and loved to play for him. That’s the greatest quality any coach can have going for him. And Bill Sharman had it.
Tom Heinsohn coached only 9 seasons in the NBA. In that time, however, he won two NBA titles, in 1974 and 1976. All this after taking over the Celtics on the heels of the retirement of the greatest NBA player ever, in terms of winning, Bill Russell, with some 11 NBA titles in his 13 years with the Celtics. Interestingly, he was NBA Coach of the Year in 1973, a year in which he did not win the title. Well, that’s because the Celtics were 68-14 in the regular season before a couple of key injuries sabotaged their playoff chances. Those are some impressive records but there is more.
Heinsohn was 427-263 in regular season play in the NBA, a WL% of .619. Only six coaches have a higher WL%: Phil Jakcson, Billy Cunningham, K. C. Jones, Gregg Popovich and Red Auerbach. In the playoffs, he was 47-33, a WL% of .588. Only 12 coaches have had a higher WL% than Heinsohn’s. So, he was a former star player — six All-Star Games in 9 years with the Celtics — that understood how to transform that knowledge and experience into teaching and leadership. That may look easy but very few star players have gone on to become star coaches.
What was his secret? First of all, he was demanding as a coach; he expected 100% effort and that’s what he got. Two, he inspired confidence, as he was a cocky guy himself. Third, as he’d played for great coaches (Buster Sheary at Holy Cross, Red Auerbach with the Celtics), he brought those teaching methods with him. Fourth, he brought culture: Celtic Pride. With that, he gave the team its new identity: sprint relay mentality, with David Cowens, the fastest center in the NBA at the time, simply our-running rivals for dunks, layups and tap-ins on the fast break.
I was coaching Olympia Milan in 1979-80, when he was coaching consultant for our cross-town rival, Pallacanestro Milano. They were the worst team in the league but he coached them like they were NBA Champions. Demanding? One day, he put in a side in-bounds play. He must have worked 90′ straight on that one play. They were not leaving the gym until they knew that play and all its options perfectly. He was that way with everything. Nothing fancy, understand. Just the opposite. Great simplicity but great work ethic and great attention to details.
Lenny Wilkens is one of two people inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame twice. That is, once as a player, and once as a coach. The only other person to do that was …. John Wooden. But we’re talking about coaching only here … and there is a lot to talk about. Where do you begin? He coached 32 seasons in the NBA, a record. The next-closest is Larry Brown, with 26, which is a 6-year gap. He coached 2,487 games, a record. Don Nelson is 2nd with 2.398. He won 1,332 regular season games, second only to Don Nelson, three ahead of him, with 1,335.
It’s hard to get past the overpowering numbers here. His lifetime regular season record was 1332-1155, a WL% of .536. In the playoffs, he was 80-98, a WL% of .449. He had been a player-coach in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with Seattle and Portland. But he really hit it big in 1977-78, when the Sonics started 5-17 under Bob Hopkins and Wilkens took over and went 42-18 with the same team, going to the NBA Final. The next year, he won the NBA title with Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson, Freddie ‘Downtown’ Brown, John Johnson, Gus Williams and Lonnie Shelton.
Wilkens had the misfortune to coach Cleveland when they had to face Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs every year. Still, they came close to them every time. I was at courtside, for Italian TV for several of those series. I was impressed with the way Wilkens’s team played. Some coaches excel with offense, some with defense, some with the press, some with the running game. Lenny Wilkens got his team to do all of those things and do them well. What’s more, they made things look simple, easy, smooth, fundamental, they way things should be done.
Lenny Wilkens coached the USA’s Olympic Team in Atlanta in 1996, taking them to the gold medal. Easy, you say? I’m not so sure. After the Dream Team of 1992, the world got past being in awe of the USA. Yes, they won all their games by a wide margin but they were only up by +2, 46-44, vs. Argentina, at the half. So, with great aplomb, Lenny Wilkens steered his team through the choppy waters of FIBA play, of high expectations and fired-up opponents. In all that career, never an unkind word was spoken of him. That may be his greatest record of all.
Lowell ‘Cotton’ Fitzsimmons coached some 21 seasons in the NBA over a period of 27 years, involving 5 different teams. Some might wonder about citing a coach with a regular season record of 832-775, for a WL% of just .518; and a playoff record of 35-49, for a WL% of .417. No, he never won a title and never even made it to an NBA Final but he was Coach of the Year in the NBA twice, 1978-79 and 1988-89, some 10 years apart. And only a handful of coaches, over the years, have won more than 800 regular season games and more than 35 playoff games in their careers.
It must be understood that, in all that time, Cotton Fitzsimmons did not have a super team. His ability was to get the most out of the material at his disposal. Why was this so? For one thing, not long out of Midwestern State College, he became the head coach at Moberly JC in Missouri and held that position for 9 years. So, he was used to players coming and going every year, and having to tailor-make his system to fit what players he had on hand. Then, after two years as head coach at Kansas State, he went to the NBA in 1970, to take over the Phoenix Suns, an expansion team.
His two CoY awards aside, here’s an example of what kind of work he did. In 1980-81, his Kansas City Kings were 40-42 in the regular season. That usually means a first-round exit in the playoffs. But his team made it to the NBA semi-finals, or, as they put it, the Western Conference Final. The Final Four, if you will. He got the absolute maximum out of his players, only three of whom ever played in an All-Star Game: Otis Birdsong (4), Scott Wedman (2), and Jo Jo White (7, but the last one, with the Celtics, was in 1977). So, he did that with a good, but not great, roster.
What was his secret? One, communication, as he was a true personality, a showman. Two, simplicity, as his teams did not run a lot of systems but executed the few they ran. Three, flexibility, as he knew how to adjust to his talent and to the game he was coaching THAT NIGHT. Four, player evaluation, as he was just as good a scout as he was a coach. Finally, his players loved him and played their hearts out for him, which is one huge reason why his teams over-achieved for a quarter of a century in the top basketball league on that planet. That’s coaching greatness.
It’s not easy for a star player to become a star coach. But Riche Guerin was able to make that jump. In his 14-year NBA career as one of the first truly tall ‘big’ guards, at 6’4″ and 210 lbs., Guerin made the All-Star Team six times and scored close to 15,000 points in his career. Richie Guerin was an inductee into the Naismith Hall of Fame in the Class of 2013. He had talent, scoring 57 points in one game for the Knicks, totaling 22 assists in another. So, he knew how to play and he was a rough, tough player, as one would expect from a U. S. Marine.
He brought all that with him in his NBA coaching career, which was entirely with the Hawks, first in St. Louis, 1964-68, then in Atlanta, 1968-72. In those 8 seasons, he had regular season record of 327-291, for a WL% of .529; and a playoff record of 26-34, a WL% of .433. He was NBA Coach of the Year in 1967-68. With this, he never took the Hawks to the NBA Finals, but he took them to the playoffs all eight full seasons he coached them and that’s batting 1.000 in any league. Mostly, he was that ex-player that transformed his experience into lessons.
They say a team reflects the personality of its coach. If that’s so, then it’s understood why the Knicks, his first NBA team, recently retired his No. 9 jersey: His teams played with a wild toughness that was typical of Guerin’s play. He was also an inspirational coach. Just as he’d been in fights — verbal and physical — as a player, he was confrontational as a coach, with referees, with opponents, with his own players. There was no need for any translation when he had something to say. He was up front with that, which meant the utmost clarity in communication.
His team was also an over-achiever. That translated into hard-nosed play, especially on defense. He also knew how to choose players to fit his philosophy. He phased out stars like Cliff Hagan and Bob Pettit and brought in, each year, new men that fit his plan: Jumpin’ Joe Caldwell, Zelmo Beaty, Bill Bridges, Paul Silas, Lou Hudson. All athletes, all hard-nosed players. He got them to play hard and play together. That’s culture and that’s identity. Those are two of the most difficult things a coach must get across. Richie Guerin did that and did it beautifully.
Larry Costello played 14 seasons in the NBA with limited athletic ability: he was only 6’0″ tall, not that fast, a stocky 188 pounds, and probably could not jump up and touch the rim, much less dunk. So, how did he last 14 years, making the All-Star Team six times? Being an over-achiever, yes. But, also, extreme skill (the last of the 2-hand set shot artists); extreme mental toughness; extreme work ethic; extremely high Basketball IQ. He retired as a player in 1968 and was immediately hired as head coach by the newly-formed Milwaukee Bucks. It was a wise choice.
Costello had the good fortune to land 7’2″ Lew Alcindor (today Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) as the first player taken in the 1969 NBA Draft. Some might say, “Anyone could win with that guy!” Perhaps. But, as John Wooden once said, “No coach can win without talent but not every coach can with with talent.” Costello won the NBA title in 1971 and took runner-up to Boston in 1974. His career coaching record, over 10 seasons, was 430-300 in regular season play, a WL% of .589. His playoff record was 37-23, for a WL% of .617. Not many NBA coaches have topped those percentages.
What was his secret? You might say ‘cerebral simplicity.’ I learned this first-hand. In 1978, I met him in Los Angeles. He was new to the Chicago Bulls and I had just taken over Olympia Milan. I asked if I could pick his brain. He was the nicest and most generous person possible. Four hours. Greatest basketball lesson of my life. One pearl: “Do you want to know if your team can play defense?” Yes, I did. He said, “Have them defense the 3-man weave. It will be a disaster.” I thought he was wrong but tried it. Oh, my God! He was right. I began using that drill almost every day.
Some said he over-coached, too many plays, with new plays every practice. Maybe. But he was a genius at not letting the opposition know what was coming. Yesterday’s offense was out. You’ll see all new stuff tonight, so forget scouting us. He was able to blend the full-court game and the half-court game, blend Oscar Robertson with Lew Alcindor, blend the full-court speed of a Bob Dandridge with the half-court outside shooting of Jon McGlocklin. His teams fit together nicely. That’s method and having clear ideas. I can vouch for that; everything he said to me was crystal clear.
Fred Schaus was no stranger to professional basketball when he took over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1960. He’d been a star player at West Virginia at the high school level, then put in two years in the Armed Forces with Memphis Naval Air Station and made All-Service in Basketball. The 6’5″ Schaus then played at West Virginia, 1945-49, making several All-American selections. He was then a 3rd round draft choice of the Ft. Wayne Pistons, playing four years with them, 1949-53, then one year with the New York Knicks, 1953-54. So, he was a veteran of post-grad basketball, AAU included.
He coached West Virginia University for six years, 1954-60, winning six Southern Conference titles and launching such stars as ‘Hot Rod’ Hundley and Jerry West, both of whom would go on to star in the NBA. In 1959, with West as the key player, WVU took second in the NCAA Tournament, losing the final to California, coached by Pete Newell, 71-70. He was then hired as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, which had just drafted his greatest player ever at WVU, Jerry West. He coached the Lakers for seven years, 1960-67, taking them to four NBA finals, all lost vs. the Boston Celtics.
Schaus was not fired by the Lakers. In fact, he moved from Head Coach to General Manager, 1967-72, assembling the team what would win the NBA title under Bill Sharman in 1971-72. What did Fred Schaus bring to the table as an NBA coach? Above all, he was a low-key disciplinarian. He’d coached star players before, guiding the USA to the gold medal in the 1959 Pan-American Games, where he used only 10 of his 12 players in each game, thus sitting two super stars every game. So, he brought order to the Lakers: a college-type system with a pro-like handling of players.
So, this was a case of a former NBA star player (12.2 points per game over his career) that had also been an outstanding NCAA coach: 146-37 at WVU, a WL% of .798, including a 63-5 mark in the SC, also making the NCAAs six straight years. So, he had pro know-how and college know-how. With that 1-2 combination, he was 560-315 with the Lakers, a .563 WL%, and was 33-38 in the playoffs, a .465 WL%. He was one of the first to ‘multiply’ the shots of his three best players: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Rudy LaRusso. That’s bringing order to the court.
Dick Motta was a coach I identified with: a little guy that was cut from his high school team but went into coaching, anyway. His work in the NBA is there for all to see: with the Washington Bullets, he won the NBA in 1977-78 and was runner-up in 1978-79. He coached 25 seasons in the NBA, which speaks of the esteem in which he was held. His regular season record was 935-1017, for a WL% of .479. His playoff record was 56-70, a WL% of .444. His losing record was dictated by taking over the newly-formed Dallas Mavericks in 1980-81 and and struggling Denver Nuggets in 1996-97.
One word describes Dick Motta: Method. He had his fundamentals, his drills, his plays. He demanded execution of all those things. He did all this by speaking in the lowest voice ever heard in the NBA, almost a whisper. I learned this all in the first person, when he came to my camp in Salsomaggiore, Italy, in 1983. There would be a total of 9 hours of lessons: 3 hours on Saturday afternoon; 3 hours on Sunday morning; 3 hours on Sunday afternoon. He would be the only speaker and I was his translator. I learned why he was NBA Coach of the Year in 1970-71.
He said to the coaches, “I’m here for you. Do you have any questions?” One coach said, “Could you give us your typical practice plan?” I figured this was an easy one. Wrong. Dick Motta took all 9 hours to answer that one question. He spoke of stretching and then demonstrated every stretch, right on the floor. He explained every drill and demonstrated the technique for every pass, dribble, shot or whatever in that drill. He explained his set plays and their ‘automatic’ signals for ‘indicating’ those plays, exactly what I was doing. We were all awestruck at the method, the detail, the teaching.
He said he only had five plays because he only had five signals he could use: The pass followed by the cut of the passer. I had a play that started with something he didn’t have: a guard-to-guard pass, in which the two forwards would tighten up to the lane and the high post man would go down under the basket, then use a block by a forward to go to the corner. I said, “With Pat Cummings, this might be useful.” He took the scrap of paper. I said, “I call it the ‘Out’ play.” He didn’t write ‘Out.’ He wrote ‘Peterson’ and said, “I’ll be using this.” So, disciplined but … flexible.
Alex Hannum was the first NBA coach to win titles with different NBA teams: the St. Louis Hawks in 1958; the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967. Pat Riley is the only other coach to do so: 4 titles with the LA Lakers and the 2006 title with the Miami Heat. He was also one of the last of the player-coaches, as he took over the Hawks during his last year as a player, 1956-57. After graduating from Hamilton HS in Los Angeles and two years at USC, he was in the Armed Forces for three years during WWII, 1943-46. He came back in 1946, finished up at USC in 1948.
He then played 9 full seasons in the NBA, with Oshkosh, Syracuse, Baltimore, Rochester, Milwaukee, Ft. Wayne and St. Louis. He was player-coach at the end of the 1956-57 season, guiding the team to a 15-16 mark in the last 31 games of the regular season and an 8-4 mark in the playoffs, taking the team to the NBA Final vs. Boston, losing, 4-3. With that, he was made full-time head coach, retired as a player and won the title in 1957-58, beating the Boston Celtics in the NBA Final, 4-3. Few coaches have started off their NBA careers better.
What did Alex Hannum bring with him? Well, first of all, he was probably the toughest guy in the building every day, a 6’7″ forward with limited talent but maximum toughness. But he also brought experience. He knew every player from WWII and from the NBA. He also brought order, more or less saying: “We are going to multiply the shots of Cliff Hagan, Bob Pettit and Clyde Lovellette. Slater Martin will run things. Only opportunistic fast breaks. but perfect execution of the half-court offense. Then, vicious man-to-man defense and hard-nosed boxing out and rebounding.”
All coaches say that. But his teams did what he told them to do and that’s discipline. He was 471-412 in the NBA, a WL% of .533; and was 47-30 in the playoffs, a WL% of .580. He also had great success in the NIBL and in the ABA. Wherever he went, his teams won. And his crowning achievement was winning it all with the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers, often voted the best one-season NBA team of all time. He got the most out of every player, Wilt Chamberlain included. And, he turned out coaches: Larry Costello, Billy Cunningham, others. That’s the University of Basketball.
Red Auerbach is the gold standard for NBA coaches. All that have come after him and those yet to coach in the NBA will forever be measured against his incredible success: he coached in the NBA for 20 years, 1946-66; he had a career record in regular season games of 938-479, a .662 WL%; he had a playoff record of 99-70, a .586 WL%; he made 10 NBA Finals; he won 9 NBA titles. When he retired, in 1966, those were all NBA records, which stood for years, until Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and others, playing more games and more playoff games, surpassed them.
Red Auerbach was everything a great coach is supposed to be. He was demanding (killer conditioning practices; obligatory playing weights, etc.) and he inspired confidence (polemics, battles with referees, DQs, his cigar). He brought culture (my way or the highway); he brought order (I’m the GM and I’m the Coach); he brought identity (we are going to press and we are going to run; we are going to rotate people and we’ll have a 6th man that will be of prime importance). Of course, when you talk about Red Auerbach, you talk about charisma, personality, presence.
He had method. He ran seven set plays and everyone in the NBA knew those seven plays … but he ran them, anyway. He pressed from the opening tap to the final buzzer and opponents could not catch their breath in the second quarter, when Red’s starters came back to press even harder against an opponent that was running out of gas. He conditioned hard in pre-season because he said that games won in November counted just as much as those won in March. So, his team’s started quickly, like the 17-0 start in his first year, 1946-47, with the Washington Capitols.
I saw his Boston Celtics play often on TV. I can’t even begin to count the come-from-behind wins, the clutch wins, the last-second wins. He won those because he kept his team in the game. I met him, for the first time, in 1965, at the Naval Academy, as he was a close friend of our head coach, Ben Carnevale. We were at a high-class restaurant. He gave me the 3rd Degree: “Who’s the best coach in the Big 10?” I mentioned Fred Taylor of Ohio State. He shouted: “Hold the phone! Anyone could win with Lucas and Havlicek!” I was scrambling. But he wanted to know. One of a kind.
Lester ‘Les’ Harrison was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a Contributor in 1979. He was that, all right. He was the spearhead for three major changes in professional basketbal: the integration of the African-American player by signing Dolly King for his 1945-46 Rochester Royals; the eventual merger of the NBL and BAA to form the NBA in 1949, by taking his Royals from the NBL to the BAA in 1948; the arrival of the 24″ clock, by aligning with rival owner, Danny Biasone of the Syracuse Nationals. So, he was a pioneer, a visionary, a catalyst, a revolutionary, a genius.
Les Harrison, a native of Rochester, New York, was a star player at East HS and, later, at Rochester University. He and his brother, Jack founded the Rochester Pros, which became the Rochester Royals for the 1945-46 NBL season, in which they won the NBL title, going 24-10 in the regular season, then 6-1 in the playoffs, beating Sheboygan, 3-0, for the title. In 1946-47, they won the East, 31-13, went 6-4 in the playoffs, losing the final to the Chicago American Gears, 3-1. In 1947-48, they won the East again, at 44-16, then went 6-5 i the playoffs, again losing to the Gears, and George Mikan, in the final, 3-1.
In his 3 years in the NBL, 1945-48, he had a regular season record of 99-39, a WL% of .717; in the playoffs, he was 18-11, a WL% of .621. In his seven years in the NBA, 1948-55, he had a regular season career record of 295-181, a .618 WL%. In the NBA Playoffs, he was 19-19, a .500 WL%. He never missed a playoff. He turned out a number of notable coaches: Fuzzy Levane, Red Holzman, Bob Davies, Bobby Wanzer, Al Cervi; not to mention St. Louis Cardinals’ catcher Del Rice and future TV ‘Rifleman’ Kevin ‘Chuck’ Connors, who also played Major League Baseball.
His coaching brilliance was in his ability to adjust to his talent, the opposition and the situation. He played up-tempo when he had a young and fast team; slow-down when he had an older, slower team. His real talent, however, was in bringing order to a chaotic situation, which defined the NBA’s earliest years. He wore all the hats: owner, GM, coach. He jumped from the NBL to the BAA; he pushed for the NBL-BAA merger. He beat the Lakers, he beat the Celtics, he beat Red Auerbach, he beat Joe Lapchick. And he did it with less money and less talent. That’s coaching.
Al Cervi was, without doubt, one of the toughest players and toughest coaches ever in the NBA. He was a rough and tumble kid up off the streets of Buffalo, a high school dropout that never attended college, a streetball player that caught on in the newly-formed NBL as a player in 1937, at the age of 20 and played one year with the Buffalo Bisons. He then served 5 years in the US Army in WWII, 1940-45, coming back in time to lead the Rochester Royals to the NBL title as a player. He was MVP of the NBL the next year, 1946-47, then leaving after a salary dispute with owner Les Harrison.
He went to the rival Syracuse Nationals as player-coach in 1948-49, making the All-NBL team again and earning Coach of the Year honors. He was a scorer, a leader, a vicious defender, a fighter, a confrontational player and confrontational coach. So, he was a demanding coach that also inspired confidence with his coaching and playing style, which was in-your-face in every sense of that term. With that, came his team’s identity: We will leave every bead of sweat, every drop of blood, every tear drop on the floor before we lose. You had better be ready for battle because we are.
His 10-year record as coach of the Nats was impressive: 366-264 in regular season play, a .581 WL%; 37-29 in playoff games, a .561 WL%. He made the playoff semi-finals four times, the finals twice and won the NBA Championship once, in 1955. That is getting the absolute most out of your talent and doing it in a small market. But his team didn’t win by simply out-fighting the opposition. Al Cervi, using a great passing center, John Kerr, may have invented the ‘Passing Game’ or a variation of the ‘Princeton Offense.’ To this day, Kerr is often cited as the supreme passing center.
Al Cervi left his mark on the NBA as a player (He’s in the Hall of Fame as a player), as a player-coach and as a coach. His great success was due also to Cervi’s ability as a motivator, inspiring effort and confidence in his players. His owner at Syracuse, Danny Biasone, said of Cervi: “To me, there is no question that Al Cervi was the fiercest individual competitor the game has known.” That’s identity. His Hall of Fame player, Dolph Schayes, said, “He didn’t know what it was to lose. And this feeling filtered down to his players.” That’s what they call inspiring confidence.
Joe Lapchick was already a legend in New York City when he took over the NY Knicks in 1947. He had been the center on the most famous team of all time: The ‘Original’ Celtics of New York. For that work, he is in the Naismith Hall of Fame today. Then, he had coached St. John’s University to NIT titles in 1943 and 1944, when the NIT was much more important than the NCAA Tournament. So, he brought with him credibility, charisma and experience. In just their second year, the league’s most important franchise had the league’s most important coach.
He didn’t let them down. He coached the Knicks for 9 years, 1947-56, leaving after 51 games (26-25) in 1955-56. He never had a losing season. He was 326-247 in regular season play, a .569 WL%; 30-30 in playoffs, a .500 WL%. He won two Eastern Division titles. He took them to three consecutive NBA Finals, in 1951, 1952 and 1953. He had some fine players, to be sure: Hall of Famers Harry Gallatin and Dick McGuire; HoF nominees Carl Braun and Max Zaslofsky; and a Who’s Who of future coaches: Bill Van Breda Kolff, Al McGuire, Fred Schaus and Gene Shue.
But what he really brought to the table was method. He basically said, “This is the way we are going to play; Celtic style, sound basketball, smart basketball, team basketball.” Had he not done this, there is every possibility the fan base would have turned its back on the Knicks. Those fans had seen the very best in college teams and coaches: Clair Bee at LIU, Howard Cann at NYU, Nat Holman at CCNY, Honey Russell at Seton Hall. They could also see marvelous high schools teams in the City. So, they expected no less than the best in choreographed play. Joe Lapchick gave them that.
Today people see the all-powerful NBA machine and forget how fragile the NBA’s existence was in 1947, as the (then) BAA began its second year of play. The being — the PRESENCE — of Joe Lapchick gave the BAA clout with respect to the older and stronger NBL, formed in 1937. So, in 1948, it was the NBL that merged with the BAA to become the NBA, and not the other way around. Joe Lapchick’s immense stature had something to do with that. Credibility? The BAA had Joe Lapchick and the NBL didn’t. So, he was doubly great; as a coach and as an iconic figure.
Any discussion of great NBA coaches must begin with John Kundla, who took the (then) Minneapolis Lakers to the top of the professional basketball world. He’s been voted one of the top 10 coaches in NBA history. He’d been the coach of St. Thomas College of St. Paul, Minnesota in 1946-47 prior to being hired by the newly-formed Lakers. He’d been the star forward on the University of Minnesota’s 1937 Big 10 Champions and a WWII veteran in the US Navy. He brought with him that college out-of-the box thinking and that Navy sense of order. He was 31 years old.
His first season with Minneapolis was, perhaps the key to it all. The Lakers swept the old NBL, a title often not listed in his NBA statistics. But, most considered the older NBL (formed in 1937) to be much more powerful than the newly-organized BAA (born in 1946, which would merge with the NBL and become the NBA in 1948 and 1949). They also won an event no one talks about any more, the World Professional Basketball Tournament, in Chicago, beating the NY Rens in the title game. Then, they opened their legendary series with the Harlem Globetrotters.
John Kundla brought method to the Lakers. When they picked up the best player in the world, 6’10″ George Mikan, in the ‘dispersal draft,’ Kundla knew exactly how to use him: go to the basket against 1-on-1 coverage; pass outside to wide-open teammates if double-teamed. He also brought creativity, inventing the ‘power forward’ position when 6’8″ Vern Mikkelsen (today in the Hall of Fame) came to the Lakers in 1949-50. Finally, he brought identity: We are going to beat you physically, with hard-nosed screens, contact box-outs and vicious team defense.
Kundla went on to win 5 more titles in the NBA itself: 1949 and 1950; then the first 3-Peat in 1952, 1953 and 1954. Yes, he did it all in the pre-Modern era but John Kundla, George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers were the first dynasty in NBA history. Their success forced the hand of the rules makers, first with the 24″ clock, then with the widening of the 3″ lane from 6′ to 12′ to prevent a big man like Mikan from posting up so near the basket. When you do that, as did John Kundla, you have earned the label of ‘great’ coach. He was the first of them all.
This is the fifth — and last — blog on the ‘job description’ for a great coach. Today, I want to talk about clarity. The thing that always impressed me about great coaches was how they were able to get right to the heart of a problem and reduce all the sophisticated aspects of that question to bare nuts and bolts. They have the ability to look at 1000 components of a situation and understand that 999 don’t matter, that THIS is the one that counts. And they do this with alarming simplicity, so much so that you walk away saying, “Why didn’t I think of that? It was so obvious!”
1966. I was the new head coach at Delaware. In our third game, we got annihilated by Penn, in the Palestra, 106-75, and it was on Channel 17, for all to see. I was shaken. Defense – zero. Toughness – zero. I called the legendary Pete Newell, for advice. He said, “Forget everything else but toughness. Throw your whistle away. Scrimmage. No fouls, no out-of-bounds. It will be like Rugby. They’ll get tough.” It was mayhem. Fights. Punches. I was afraid guys would get hurt. No one did. We then beat Navy, 67-62, and played as hard as was possible. Clarity.
1969. Philadelphia. NBA All-Star Game. Luncheon. I was coach at Delaware, 45′ away, so I attended. I found coach Bill Van Breda Kolff of the LA Lakers: “Coach, may I ask you a question?” No problem. Now, Bob Knight had said the VBK was the best college coach he ever saw when VBK coached Princeton. I said, “What’s your offensive philosophy?” VBK: “Well, first you get the ball into the post man.” OK, fine. Then? VBK: “Then, you get the ball OUT of the post man!” That was it. He described the Princeton Offense in two sentences. Clarity.
1969. Same luncheon. I stopped Red Holzman, coach of the NY Knicks: “Coach, what do you do pre-season?” Red: “Well, Dan, we start 1-on-1. Then, we work 2-on-2. Then, we go to 3-on-3. Then, we progress to 4-on-4. Then, we put it all together, 5-on-5.” It was so devastatingly simple that it floored me. Then, in 1980, one of Red’s former players, John Gianelli, came to play for me in Milan. I recounted the story. John said, “And that is exactly how we went through our pre-season work.” From that year forward, that’s how I organized things. Clarity.
Great coaches have what I like to call a ‘sense of values.’ That means they have a clear understanding of two things: (a) What is right … and what is wrong; (b) What is important … and what is unimportant. Now, just about everyone has an idea of what is right and what is wrong. People abide by a certain code, if, for no other reason, to avoid legal problems. But there are people — and coaches — that have a hard time grasping what’s important and what is unimportant. Like someone said, they are worried about the nits and the gnats and not about the lions and the tigers.
a. Right and Wrong. This means a coach knows what the rules are and what the consequences are. I remember when Pat Riley resigned as coach of the NY Knicks by sending the Knicks’ organization a FAX to inform them of his decision. Some thought that was wrong, unprofessional, better done in person or by telephone. I happen to believe that Pat Riley knew exactly what he was doing and had his reasons for doing so. That was no snap decision. Pat Riley was ready for any negative feedback and was ready to deal with the consequences of that. Sense of values.
b. Important and unimportant. I’ve never seen a great coach get bogged down in something inconsequential. It’s just the opposite. They have a gift for understanding what has to stay and what has to go. This means evaluations, practices, game plans, sideline coaching, whatever. Italy had a legendary national team coach, Nello Paratore. For the 1964 Olympics, he had an intricate offense. In the opening game, against Mexico, the offense bogged down and Italy fell behind. Paratore told his team: “Forget the offense. Just play.” Italy won, 85-80.
That small example tells you everything: Paratore was a giant of a coach but he was not hung up on his little offense. He understood that HE was not important, that the TEAM was important. He understood, ever so clearly, that his OFFENSE was not important, but that WINNING was important. He took a great risk but he never hesitated. His players still speak in wonder of his natural instinct for such things. It could have blown up in his face but he knew what he had to do because he had an innate sense of what mattered and what did not.
I’m still in the ‘preamble’ stage here but I want to get this down on paper before I name any coaches or give my reasons for liking their work. Like any other coach — or ex-coach — I have my ideas on what a great coach and why he is that way. I’ve mentioned, in the first blog, being demanding and inspiring confidence. In the second blog, I mentioned that he must bring with him three things: culture, method and identity. This is the third blog. Herein, I’m going to say the great coach has his own philosophy of how to deal with five situations that condition his work:
1. His organization. He must know how to deal with everyone associated with the club or school.
2. His team. He must know how to work with his players, how to deal with them, motivate them.
3. His fan base. He must deal with the public, must avoid ‘provoking’ them, must have the fans with him.
4. The mass media. He must have a clear idea on how to deal with the press, the TV, the Internet.
5. The referees. He must know how to deal with officials, make them respect him and his team.
This is different from a basketball philosophy: press or zone, fast break or control game. This is how the coach deals with the situation around him. I give countless ‘Team Building’ talks to industry people. I set down these same five principles, this very same philosophy. The great coaches may not have thought out such a thing as a philosophy. John Wooden did in his famous ‘Pyramid.’ Red Auerbach did in his book. Others may not. They don’t need to. They just wake up in the morning and it’s … there! Whatever, this ‘inner gyroscope’ is there when they need it.
What this means is that these men are never caught off guard; they are READY for ANYTHING. They are ready because they may have thought it out, as ‘normal’ people like myself have tried to think it out and write it down, or it’s programmed into their very DNA, as I suspect is most often the case. Whatever, they have a ‘game plan’ for any situation that may arise. They know two crucial things instinctively: (a) who they are dealing with; (b) how to deal with them. The great coaches are all longevity coaches. And they have long careers because they are ready … for anything.
Yesterday, I said that I felt the job of the coach was 2-fold: be demanding; inspire confidence. Others may think differently but that is my philosophy. Everything else stems from those two things because they work on the mind-set of the athlete, of the team. This is every bit as important as the physical aspect or technical part of any sport. This is the very mind of the athlete: work ethic, high sports IQ, sense of values, dealing with pressure, understanding what team play involves, learning skills, retention of knowledge, charisma, personality. This is the makeup of the champion.
1. Culture. The great coach brings culture with him. His message is this: “I know how to win; if you follow my lead, we will win.” That’s culture. I say ‘culture’ because a coach, even a great coach, may come to a situation that lacks this inner conviction, this data base that gives constant ‘winning’ input to the players. The coach is the computer that offers that knowledge: “Avoid this and we’ll avoid losing; do this at this time and we will increase our chances of winning.” Winning teams know what do do and what not to do and when to do or not to do something. That’s culture.
2. Method. The great coach has his method of work in practice and play in games. He may be flexible – as the great coaches are – but, whatever he does, he does that with a plan, often a step-by-step plan. This method can be seen in his teaching approach, in his practice organization, in the drills he runs, in the offense he uses, in the defenses he uses, in his game preparation. What matters is this: His players believe in the method, in the system, in the way their coach operates. They eliminate all doubt and all uncertainty because they KNOW their coach is right.
3. Identity. The great coach gives his team an identity. That says “This is who we are. This is the way we play. We play our game. We’re not worried about their game. We know that, if we stick to our plan, we can win. We know our strengths and we know our weaknesses. We know we have to play this way to win and that is what we’ll do.” The great coach, gives them that. He’s the ‘humble tailor’ that cuts the suit to fit the client, as opposed to ‘cutting’ the client to fit the suit. He knows where he has to go and what he has to do to win, and gives that identity.
Several people have asked me to do a series of Blogs on great NBA coaches … and why I think they are great coaches. To do that, you must first set down a ‘job description’ of a great coach. I do this all the time in my ‘Team Building’ talks, so this is something I feel I’m familiar with. Then, during my coaching career, I went up against many great coaches. No question about it: You learn something when you face one of those top-level guys. With that, over the years, I have sort of set down what I think are the characteristics of a truly outstanding coach .. in any sport.
1. Demanding. The great coaches are demanding. They demand a higher level of work ethic in practice and of mental application in games. They don’t have to raise their voices to get their message across, though that may also factor into the situation. Red Auerbach was ‘noisy’ demanding; John Wooden was ‘quiet’ demanding. One way or another, they let their team know how things are going to go: “We’re going to stay here all day if need be.” Or, “We’re not leaving here until we get this right.” Their main message: “We won’t accept inferior work here.”
2. Inspirational. By that, I mean they ‘inspire confidence.’ They do this by being demanding: “I’m setting the bar higher.” That’s demanding in itself. But the unspoken message is this: “I wouldn’t set this bar higher if I didn’t think you couldn’t clear that height.” So, it’s a dual message: “It’s going to be hard (demanding) but you can do it (inspirational).” Actually, the word ‘inspirational’ is a bit over the top. It’s not the fire-and-brimstone pre-game speech. It can be subtle. But the team must feel their coach believes in them. That way, they believe in themselves.
There is more to this than just these two things. But this is the start. You can make up a long list of qualities of a truly great coach but it all comes down to these two things. Everthing else is a by-product of this two-edged sword. I tried to follow this job description when I coached. When I took over Olympia-Armani Milan in 2010-11, I had a brief talk with the team: “I’m not here for offense or defense or sophistication. My assistants will do that. I’m in charge of working hard in practice and playing hard in games.” There would be more. But I started there.
Everybody has an idea on how to cut down on ‘flopping’ in the NBA. In this clip, even ‘superfan’ Jimmy Goldstein chips in with his thoughts on the matter. My memory goes back to the 1950s, when, at every level of play, you never (or hardly ever) saw a charging foul. I mean, high school, NCAA, NBA. I first saw it in the 1960s, at the high school level and then, quickly, at the NCAA level. A bit later, the NBA picked up on it. And, I never (or seldom) saw any ‘flopping.’
It’s always the coaches that take these things to this level of exasperation. Let’s take football. Back around 1900, players were dying from head injuries and (then) US President Theodore Roosevelt talked of outlawing football unless prevention of injuries became a reality. With that, came the invention of the leather helmet and, later, the composition (hard plastic) suspension helmet. Coaches quickly realized that was not only protection but also a weapon. With that came ‘spearing’ and ‘helmet on helmet’ hits and the concussion problem we have today. Some protection.
With this, in basketball, the charge used to be the perfect defensive play: getting position. Today, however, instead of just ‘drawing’ the charge, coaches have players ‘looking for’ the charge. And, over the years, ‘selling’ the charge to the referees has become an art. But, in the NBA, the same rules that make NBA Basketball so spectacular on offense may have a flip side that lets the defense hurt that spectacular play. That is, two things: (a) the 3-D rule, with no defender being able to stay in the 3″ lane three seconds, opening the lane for drives; (b) the semi-circle under the basket, where no charges are called.
So, no question: the NBA opened the lane for great drivers like Derrick Rose with the 3-D rule and made sure no one was going to wipe out a great dunk with the semi-circle rule. So, desperate to stop these two plays, coaches and players have come up with ways to cause problems for the offense. Many think that abolishing the 3-D rule and the semi-circle would mean fewer drives and dunks but also fewer flops and less violent contact. And, more pickup jump shots to avoid the charge. It’s a trade-off. Me? I’d like to see one NBA season without the 3-D and semi-circle. Let’s see what happens.
Roger Federer is probably the greatest tennis player of all time. Maybe that should be ‘was’ the best ever. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to compare players from different generations. Could Federer have beaten Rod Laver in the 1960s, using a wooden racket with a face about one-half the size of the ski shoe he now uses? Could he have beaten Bill Tilden in the 1920s while wearing ‘gym’ shoes and long pants? We’ll never know. So, let’s just say Federer ranks with the best of all time: Tilden, Jack Kramer, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and some others I am forgetting.
Now, at the age of 29, Federer is in a huge slump, a period in which he has not won a single ‘major’ tournament (US Open, Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon), leaving his record-setting total of Grand Slam wins on hold at 17 since winning the 2012 Wimbledon title, and even that was a bit of a suprise. What has happened? Well, most certainly, the emergence of Spanish super star Rafael Nadal. Without Nadal, Federer might still be on his run of Majors. But, that’s sports: Competition emerges and you have to fight off the young lions or they have you for breakfast.
Aside from Nadal, is there anything else? One factor may be that tennis players are burning out physically at younger and younger ages. That means two things. One, they pile up injuries, both major and minor in nature, and their recovery time is increasingly longer as they grow older. Two, their bodies wear down from so much travel, so much practice and (in the case of the super players) so many tournament finals, meaning they play more matches than other players. So, basic wear and tear adds up and the athlete no longer being 100% physically. This may well be the case with Federer.
But I think you must also factor in the inevitable loss of ‘hunger’ to win. What’s one more title when you have 17? But it’s even more subtle than that. When he was going for the Grand Slam record, he was looking up at the top of the mountain. So, he had something to shoot for: the top. Now, he’s at the top. There is no more ‘up’ to be conquered. So, he’s no longer in an ‘offensive’ but, rather, a ‘defensive’ mode. He’s trying to keep people off the top of his mountain. So, he has nothing more to gain and that’s not conducive to winning. His fire has been banked … somewhat.
Rolando Blackman was the perfect fit for Olimpia Milano in his only year with the club, 1995-96. This was due to his great versatility. He could play two offensive positions (shooting guard; small forward) and he could defend on three positions (point guard, shooting guard, small forward). Most of all, he was such an intelligent player that he never got in anyone’s way in the offense, no easy task when you have two point guards (Nando Gentile; Dejan Bodiroga) and another shooter (Flavio Portaluppi). In this, he made a concentrated effort to bend his talents to those of his teammates and not vice-versa.
Of course, this was nearly two decades ago, when European teams could still get an ex-NBA player that had been an All-Star. That meant they almost always got not only a quality player but also a quality person. That’s seldom the case today. As one coach put it: “Back then, you got an NBA player that was high quality and low maintenance; today you get a non-NBA player that is low quality and high maintenance.” Whatever, Rolando Blackman was a walking, talking, playing advertisement for all that is good about the NBA, their perfect Ambassador to European Basketball.
People may think a guy that was an NBA All-Star is a problem or a prima donna. I had two and they were perfect here in Milan: Joe Barry Carroll (1984-85) and Bob McAdoo (1986-87). I could say the same for just about every other former NBA player that played in Italy after being an NBA All-Star: Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Michael Ray Richardson, Spencer Haywood, George Gervin, Dominique Wilkins, Dan Roundfield, Norm Nixon, Reggie Theus, Sidney Wicks and Chris Gatling. These men are remembered with the utmost respect and undying affection by their former teams.
Well, none was better than Rolando Blackman. I was doing the Series A-1 games on TV that year and I can tell you he was not only a pleasure to watch him play but a pleasure to interview, a wonderful guy that was always smiling and always positive. None of this thinking and talking about when he was back ‘…in the league’ as some former NBA players have done. His NBA, that year, was Series A-1 and his team was Olimpia Milano. He played his legs off and his heart out for them. I’d have given anything to change places with Bogdan Tanjevic, to be his coach for just one game.
Yes, I most certainly did coach the great Bob McAdoo. I brought him to play for Olimpia Milano my last year of coaching, 1986-87. I’d been ‘recruiting’ him for several years and enlisted the help of his college coach at North Carolina, the legendary Dean Smith, who advised him to sign with us. Bob and our other American, Ken Barlow, just out of Notre Dame, a 6’10″ forward, arrived just days before the regular season started and Barlow was way out of shape after an automobile accident during the summer that left him with a pin in his left ankle. So, our team got off to a slow start.
Did I say slow? Make that painfully slow. After 5 games in the regular season, we were 2-3. In the European Cup of Champions, we had just lost to ARIS in Thessaloniki by -31 points, 98-67, though we came back to eliminate them in the ‘double confrontation’, home and home, with a +34 win in Milan to advance to the final round. We even lost a home game in Series A-1, to Auxilium Turin, 96-94, and Turin didn’t even make the playoffs. We lost up in Brescia, 92-87, and they didn’t make the playoffs. Well, you get the idea. And, to think, at year’s end, we’d run the table, a Grand Slam.
Early on, when it was really rough going, we were on the bus, headed for Pesaro. Ken Barlow was playing badly and I was trying to think of how to snap him out of it. At a certain point, Bob McAdoo got up from the back of the bus, went forward and ripped the USA Today from Barlow’s hands and shouted at him: “Why are you reading the NBA page? You’ll never play in the NBA! You are the worst player on this team. You need to get yourself together.” Dead silence. No one spoke for more than 30 minutes. He ended this way: “And the Italians want your minutes!”
That was a message for everyone, including me: “If you want to bench this guy, I will say nothing, though I am a fellow American.” That’s how much McAdoo cared about our team. The Italians, of course, understood every word and loved him. Barlow snapped out of it immediately and was the MVP of the European Cup final later in the year and hit the winning basket in the playoff final, drilling the only ‘three’ he took all year. So, that’s leadership, big time. Suddenly all my problems had been solved by Bob McAdoo. And people were asking me how I ‘transformed’ Barlow. Right.
Joe Barry Carroll became the perfect American player for Italy’s Series A-1. After an initial feeling-out period of about six weeks, something amazing happened: He found a great affection for his teammates. I think there were several reasons for this. One, they all treated him like an ‘ordinary’ teammate and not like a super star. Two, they all spoke English and he found that interesting because he could converse with anyone. Three, they didn’t judge him by what they had heard about him but, rather, by what they saw. Once he grasped all that, we just simply rolled over everyone.
He’d come to practice 30′ early every day, in the Secondary Gym at PalaLido, where we practiced at 1700 hours. I’d be there watching the Juniors practice and he’d get there at 1615 hours. I’d ask the Junior coach to play 5-on-5 on the half court and let Carroll shoot around. I’d watch. After a few minutes, he’d dribble by and stop. I’d say, “A question, JB?” He’d say no. He’d do it again. I’d say, “JB, something on your mind?” He’d say no. The third time, I’d say, “OK, JB, what is it?” He’d ask, “Are we going to scrimmage today?” I’d answer, “JB, …. we scrimmage every day.”
Now he was like a 7’1″ kid: “I know, Coach, but are we going to scrimmage TODAY?” I’d say yes. He’d say, “OK, can you put me on the team opposite Dino Meneghin? Because he helps me improve!” This from the guy the NBA said did not want to work hard. Then, Meneghin would arrive and ask the same question. I’d say to both of them, “I’ll see what I can do.” Their battles in practice were much harder than anything they’d encounter in any game in Italy or in Europe. Neither gave an inch. Like they say, ‘Star Wars.’ And, yes, they both improved.
Before we won the title game in Pesaro, JB purchased a watch for each teammate, hand-picking each watch, and gave them to the guys after the pre-game meal. His teammates were stunned. Renzo Bariviera said to me: “Coach, what can we do? We Italians are usually so good at this sort of thing but we were taken completely by surprise.” We got a black and white game photo of him and had each teammate sign it in red Magic Marker. I talked to Joe Barry a year ago and he told me he still has the photo in his office in Atlanta. I’m so glad he’s in the Olimpia Hall of Fame today.
I’ll be on my way back to my home town of Evanston, Illinois, this week for the induction ceremony into the Evanston Twp. High School (ETHS) Athletic Hall of Fame. I’ll fly into O’Hare on the 29th. Larry Robinson, off my very first team, Ridgway Club at the Evanston YMCA, is going to pick me up there. I’ll be staying at the Hampton Inn on Old Orchard Road. I’m not sure what I’ll do on the evening of the 29th but, knowing me, I’ll try to get the jet lag out of my system, as the trip involves a short Milan-Rome flight and then Rome-Chicago. Nothing direct from Milan Malpensa to O’Hare.
On Friday the 30th, I’m going to have lunch with the ETHS Athletic Director, Chris Livatino, and the Director of Archives at Northwestern University, Kevin Leonard. That will be fun because both are on the mailing list for this daily Blog and I am forever telling them how to run their respective offices! Naturally, they love this! Chris now has me in the ETHS AHOF and Kevin has started the Dan Peterson Library at NU. These two things have me on the biggest ego trip of my life! That evening, ETHS plays Proviso West in football and we’ll be presented to the crowd at halftime.
The next day, Saturday, August 31, at 12:00 noon, at ETHS, there will be the luncheon and induction ceremony. I will, of course, try to blow the doors off the place by winding up my remarks with American Indian Sign Language, which I will translate as I go along. That part won’t take more than 90 seconds. Basically, I will not talk about myself but, rather, about how ETHS — and the Evanston YMCA — got me into coaching. The coaches at ETHS were incredible. The encouragement they gave me put a confidence in me that you could not imagine. Without that, I could not have made it.
I will also tell them the story of Bob Reihsen, the football coach when I got to ETHS in 1949. He’d come in from DeKalb and was not exactly welcomed with open arms. He was from ‘the sticks.’ He said, “I’ll be here three years; I’ll win the Suburban League; and I’ll leave.” By God, he did just that. When I got to Bologna, they had never heard of me and the local paper headlined DAN WHO? I said, “I’ll be here three years; I’ll win Series A; and I’ll leave.” By God, my third year, we won it all. Not true to my word, I stayed! 40 years later, the local press is still mad at me!
I had the honor and the pleasure of coaching the great Roberto Premier my last six years with Olimpia Milano, 1981-87. I can say, without any doubt, that he was the greatest ‘killer’ I ever coached. I mean that in every sense of the word. He came through in the clutch, for one thing. He was fearless under pressure for another. He loved physical contact and just simply beat opponents down physically with his height, weight, strength and killer disposition. He was a 6’6″, 220 lb. guard but he could lift those 100 kilograms off the floor like a feather; a great jumper, a powerful inside player.
I remember a thousand plays he made for us but none more than one offensive rebound in the title game in the 1982 playoff final vs. Scavolini Pesaro. It was late in the game and we were down about -5. Roberto was on the right side of the floor when we missed a shot that caromed off the rim toward the left corner. If they came up with that ball, we would lose. Roberto was the player farthest from that ball. With a killer instinct you seldom see, he simply ran over people to get to there first, ripping it away from an opponent, giving us another chance to score, which we did. We won the game, 73-72, to take the title.
I cannot count the times I’d say to him, late in a big game: “Roby, I need you to get me a couple of big offensive rebounds.” He’d say, “OK, Coach.” And he would get two crucial offensive rebounds. Bodies flew everywhere. Our point guard, Mike D’Antoni, said of him, “Coach, Premier is one of the few players that hurts his own teammates with contact!” We won’t even talk about opponents. They feared him. He wore them down mentally and physically. And, he punished the very best: Drazen Petrovic, Antonello Riva, Romeo Sacchetti, Rimas Kurtinaitis. He left welts on all of them.
He was also the greatest instinctive scorer I ever coached. He had no fear, no relation to the clock or the situation. He had the ball and his man was at his mercy. He was, in a word, unstoppable. He finally stopped playing at the age of 44, in Series B. Without being able to practice, he still averaged 20 points per game. He had the strongest hands of any player I ever coached. He just ripped rebounds away from people. If he touched the ball with a fingernail, that ball was his. If you are a coach, having a player like that … well, that’s why you coach.
I said I wasn’t going to write my own material but, in order to complete this work, I have to say a few words here. It must be said that a coach is only as good as his players. Not exactly, but that’s close. Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden once said, “No coach can win without talent; but not every coach can win WITH talent.” That was my good fortune: I was able to learn how to coach and win with top-level players. In this, my two years with the national team in Chile prepared me to coach men that were adults and not college-age athletes, as I’d had when I was coaching at the NCAA level.
That prepared me to coach Virtus Bologna. That’s where I made the next step: from coaching adults to coaching super stars. My first year in Bologna, I had a wonderful player in 6’7″ John Fultz, out of URI. But the real super star came the next year, 6’11″ Tom McMillen, out of Maryland: high school All-American, NCAA All-American, 1972 Olympian, 9th pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. He played with Virtus while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. I owe a lot to Tom, as he was my PhD in ‘star coaching.’ After that, it was easier with stars like Terry Driscoll and John Roche with Virtus Bologna.
When I came to Olimpia Milan, I kept bringing in top-level US players, many former NBA players, All-Stars or NBA Champions. Luckily, they were not only great players but also great people: Mike D’Antoni, C. J. Kupec, John Gianelli, Antoine Carr, Joe Barry Carroll, Russ Schoene and Bob McAdoo. And, two youngsters just out of college: Cedric Henderson (Georgia) and Ken Barlow (Notre Dame). Then, I had Italian stars, like Naismith Hall of Fame inductee Dino Meneghin, Italian Hall of Fame inductee Renzo Bariviera, and Olimpia Hall of Fame inductee Roberto Premier.
No one makes any Hall of Fame by himself! I’ve mentioned my players but I had great ownership here with Olimpia: Dr. Adolfo Bogoncelli and the Gabetti Family. I had the same people all nine years with Olimpia: GM Toni Cappellari; assistant Franco Casalini; conditioning coach Claudio Trachelio; plus Olimpia Hall of Fame players Vittorio Gallinari, Renzo Bariviera and (soon-to-be) Franco Boselli. Without their help, none of this would have been at all possible. Like they say, “When you win, everybody looks good.”
I had the honor to coach Dino Meneghin for six years, 1981-87, with my Olympia Milan team. The following article is one I did for the Hall of Fame when Dino was inducted, in 2003. He was a coach’s dream: the super-star without the super-star baggage. He was a fun guy but dead serious when it came to practice and games, where he was all business. He was also the perfect teammate, transmitting confidence to everyone, picking up everyone, defending everyone. Well, the attached story tells it all as well as possible. It was a joy to see him walk into practice or on the floor. You knew you had the upper hand.
I said ‘the perfect teammate.’ Dino was a close friend of Roberto Premier, who was also on our Olympia Milan teams in the 1980s. They were even roommates on the road. They were also from the same Veneto Region, near Treviso: Dino was born in Alano di Piave; Roberto was born in Spresiano. But, if Roberto wasn’t concentrating in practice, Dino would jump on him: “DAMMIT, ROBY! COME ON!” Then, the very next play, Dino would pass the ball to Premier, an assist. As if to say, “I’ve had my say. That’s over. Let’s move on.” Of course, Roberto would snap to in one second.
When your ‘main man’ is that serious about practice … you have quality practices. Of course, there will be moments when practice doesn’t flow smoothly. In our practice gym, PalaLido Secondario, we had a couple of those crowd control ‘fences,’ which weighed quite a bit. If things got sloppy in practice, without saying a word, Dino would flip one of those fences against the wall like it was a cigarette lighter. The noise it made and the impression it made would shake up everyone and the team would up its concentration and intensity in a heartbeat. That saved me a lot of trouble, I can assure you.
When Dino was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2003, he asked me to accompany him to Springfield for the ceremony. He is, bascially, a humble person, so he thought they would not know who he was. Then, no less than Jerry West came up to him and said: “Dino, congratulations on your induction.” Dino could hardly speak. A true team man, he asked former Olympia teammate Bob McAdoo to give his presentation speech. Bob said, “I’ve played with some great players: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and …. Dino Meneghin!”
Mike D’Antoni’s election to the Olimpia Hall of Fame was the easiest slam dunk of all time. He’s a revered figure here in Milan. He played 13 years for Olimpia, 1977-90, and then coached the club for four seasons, 1990-94. One look at his chart is all that is needed to understand that his presence spelled victory for Olimpia. On top of that, I really don’t know of any other American player that was associated with one club for 17 years. That’s why the club and the local fans recall him with such affection: Everyone appreciates undying loyalty. He was a flagship player, a symbol, an icon.
I was his coach for nine of those 13 seasons as a player, 1978-87. He came to Milan one year before I did, in 1977-78. I was still coaching Virtus Bologna that year. He played one game against us, in Bologna, and they blew us out, 103-88. Mike just killed us. Every dribble he made was a determining dribble. Every pass he made was a determining pass. He shut down our main scoring threat, John Roche, even stripping John — a supreme player — of the ball as he went up to shoot. So, when I took over Milan the next summer, my first call was to Mike, to make sure he’d be back with the team.
Our first year, 1978-79, he guided us to the final. That’s a throwaway statement right there. What he did was take a team picked for dead last in a 16-team league, the team the lowest age average in the league (6 teen-agers), a team with no one over 6’9″ tall (no real center), and got us into the final. His passing, dribbling, defense, clutch play and leadership were crucial to it all. Our team, ‘The Little Bassett Hounds,’ became the sensation of the year. I’m always glad when Mike says he’d like to have his team play like the ‘Little Bassett Hounds.’ They were the joy of my life.
I’d say the key game in our 9 seasons was the playoff opener our first year, down in Rome, vs. Perguna Jeans. We were down -10 the whole game and down -7 with 1:43 to go. Mike, out of our 1-3-1 half-court zone trap, then stole six consecutive balls from Rome and we won, 94-92, in regulation. From there, we went to the final, upsetting mighty Varese in the semis. He never turned the ball over in the clutch. He got the ball to our shooters. He was all over the court on defense. He hit two shots that won titles for us. I don’t mind saying that he made me look good every game we played.
No, I’m not going to make a ‘report’ on myself as I’ve done for the other inductees into the Olimpia Hall of Fame. I did that back in February for my induction to the Italian Basketball Hall of Fame and there’s no need to go over all of that again. As you can see, I’m Number 21 in the order of induction. In this inaugural class, they went in chronological order, starting with the first year the inductee was with Olimpia. Tomorrow, I’ll send the profile of Mike D’Antoni, number 22. That’s not quite right. Mike came in 1977 and I came in 1978, so our order of arrival should be reversed.
So, nothing on me today. What I’m going to do is this. First, I’ll complete sending — one each day — the profiles of the other 32 members of the inaugural class. Then, I’ll take off on another of my 100-blog series on the history of Olimpia Milan and how that fits in with the history of Italian Basketball. Obviously, that will cover my nine years, 1978-87, and I’ll go into more detail on those years than for others. At the end, I’ll have a parenthesis on my ‘comeback’ season, in 2010-11 as that was a beautiful experience and, with one less injury, it could have been even more beautiful.
I am enjoying doing these profiles of the greats of Olimpia Milano. For the American players, I’m including only the stats from their careers with Olimpia. For the Italians, I’m including their entire careers on the stats page. Finding the photos is no small task. As any author can tell you, that’s a project in itself. For my nine years, I have a lot of photos. Then, I scanned some from books on Olimpia. Finally, a good friend, Maurizio Scotti, of Olympia Foto (yes, also named Olympia), the major photo service here in Milan, came through like a champion with some wonderful shots from the distant past.
I’m sure the story — the history — of Olimpia Milan has never been recounted in English. So, that’s my job. Who knows? Maybe someone will want to put this together in a book form. To my pleasant surprise, NIKE is putting together my 100-part series on the differences between US and FIBA Basketball in a book. I can thank Terry Layton for the idea and George Raveling for the go-ahead on that project. But, this will not be a job I work at. This will be a labor of love. I don’t care if it becomes a book or not. This is going to be a love story … in 100 chapters.
Every so often, I offer my amateur opinion on some movie. They just ran “The Departed”, the 2006 film directed by Martin Scorsese, on SKY Cinema over here and, of course, with a flick of the remote, I get it in English. I’d seen the film before but I enjoyed seeing it again. It’s hard to beat Martin Scorsese. He understands the one basic must in entertainment: Rhythm. His films never have a stop, never have a lull. Well, no need to elaborate on that; his string of great movies is endless: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas. He’s won every award there is to win.
What’s more, he develops actors. I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was an awful actor at the start of his career. But Scorsese kept using him in big films, in big roles, with big co-actors. Today, I really like DiCaprio, who had the lead role of Billy Costigan in “The Departed.” I also think he’s helped Mark Wahlberg improve and he plays Staff Sgt. Sean Dignan in the film and is most convincing. A third actor I see improving every film is Alec Baldwin, who plays Det. Capt. George Ellerby. Had you told me, ten years ago, I’d be praising these three actors today, I’d have said, “No way.” Hats off to them.
Of course, Scorsese does not mess around when it comes to lead actors in set-in-Boston “The Departed.” Jack Nicholson is Frank Costello, a clone for the recently-convicted-for-murder, Boston-based ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Martin Sheen is Capt. Oliver Charles Queenan. Matt Damon is the sneaky spy in the Police Department in the film, Staff Sgt. Colin Sullivan. British actor Ray Winstone, whom I really like, is the right-hand man to Costello, his designated killer, Albert ‘Frenchy’ French. Up-and-coming actress Vera Farmiga is the police psychologies, Dr. Madolyn Madden.
The themes in the movie are classics and may go back as far as Greek tragedy: father-and-son, betrayal, identity and, of course, the Irish Mafia. Whatever, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times named it the best film of the 2000s. I keep coming back to Martin Scorsese. The man is just simply a film-making genius. If I see one of his films will be on TV, I watch that film. He’s a craftsman without getting too crafy, if you know what I mean. Anyway, “The Departed” is way up on my list of favorite films. If you get the chance to see it, well, don’t miss it.
Every morning, I log on to hoopshype.com, to read the Tweets by Peter Vecsey (ex-NY Post) and Frank Isola (NY Daily News): info, insight and irony. A while back, Vecsey mentioned that Art Kenney, former Power Memorial HS ’64 and Fairfield U. ’68, had his jersey retired by my old Olimpia Milan team (see clip above). Art played for Olimpia-Simmenthal for three years, 1970-73. Though it’s 40 years since he played for the club, he is still a legend with the team’s fans. No one ever forgets the warrior of all warriors.
Yes, I coached against Art Kenney. It was in the European Cup of Cup Winners in 1974-75, when I was coaching Virtus Bologna and we faced his team, Sarthe Le Mans, France, twice. We were a much better team and beat them easily in Bologna, 85-64. But, behind Art’s great fighting spirit, they edged us over there, 89-88. There was no question as to which player was the MVP of the game: Art Kenney. No, he didn’t score a lot of points or pile up any statistics. But he guarded our Tom McMillen well and out-fought our bigger guys for the game-deciding rebounds.
To show you the still-deep attachment he has to our club, it’s enough to know his e-mail address is
Art is on my e-mail Blog list, so he’ll be reading this at the same time everyone else is doing so. There is nothing he would not do for the club. He recently contacted Bill Bradley, who played in the European Cup for Simmenthal in 1965-66, to keep ‘Dollar Bill’ up on things and take him a team jersey. As I coached Olimpia for nine years, 1978-87, I can assure you of this: Every time I looked for an American player, I knew what I had to get for the Milan fans. They didn’t care about names, or numbers or technique. They said, “Will he fight like Art Kenney?” No one fights like that.
Do I know Franco Casalini? Definitely. He was my assistant coach all nine years I coached Olimpia Milano, 1978-87. Early on, I said, “Franco Casalini is the best assistant coach in Italy.” That ruffled a few feathers, I’m sure, but my intention was to give due recognition to my man, not to upset anyone else. And, I meant exactly what I said, as Franco was the ideal assistant coach. He had knowledge, he had ideas, he had incredible energy, he had tremendous enthusiasm. But, most of all, he had the first quality we all look for in an assistant coach: absolute loyalty.
Did we have our disagreements? Of course. But that was the great thing about Franco: He could disagree without being disloyal. And, if I decided against his proposal, he backed my idea to the hilt. Of course, we had fun with this. He’d come up with a proposal and I’d say, “Franco, when I step down, you’ll take over as head coach here. And your idea will fit with your style because you believe in it 100%. But, for now, as long as I’m head coach, we’re going to do it this way.” He said that was fine. What’s more, he’d never come back to his idea. He’d proposed it and that was that.
My last year, early on, he wanted to change our entire offense: out with my UCLA set, out with our famous ‘L’ play, the side Pick & Roll with Dino Meneghin setting the pick for Mike D’Antoni. We stayed with my system and ran the table. Two years later, Franco was head coach and won the national title down in Livorno. I watched the game on TV and he ran the ‘L’ play the entire second half. I mean …. no other play was run. So, he was flexible. He saw that the ‘L’ was going to work and he ran that. And, it paid off with a one-point win, the series and the national championship.
I couldn’t resist calling him: “Franco, two things. One, congratulations on the title. Two, I’m glad to see you threw out the ‘L’ play!!!” Of course, he loved this: “Coach, three things. One, thanks. Two, up yours. Three, you always said it was better to be a humble brick layer than a world-renowned architect in those situations.” That was our philosophy: Lay down the foundation and then put the bricks on that base, one at a time. Well, truth be told, Franco was more than just a humble mason; he also had some architect in him. And that’s why he’s in the Olimpia Hall of Fame.
Yes, I coached against Renzo Bariviera, my first ten years in Italy, 1973-83. I then coached him for three seasons, 1983-86. It was much better having him on my team. In two years he was with Olympia Milan, 1973-75, my Virtus Bologna team was 2-4 against him. In one year he was with Libertas Forlì, 1975-76, Virtus was 1-1 against him, the one loss in OT by one point. In two years with Gira Bologna, 1976-78, we were 3-1 but the one was a bitter upset in the playoffs. In five years with Cantù, 1978-83, they won an Italian title, two European titles and two other European Cups. All he did was win.
In the summer of 1983, we made some changes in our club. They asked me who I wanted. I said, “Bariviera!” They said, “Coach, he’s 34 years old.” I said, “I don’t care if he’s 54!” We got him and all we did for three years, 1983-86, was win: an Italy Cup and two semi-finals; two Italian titles and one runner-up; a European Cup, a final and a semi-fina. With any luck at all, we might have won even more. Like not having Dino Meneghin DQ for the 1984 playoff final. Like not being able to use Antoine Carr in the 1984 Cup of Cup winners final, lost by one point to Real Madrid.
As he did with every team he played for, Renzo ‘Barabba’ Bariviera changed the way we looked. Early in that first season, we ran over an opponent and their coach said, “They are not a Series A team; they are an NBA team!” We ran over another team and they asked their coach, “What did you learn from playing Milan?” He said, referring to the fact we had Renzo at 34 years of age, Dino Meneghin at 33, Mike D’Antoni at 32: “That I will never look at a player’s age again when operating on the player market!” Meaning he, too, would take someone 34 years old if he could play like Bariviera.
I brought in Renzo for his experience, his defense and his charisma. Experience? He just simply flowed into things. His first year, it looked like he had been playing with us for 10 years. Defense? I cannot count the number of times he held Oscar Schmidt to 9-27 from the floor. He made every opponent look bad. Charisma? When he was on the floor, his teammates knew he’d been in a hundred battles and went to him in the clutch. It was an honor to be his coach and I’m so glad he’s receiving this recognition.
Yes, I coached against the great Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Brumatti, a 6’2″ shooting guard. Yes, we were 21-10 against his teams but it was never easy. He ‘read’ the defender like a book and took what was there. He had a great first step when he took off. He could drive all the way and score or pick up the foul. He could pull up for the jump shot from anywhere. He had flawless shooting technique. He played against my Virtus Bologna teams when he was with Olympia Milan. He then played against my Olympia Milan teams when he was with Auxilium Turin and then with Reggiana Reggio Emilia.
He was one of those players that forced your hand when you were coaching against him. In my first year in Italy, with Virtus Bologna, I’d already seen Brumatti play: in September with the national team, in October in the Lombardy Tournament with Olympia. What a clutch player! What a go-to guy! I had a great defender in 6’1″ Renato ‘Chip’ Albonico but no one was going to stop Brumatti one-on-one. We not only had Albonico but a fairly decent team defense, though not as good as that defense would be at the end of the year. I was worried we could not help Renato enough.
So, I fell back on an old tactic: Attack the player you are concerned about! He was guarding Renato, so I told the team: “Look, I don’t like to attack one player or one mis-match because we might forget about everything else. But, if ‘Chip’ can drive on Brumatti, he’s going to drive. Also, Renato, run him off screens. Make him work, bump him into people. Wear him down.” Sure enough, Brumatti had three fouls in the first ten minutes. But his sub, Mauro Cerioni, came into the game and lit us up like a Christmas tree. Pino was beating us because we let down when he went to the bench!
It was a tough game. It was tied, 60-60, with about five minutes to go. Brumatti had been out since the 10′ mark but came back in and, as I had feared, broke the game open with jumpers, drives and free throws. It didn’t get any easier as the years went by. He came into Milan, my first year with Olympia, 1978-79, in the old PalaLido, where he was a legend, and he beat us on our own court, which was also ‘his’ court. Five different players tried to guard him but he was the difference. What else can I say about the late, great Pino Brumatti? He was ‘The Jerry West of Italy.’
No, I never coached Duane ‘Skip’ Thoren but our stories are intertwined. Back in the early 1960s, I used to compile lists of the top high school players in Illinois. I’d make changes in the lists (top center, top forwards, top guards) every week and then hand them out to coaches or mail them to college coaches I thought might be interested. For the season of 1960-61, I had Duane ‘Skip’ Thoren of East Rockford HS listed as the top center every week, from the start of the season to the end of the year, when his team exited the State Tournament in the quaters against undefeated Collinsville.
I sent these lists to, among others, coach Forrest ‘Forddy’ Anderson at Michigan State. He knew me because one of my former Evanston YMCA players, Art Schwarm, was his starting guard. During that 1960-61 season, Anderson called me and asked me to see MSU play Notre Dame at South Bend, Indiana. I was glad to go. He asked to see me in their hotel, a few hours before the game. No problem. He was there with his staff: assistant coach Bruce Fossum; freshman coach Tom Rand. Forddy said they had a different opinion regarding Skip Thoren. I would soon find out why.
His two assistants jumped all over me: “You’re wrong. He’s not physical enough. He’s not tough enough. This is the Big 10. He can’t cut it at this level.” I said, “He’s just 17. He’s going to grow some more and fill out. He’s a smart kid and has the best hook shot I’ve seen since Joe Ruklick at Princeton HS. He got here without muscle. Just think what he’ll do when he matures.” They literally shouted me down. I said, “Look, you have your opinion and I have mine.” Let’s see how it turns out. Forddy went with his staff’s advice and stopped recruiting Thoren, who went to the University of Illinois.
Two years later, 1962-63, Illinois, with Thoren as a sophomore, won the Big 10 and played in the NCAA Regional, right there in East Lansing, Michigan. Forddy called me again, when I was at McKendree College: “My freshman coach, Tom Rand, just resigned. I want to hire you. Come up to see me right away.” I went and he hired me. He said, “Do you know why you are here?” I said no. He said, “Thoren. You were right. What’s more, I have to coach against him for two more years.” So, thanks to Skip Thoren, my career took off. And, in this e-mail, our paths cross again.
The arrival of Bill Bradley in Milan, to play for Olympia-Simmenthal, was, perhaps, the greatest stroke of genius ever by the two deus ex machina of the club: President Dr. Adolfo Bogoncelli and Coach-GM Cesare Rubini. The two men had a friend, who was in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the summer of 1965, to see the World University Games, the basketball tournament, in particular. There he saw a US team that was loaded: Fred Hetzel, Lou Hudson, Dick Van Arsdale, Tom Van Arsdale, and Bill Bradley. Bradley, of course, having just graduated from Princeton, was a Rhodes Scholar.
They learned that Bradley would not be playing in the NBA in 1965-66, as he’d by studying at Oxford, near London. They wondered: “Could we interest him in the idea of playing for Simmenthal? After all, New York is a six-hour flight from London, while Milan is just 90 minutes away.” At the time, every Italian team was allowed just one foreign player for Series A. But, you were allowed a second foreign player for European Cup games. They already had 6’9″ Duane ‘Skip’ Thoren on a full-time basis: Series A and European Cup of Champions. Bradley would play in the Cup of Champions only.
So, they went to work on recruiting Bill Bradley. Enrico ‘Ricky’ Pagani, former Olympia player and a man fluent in 12 languages, handled the translations perfectly. They explained that they’d also have a translator for practices and games, in the person of assistant coach Sandro Gamba, also fluent in English. They explained that the club would handle all logistics with regard to travel, be that to Milan or to the destination where they would be playing in the Cup of Champions. They explained that it was one game a week, a maximun of 12 games, and that the team had a chance to win it all.
Bill Bradley, great adventurer that he was, accepted the proposal and signed to play with Simmenthal in the European Cup of Champions games. This was, in effect, a turning point in Italian Basketball history. Foreign players had just been re-allowed in Series A after a six-year hiatus. Italian clubs had never won the Cup of Champions but Simmenthal was determined to be the first Italian club to do so. All of this was so far ahead of its time that it’s difficult to explain, today. In any case, Bill Bradley suited up for Simmenthal, which, indeed, went on to win the European Cup of Champions.
Will somebody please explain to me how the Atlanta Braves do it … every year? Well, almost every year. In recent years, they have lost three (future) Hall of Fame pitchers: Greg Maddux, Tommy Glavine, John Smoltz. Add in a Hall of Fame 3rd baseman, Chipper Jones. A Hall of Fame manager in Bobby Cox. How do you replace people like that? On top of that, they lost 200-game winner RHP Tim Hudson to a leg injury. They’ve had stars go into baffling slumps. But all they do is win: 13 straight as I write this. Manager Fredi Gonzalez is pushing all the right buttons, I guess.
I should also mention that they’ve lost other key people, as well. The owner that created all this, Ted Turner, is no longer the owner. The President that presided over all this, Stan Kasten, works for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The GM that GM’d all this, John Scheurholz, is now President of the Braves. So, new people have had to step into some awfully big shoes. And they have done just that, without missing a beat. Everything is effortless, seamless, smooth. Yet they don’t get the publicity they’d get if they were performing these miracles in New York or Los Angeles. But they deserve tons of credit.
I really have no clue as to how they do it but I can offer some educated guesses. One, I think they have the ability to identify top-notch executives, managers, coaches. Two, I think they have excellent scouting of college/high school players, of minor league players, of Major League players. Three, I think they have a teaching program that probably rivals more publicized programs, such as the Tampa Bay Rays. Four, I think they have developed a ‘culture of winning’ second to none. Five, I think they go for more than talent in the players they bring in; they also go for quality people.
With this, I don’t mean to slight the Detroit Tigers in the American League. Last I looked, they had 11 straight wins under the great manager Jim Leyland. They’ve pretty much done what the Braves have done: get the right people; teach the game; develop the culture. Of course, other teams do this pretty well. Take the St. Louis Cardinals, for example. I’m just citing the Braves and the Tigers herein. There is something beautiful about seeing a job well done in professional sports. And these clubs are doing just that. And flying under a lot of radar while doing it.
Just below is an article by Doug Thonus that says, “Of course there are NBA players on PEDs.” But, once I read the story, I didn’t see any hard evidence to support his thesis. If I were his editor (well, I’m not sure if web sites have editors), I’d advise him to say that his opinions were just that — opinions, and not given facts. Look, of course, anything is possible. In a league with 450 athletes, it’s possible there are some that have taken PEDs. The NBA is on this thing and the tests are now so sophisticated that, as MLB has shown, going undetected is nearly impossible. If I were Doug Thonus, I’d go slowly on this matter. D
NBA players on PEDs? Of course they are.
By Doug Thonus
When the Biogenesis news broke letting us know that we were subject to a whole new round of PED talk in baseball no one was surprised. Now that the news breaks that Biogenesis supplied athletes from other sports, there’s still nothing to get surprised about. PED use is in the NBA. Let’s not pretend it isn’t.
PED use is rampant in sports you aren’t getting paid millions in such as track and field. You think it isn’t rampant in a sport where you can make 200-300 million dollars in your career? If you’re a big man that needs to add muscle, and adding 20 lbs of it means the difference between 50 million dollars and being out of the league?
In a sport where athleticism is radically more important than it is in baseball?
LeBron James and Greg Oden may not have been doing PEDs since high school, but they sure have all the traits of a couple guys who were. People once laughed about conspiracy theorists posting pictures of Barry Bonds head size changing, but the same photos now pop up with Dwyane Wade in them.
Are these guys guilty? Who knows. If I had a gun to my head and someone said if you don’t successfully guess a player on PEDs in the NBA on the first try I’m pulling the trigger then my response would be LeBron James. Up until Rose took over a year to recover from an ACL injury, I’d have put him pretty high up on my list too.
The thing is, even though I hate [but have amazing respect for] LeBron, I would hate the news to break that he’s on PEDs.
I don’t want the NBA to turn into MLB where the yearly PED round up is a massive story of fallen heroes. I don’t want his rings [and the results of the NBA for a few years] to be invalidated. I’d rather not find out Jordan was on PEDs if he was.
The thing is, if no one is going to really clean up the sport, then I’d rather just ignore the fact that it’s dirty [like every other sport is also dirty in this way], not make a big deal of it, and enjoy it anyway. The only way to clean up a sport from PEDs is to take away the financial incentive to use them. Make any positive test immediately void your contract, remove you permanently from the NBA, and allow every team to go after previous payments.
Make it so a single PED positive test means you went from millionaire athlete to bankrupt and can no longer play in the sport at all. It may not even be legal to go that far, but that’s what it would take and even that might not be enough to stop guys who are desperate to win.
A solution like that isn’t coming. Without a players union, track and field has the harshest penalties, less financial incentive, and they still have no shot at stopping people. What odds do US team sport have when the players union is stuck straddling a tough line between protecting players who are cheating and protecting those that aren’t?
So at this point, I’d keep going like I’m going if I’m the NBA. If you know you can’t solve the underlying problem just hope to avoid the perception problem. Don’t stand strong and proud and pronounce how clean the league is, because you don’t want to set yourself up on a high horse waiting for the news to break. Just try to stay out of the news and don’t go digging more than you have to.
Yes, I knew the legendary Dr. Adolfo Bogoncelli, President-Owner of Olympia Milan: He hired me as coach in 1978. I can truly say I’ve never met anyone quite like him. His team had dropped to A-2 in 1976, come back up to A-1 in 1977, so I knew he was concerned about that. He said, “Peterson, I ask only one thing of you.” I said, “I know; don’t drop down to A-2.” He said, “No. I only ask you to weigh your words before speaking to the media.” As I would later say, one hour with him was like a semester of college: You learned what would help you in your career.
We were talking as we signed the contract in 1978. He asked: “Peterson, do you know why I wanted you?” I said: “Because we (Virtus Bologna) won the title in 1976?” He said, “No. I wanted you because you are a man that inspires confidence.” What? I was knocked backwards by this. But I immediately realized that this was part of my job. When I give talks to business executives today, I say, “The job of the coach is two-fold: to be demanding and to inspire confidence.” I cite the story above every time. Dr. Bogoncelli gave me my own job description.
My first year, 1978-79, we shocked everyone. With the youngest (six teen-agers out of 10 players) and the shortest team (no one over 6’8″ tall) in A-1, and picked for dead last (16th place) and ‘relegation’ to Series A-2, we stood them on their heads and went to the playoff final, losing to my old team, Virtus Bologna, 2-0. So, I wanted a raise. Bogoncelli was careful with money and, at the end, we were $5000 apart. I said, “Dr. Bogoncelli, I accept your proposal. You have given me a good raise. But I want you to be happy, as well.” That’s how much I respected the man.
Dr. Bogoncelli wanted the most beautiful uniforms, with the club’s traditional red and white colors, and ordered those uniforms from New York City. In this, he and coach Cesare Rubini saw that Converse produced red sneakers. They ordered those, as well. No one else in Europe had such sneakers. The press dubbed the team ‘Le Scarpette Rosse,’ the Red Shoes. Olimpia Milano and The Red Shoes will forever be inseperable, as a recent book with that title indicates. With this, the team took on an aura of mythical proportions. Evertone in Italy knows ‘The Red Shoes.’
Massimo Masini played 11 years for Olimpia Milano, 1963-74. You might say he was the Dirk Nowitzki of his era, a 6’10″ inside-outside threat that caused huge problems for any defense he faced, as he could shoot from way out. With Olimpia, he won four Italian titles: 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1972. He won the Italy Cup in 1971. He won the European Cup of Cup Winner in 1971 and 1972 plus the Cup of Champions in 1966 and runner-up in 1967. He played in three Olympics with Italy’s national team and helped them to a bronze medal in the 1971 Europeans.
Giulio Iellini was the Steve Nash of his era, a 6’2″ point guard that could create or finish, with the quickest jump shot in Europe and pin-point passes. He played 11 years for Olimpia, 1964-75. In that time, in Europe, he won the Cup of Champions in 1966 and was runner-up in 1967; he won the Cup of Cup Winners in 1971 and 1972. In Italy, he won the Italy Cup in 1972 and won four national titles: 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1972. He also played in one Olympics and five Europeans with Italy’s national team, taking two bronze medals in the Europeans, in 1971 and 1975.
Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Brumatti was the Jerry West of Italy, a 6’2″ shooting guard that could hit from downtown, that executed the pick-up jump shot to perfection, that had devastating one-on-one moves, that could draw fouls, that was death on free throws. And he was, like Mr. Clutch, a killer under pressure. He played 10 seasons for Olimpia Milan, 1967-77. In that time, in Italy, he won one national title, in 1972, and one Italy Cup, in 1971. In Europe, he won two Cup of Cup Winners, in 1971 and 1972. With Italy’s national team, he played in two Olympic Games and two European Championships.
Renzo Bariviera was the Dr. J of Italy, a 6’7″ forward with tremendous elevation, one of the two-three greatest defenders in the history of Italian Basketball. He played 9 years with Olimpia Milan; 1969-74 and 1983-86. In that time frame, in Italy, he won the Italy Cup in 1971 and 1986; he won the national title in 1972, 1985 and 1986. In Europe, he won the Cup of Cup Winners in 1972 and the Korac Cup in 1985. With Italy’s national team, he played in a then-record 208 games, scoring almost 2000 points, taking a bronze in the 1971 Europeans and playing in two Olympic Games.
Gianfranco Pieri played 13 seasons for Olimpia Milan: 1955-68. Originally a center, the 6’3″ Pieri converted to point guard and became the finest in Italian Basketball history before the arrival of Mike D’Antoni. With Simmenthal Milan, he won nine Italian titles in 1957, 58, 59, 60, 62, 63, 65. 66 and 67. He won the European Cup of Champions in 1966. He’s in the Italian Basketball Hall of Fame. He was one of the first players to wear glasses during games but that’s not why the called him “The Professor.” That was because he was “…handing out lessons to opponents.”
Sandro Riminucci played 14 seasons with Olimpia, 1956-70, teaming with Gianfranco Pieri as the greatest back court in Italian Basketball history. He won the same nine Italian titles and the same European Cup of Champions as did Pieri. Both played for Italy in the 1960 Olympics. Riminuci, “The Blond Angel,” set a single-game scoring record of 77 points, which still stands, challenged only by Naismith Hall of Fame inductee Drazen Dalipagic, who put in 70 for Reyer Venice in 1986-87. Just 6’2″ tall, he was the athlete of all athletes, with great speed, quickness and elevation, the wonder of his time.
Paolo Vittori played just six season with Olimpia, 1959-65, winning Italian titles in 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1965. He was the leading scorer in Series A in 1964-65, with his perfect shooting technique. With the Italian national team, the 6’5″ Vittori played in three Olympic games, a record at the time: 1960, 1964 and 1968. He was in the inaugural class with the Italian Basketball Hall of Fame. His transfer, from Olimpia Milan to arch-rival Ignis Varese, in 1965, made headlines, as he was not only Italy’s top player at the time but in, as they say in Italy, “…the flower of his career.”
Gabriele ‘Nane’ Vianello played five years for Olimpia, 1962-67. The 6’3″ guard-forward helped Olimpia to Italian titles in 1963, 1965, 1966 and 1967. He was also a key figure on their 1966 European Champions. Playing together with Bill Bradley on that 1966 European title team, in the key game vs. Real Madrid, Bradley scored 27 points and Vianello put in 40, to give a rough idea of what a player he was: left-handed, athlete, technician. He followed that up with a game-leading 21 points in the title game vs. Slavia Prague. He was the Manu Ginobili of his time.
Enrico ‘Ricky’ Pagani played for Olimpia Milano 14 seasons, 1946-60, plus 38 games with Italy’s national team. He was the club’s first truly outstanding player and helped the team to 9 national titles: in 1950, 51, 52, 53 and 54 as Borletti Milano; in 1957, 58, 59 and 60 as Simmenthal Milano. Most of all, he has a huge personage here in Milan, an actor in films, a man that spoke 12 languages fluently, a charismatic figure, a leader, a giant in the city’s financial district. His translations were the key to the later recruiting and signing of top American players like Bill Bradley and Skip Thoren.
Sergio Stefanini played just six years for Olimpia, 1959-55, winning the Italian title in the first five of those seasons and leading the league in scoring in four of those seasons and placing second twice. He was years ahead of his time, certainly the second-greatest Italian player ever, behind only Dino Meneghin. He was a 6’4″ guard-forward-center that was a World Class sprinter in the 400 meters before taking up basketball. He was the first Italian to execute the jump shot and did so perfectly. Left-handed, he was virtually unguardable, averaging 25 ppg in an era when teams barely broke 50.
Sandro Gamba is larger than life. As a player for Simmenthal, 1950-64, he won a then-record 10 Italian titles: 1951-52-53-54, then 1957-58-59-60, then in 1962 and 1963, when the club won a still-record 47 consecutive games. He started for Italy in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was assistant coach of Simmenthal in 1965-66 for their ‘double’ of Italian title and European title. He coached Ignis Varese to two European titles and two Italian titles. He coached Italy to 2nd in the 1980 Olympics and 1st in the 1983 Europeans. He is in the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Romeo Romanutti played 9 seasons for Olimpia, both with Borletti as sponsor, then with Simmenthal as sponsor, 1949-58. He was a 6’3″ forward but, really, the first truly multi-dimensional player in Italy’s Series A. And, he was a scoring threat, leading the league in scoring in 1950 and 1956, taking second in 1952, 1953 and 1954, losing out only to teammage Sergio Stefanini. They were the greatest 1-2 scoring punch in Italian Basketball history. With him, the club won 7 titles, in 1950, 51, 52, 53, 54, 57 and 58. He was an athlete, a defender, a rebounder, a sprinter. Tomorrow, four more.
This is my year for making Halls of Fame. In February, they inducted me into the Italian Basketball Hall of Fame, the only non-Italian so far elected. Then, the recently-established Olimpia Milano Hall of Fame announced its inaugural class and I was in that group, as well, though not the only American. I’m in there with some other highly-deserving Americans: Bill Bradley, Skip Thoren, Art Kenney (who gets these e-mails), Mike D’Antoni (who also gets my Blog), John Gianelli, Joe Barry Carroll, Russ Schoene, Bob McAdoo (Naismith Hall of Fame) and Rolando Blackman.
I’d like to give a brief bio of each of the others listed. Bill Bradley played one year, 1965-66, while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and led Simmenthal Milano to the European title, playing only in those games. Skip Thoren also played in that season, 1965-66, but played both in Series A and in the European Cup, as Simmenthal won both titles. Art Kenney, “The Big Red One,” played three years, 1970-73, is a living legend here, as the club played the first three one-game tie-breakers ever for the Italian title, all against Ignis Varese, losing in 1971, winning in 1972 and losing in 1973.
Mike D’Antoni played 13 years for the club (and for me, 1978-87), 1977-80, winning 5 Italian titles, two European titles, one European Korac Cup, two Italy Cups, one Intercontinental Cup, and coached the team for four seasons, 1990-94. John Gianelli played three years for me, 1980-83, and took us to the title in 1982, runner-up in 1983 in both Series A and the European Cup. Joe Barry Carroll played one year for me, 1984-85, and we swept the Korac Cup (9-0) and the Playoffs (6-0). Russ Schoene played for me two years, 1984-86: winning two Italian titles, a Korac Cup and an Italy Cup.
Bob McAdoo played only one year for me, 1986-87, but took us to the Grand Slam: Italy Cup, Italian Playoffs, European Cup. He played three more years for the club after I retired, 1987-90, winning another title, another European Cup and one Intercontinental Cup. With this, I do not mean to obscure the Italian players. I’ll get to that tomorrow.
I’m sending tomorrow’s blog … today. I’m still on 12″ fast-pitch softball. Nothing like seeing an event like the World Cup of Women’s Softball on TV to jog your memory in this regard. Our city of Evanston had 12″ fast-pitch softball teams at just about every level you can imagine. I played — some pitcher but mostly catcher and third base — in the YMCA, Cub Scouts, park league, recreational league. Your big ambition was to play ‘under the lights’ at Boltwood Park, at the corner of Main Street and Dodge Avenue, on Diamond No. 1, where the top league in the Chicago area played on Friday nights.
That’s where we went to see the invincible American Legion team from Evanston win game after game and title after title. Of course, on Friday night, when the ‘Legion’ was playing on Number One, that meant you would see the best softball pitcher in the USA: Bill Mlekush. Yes, I know about Eddie Feigner, ‘The King’, from Walla Walla, Washington. I saw him pitch several times. Tremendous. But, had “The King and His Court” played the American Legion, the game could have gone 30 innings and the score would have been 0-0. No one could hit The King and no one could hit Bill Mlekush.
You cannot find Bill Mlekush anywhere on the Internet but I’m pretty sure the Evanston guys that get these e-mails will come back with stories on him. I’m going from hearsay and memory but, as I understand it, he was a native of Chicago, where he worked as a fireman. He died of a heart attack at the age of 30. We saw him in the late 1940s, when his fast ball was the wonder of its time. He didn’t wear a glove in the field. No need. No one was going to hit a ball in fair territory. He pitched one perfect game after another, 21 batters and 21 strikeouts, many games with not so much as a foul ball.
Boring? Just the opposite. You saw greatness and perfection with every pitch he threw. My father was a fan of Mlekush and would take me out to Boltwood to see him. I pitched for the Athletic Department’s 12″ team at Delaware. We won the league a couple of times. First game: I had no glove. Guys asked me about that. I said, “Hey, I’m from Evanston ….!” Well, one line drive back through the box and I put on a glove. I was going to try to be like Bill Mlekush. He was long gone by that time and I was a long ways from Diamond Number One. But dreams and heroes die hard.
Well, this story clears up all doubt as to why Dwight Howard did not return to the Los Angeles Lakers: He did not want 3-4 more years of Kobe Bryant. I had heard there was not a whole lot of feeling between the two but this pretty much explains the extent to which Howard and Kobe did not see eye-to-eye on things. Then, Howard, with 7 years in the NBA, wanted Kobe to leave the Lakers, or retire, and have the Lakers be ‘his’ team. As we know, that will never happen.
They say Shaquille O’Neal wanted the Lakers to keep him and trade Kobe. The Lakers, who understood that, in 2004, Shaq has already 32 and Kobe was only 25, did not need much time to make up their minds on that: Shaq went to the Miami Heat and Kobe took over the Lakers as ‘his’ team. Of course, I am like most coaches, or ex-coaches: I have a hard time coming to grips with the ‘his’ team concept. Be that for Shaq, Kobe, Howard, LeBron, Melo or anyone else. The Heat won because LeBron and Dwayne Wade complement and compliment each other beautifully.
One of the things I loved about Magic Johnson was the way he would talk positively about his teammates. He never failed to compliment Kareem. He called James Worthy ‘Big Game James.’ The truth there was that James Worthy had a career FG% of 55% playing with Magic and 45% without Magic. If James Worthy had a big game, Magic was the reason why. One year, with all due respect for all parties, Worthy was the Playoff Finals MVP. Nice. But we all knew that Magic was (a) the MVP and (b) the reason Worthy did so well. No gripes from Magic. That’s when he said “Big Game James.”
I guess the Bulls were Michael Jordan’s team but I never heard him say that. He was a team player and he knew that talk like that did ot promote a team feeling. It was his team but he didn’t let that weigh down his teammates. I never read that Tim Duncan called the San Antonio Spurs ‘his’ team. And they win all the time. So, I guess there is no one specific formula for all this. I just think that the most successful teams are not worried about whose team it is. But, then, what the hell do I know? I’m from about six generation gaps back. Maybe more.
Here is why the NBA is smart: outgo never exceeds income! They just re-set their salary cap at $58,679,000 per team. That’s an increase of less than $1,000,000. In fact, they had been at exactly $58,000,000 for the previous four years. They saw the economic crisis and they basically told everyone: “Tighten your belts; money is not going up.” If only European sports teams had such good sense. Take Manchester United, the world’s most famous soccer team, which is now close to one billion Dollars in debt.
Yes, there are some cases in which NBA teams can exceed the salary cap. But, the NBA has taken measures against that, as well: the luxury tax. That threw a crimp into the plans of teams that wanted to circumvent the salary cap. Every team, of course, has an expert on all this, known as a ‘capologist.’ My interpretation of that term: A very clever guy that can find ways for the club to dance around the salary cap’s provisions. The NBA said, basically, this: “Dance all you want, friend, but here is where the luxury tax bar is set and it will cost you a fortune to exceed that limit.”
Again, I wish European sports teams would operate with equal good sense. Teams, in all sports, will purchase a player for money and make one down payment and then not have the funds to complete the payments. So, teams are now avoiding such transactions. They are simply trading players, even up. If it is a cash transaction, trust me, the club that is due the money will not hand over the player’s contract until the last Euro is in the bank. Then, clubs will sign players to huge salaries and then not be able to meet the payroll. I don’t have to tell you what an unholy mess that becomes.
Greece has an interesting rule in this regard: If the club misses a pay date, the player is automatically a free agent. It all starts with understanding what the NBA understands … that outgo cannot exceed income, as I said at the top. I will say this: Clubs in Italy’s Series A Basketball League are now setting down sensible budgets. They’ve seen sister teams go under financially and they have decided this: “Better to have a weaker team and survive than to have a powerful team (on paper) and collapse under the weight of debt and lawsuits. They must be paying attention to the NBA.
I’m in my snail-turtle-sloth mode of late: I’m not getting to the point quickly! Yesterday I mentioned that many American players that are now in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, Massachusetts, played here in Italy’s Series A-1. Today, I’m going to cite some American players that played in Italy and then WENT BACK TO PLAY IN THE NBA. What I will try to show is that Europe, in general, and Italy, in particular, are potential hot houses for developing talent for the NBA. They already know this, of course, as the European Invasion of the NBA in recent years has been impressive.
But, I’m talking specifically about American players. I know for a fact that playing in Italy can be a huge help to a US player that wants to play in the NBA. Now, years ago, NBA scouts and GMs and coaches would ask me this question: “What Americans playing over here could help an NBA team?” I was usually able to give them a fairly long list of names, some of whom I thought were sure things, others I felt were long shots, others I felt needed more time in Italy to develop their games. Today, I’m seldom asked me that question, as the scouts know the talent pool has shrunk markedly.
I had seven of my US players (in 14 seasons) go back to play in the NBA: Tom McMillen (Virtus Bologna, 1974-75); John Roche (Virtus Bologna, 1977-78); Earl Cureton (Olympia Milan, 1983-84); Antoine Carr (Olympia Milan, 1983-84); Joe Barry Carroll (Olympia Milan, 1984-85); Cedric Henderson (Olympia Milan, 1985-86); Russ Schoene (Olympia Milan, 1985-86). I had 15 American players in 14 years in Series A-1, 1973-87. So, almost half of them went back to play in the NBA. That’s what is possible if they give Series A a chance to help them.
And, you know what? It’s still possible. Look at the 2012-13 San Antonio Spurs: Gary Neal played with Benetton Treviso;
Matt Bonner played with Pallacanestro Messina; Danny Green played just across the border, in Slovenia, with Olimpija Ljubljana; Aron Baynes also played with Olimpija Ljubljana. Among non-Americans, Manu Ginobili played with Viola of Reggio Calabria and Virtus Bologna, here in Italy. Some American players may feel they’ll “get lost” if they play over here. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as the careers of these five NBA finalists indicate.
This is, of course, the story of the day, week, month and summer: the Boston Celtics went against Common Wisdom — which says NCAA coaches are programmed to fail in the NBA — and hired 36-year old Brad Stevens, who took Butler University to two NCAA finals in recent years. As this article, by (Northwestern grad) Ian Thomsen says, this time the idea of hiring a college coach might just work. I’ve been watching ESPN and their experts pretty much second that opinion.
There was a time when the NBA went all out to hire college coaches and many of them had success at the pro level: Dr. Jack Ramsay, Chuck Daly, John McLeod, Dick Motta, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Del Harris, Hubie Brown, Bill Fitch, Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead, Jim Lynam, Don Casey, Fred Schaus, Bill Van Breda Kolff, Joe Mullaney, Bill Musselman, Dick Harter, Eddie Donovan, Jack McMahon, and others. Sure, there were some that didn’t work out: Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Ed Jucker, Rolland Todd, and others. But, up until about 1990 or so, the NCAA coaches did pretty well.
So, what about Brad Stevens? He’ll probably have success and here’s why he has a chance for that: (a) 6-year contract, meaning he has time; (b) out with veterans like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce; (c) imminent departure of constant trouble in Rajon Rondo; (d) young team and he’s a teaching coach; (e) he’s done as much in the last five years as any NCAA coach, which ups his status with players; (f) he’s young and that will help him communicate with today’s young players; (g) he’ll have the 100% backing of ownership and management, who went all in for this deal.
Will it be easy? No, of course not. But, GM Danny Ainge is determined to rip up the old trees and re-plant new ones. That tells me they have a plan. Ainge had such a plan in 2007 and brought in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to go together with Paul Pierce, Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo. He won a title in 2007-08 doing just that. So, he knows what he is doing. And he and Brad Stevens are on the same page with regard to that plan. So, they’ll take a few lumps at the start but, let’s see where they are three years from now. Headed up, I’ll bet.
When I was coaching in Italy’s Series A-1, we had many truly great American players; and, great players from other nations, as well. But, since 2000-01, that high quality American player is no longer coming to play here in Europe, here in Italy. I can assure you of this: those outstanding ‘foreign’ players impacted on European Basketball, on Italian Basketball, on their teams, on their teammates, on opposing players, on the fans, on the mass media. They lifted Continental Basketball to the point that the Old World has now has close to 100 Europeans playing in the NBA itself.
FIBA Hall of Fame. The following FIBA HoF inductees played in Italy: Italy’s Dino Meneghin (Varese, Milan); Italy’s Pierluigi Marzorati (Cantù); Serbia’s Drazen Dalipagic (also in the US HoF; Venice, Udine, Verona); Brazil’s Oscar Schmidt (also in the US HoF; Caserta, Pavia); Mexico’s Manuel Raga (Varese); Serbia’s Zoran Slavnic (Caserta); Croatia’s Kresimir Cosic (also in the US HoF; Virtus Bologna), Serbia’s Dragan Kicanovic (Pesaro). I could write a book on each of them and of their contribution to Italian Basketball. They were perfect examples of how to play basketball.
US Naismith Hall of Fame. The following US HoF inductees played in Italy: Bob McAdoo (Olympia Milan, 1986-90); Bill Bradley (Olympia Milan, 1965-66); Dominique Wilkins (Fortitudo Bologna, 1997-98); Adrian Dantley (Ambrosiana Milan, 1991-92); Alex English (Partenope Naples, 1991-92); George Gervin (Virtus Rome, 1986-87). To say these men impacted on Italian Basketball is to deal in understatement. In Milan, they still talk about how Bill Bradley would go through his shooting workout, a routine copied by every youth coach in Italy.
Of those US HoF inductees, only Bill Bradley came early, just out of Princeton, while he was a Rhodes Scholar, and only played in European Cup games. The others came at the end of their NBA careers but their arrival made huge news and sold out arenas, as when my Olympia Milan team faced George Gervin’s Virtus Rome team down in Rome, in the EUR Arena, a sellout with close to 14,000 shoehorned into the building. Well, we’re not getting that level of player anymore. Tomorrow, I’ll get to the why of all this. Today I just wanted to set the table.
I doubt that any other college sport has made better use of the ‘redshirt’ rule than NCAA Football. A redshirt is, of course, an athlete that sits out a year of competition, thus saving himself a year of eligibility. This used to happen to players that were injured or were simply not good enough to make the team. Often, these players, in practice, wore a red jersey to identify them. The idea of redshirting top-level players did not become a common practice until after freshmen became eligible for Varsity play in major sports in 1972. It started slowly, with some coaches reluctant to ‘burn’ an 18-year old freshman so soon.
The first coach I heard of that used this idea on a wholesale basis was Don James at Washington. He took over for Jim Owens with the 1975 season and immediately told all incoming freshmen, even the stars, that they were all going to reshirt for one year and wind up playing at UW for five years. So, by the time those 18-year old freshmen made it to their fifth year, they were 22 years old, or 23, an age at which many athletes were going to the NFL. This policy paid off handsomely for James and Washington and was then instituted on just about every college campus in the USA.
This also used to happen in NCAA Basketball. I believe Bob Knight, at Indiana, won an NCAA title one year, perhaps 1986, with three 5th-year seniors. Maturity pays off. Many forget that Larry Bird went to college for five years: one at Indiana, before dropping out, then four at Indiana State. He’d been the 1st round pick of the Boston Celtics in 1978 but stayed for his last year of eligibility at ISU and took them to that historic 1979 NCAA Final vs. Magic Johnson and Michigan State. So, this idea of maturing over 5 years, as opposed to just 4 years … or less … is not new to NCAA Basketball.
With this, I have to wonder how many basketball players would enhance their NBA chances by going to college for all four years or even five years. I think this is necessary just to meet the physical strain of the game. I think it would help those players maximize their talent better by doing this. Why go from a 20-game high school schedule to an 82-game NBA schedule when you could do it by steps? That is, from 20 games to 35 games (per year for four years) to 82 games? Guys would be far more ready: mentally, emotionally, physically, technically. A tough sell but it makes sense to me.
There is a theory — through difficult to prove — that players that have gone to the NBA right out of high school tend to have their bodies ‘break down’ early. That is, they start facing the physical rigors of NBA play at 18 instead of at the age of 22, as used to be the case. The thinking is this: They are unable to use that four-year window, age 18 to 22, to gradually let their bodies adapt to a more physical game in stages: high school to college to professional. It is felt the jump HS-Pro is just too much and too soon. Something just simply gives. Amar’e Stoudemire may be a classic example of this.
Everyone counts up the number of minutes played by a player like Kevin Garnett, and they say, “He has a lot of miles on those legs.” Some of these players just simply have their bodies wear down. Jermaine O’Neal may be the poster boy for this. A big man, at 6’11″ tall, he was thrown into NBA play as a center: An 18-year old banging with much older players. In the early years of his career, he went to the basket, taking some tremendous punishment. As the years went on, his game changed: from an inside power game to a mid-range jump shot game. The first rule of Mankind: Self-preservation.
Kevin Garnett has had a long career and has played both center and power forward and has been outstanding. But, like Jermaine O’Neal (although to a lesser extent), he, too, has modified his game: from 50% inside and 50% outside to, let’s say, 33% inside and 67% outside. I’m sure I’m wrong on all those numbers but I am dealing with my own impressions here. Now, it’s unfair to say Kobe Bryant suffered his serious Achilles Tendon injury because of starting in the NBA 17 years ago, right out of high school. In fact, he has been able to stay the course due to an almost religious dedication to conditioning.
My little ‘study’ here is quite superficial and certainly not profound by any means. I would guess that the NBA offices have looked quite deeply into these matters. And I am certain that they are aware of the effect that a too-early start in NBA play can have on an 18-year old physique. They know that it’s pretty hard for clubs to maximize a player that is broken before he even begins to learn how to master what is needed to succeed in the NBA. This is just one more reason why I think all would be better served by players going to NCAA play four years and then to the NBA level.
What is the ‘score’ with regard to players going to the NBA right out of high school, as they could do up until 2005? All you have to do to document this is go to the Internet and put up ‘NBA lottery picks.’ Now, the high school players really started to get picked around 1995. In that period 1995-99, the lottery picks batted pretty much 1.000: Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Few washouts. People were doing some through background checks and detailed player evaluations. That was some excellent work. So, in the years 2000-05, teams began thinking this was a good avenue to follow?
Was that the case? Oh, to be sure, there were three that became excellent players in the NBA: Kobe Bryant, Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard. No argument there. But, what about these names, also lottery picks right out of high school: Martell Webster, Andrew Bynum, Shaun Livingston, Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair, Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddie Curry, Darius Miles, Jonathan Bender. Yes, a few were injured: Livingston and Bender. Tyson Chandler has had a solid career. But the others? They can only be described as players that never really made it in the NBA.
The NBA picked up on this trend and, with the 2006 Draft, institued a policy that no player under the age of 19 could be drafted by an NBA team. With this, players coming out of high school, such as Kevin Durant in 2006, went to the NCAA level for one year and then declared themselves eligible for the NBA Draft; the so-called ‘one-and-done’ group. No question but what this helped NBA teams evaluate these players more accurately. You only have to see what the ‘one-and-done’ lottery picks have done in the NBA to realize clubs were helped in their decision-making by this one-year waiting period.
Let’s just take the No. 1 picks form 2007-11. Greg Oden has never really played due to injuries, so he is hard to evaluate. But, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, John Wall and Kyrie Irving have done well. It’s too early to pass judgmet on Anthony Davis, the top pick in 2012. So, injuries aside, even just that one year seems to help the players improve their game and the NBA clubs better evaluate available talent and, then, maximize that talent … to varying degrees. The jury is still out on what effect all this has on the NCAA game but we’ll get to that later, as ‘one-and-done’ is still a controversial subject.
Let’s get this straight from the get-go: The idea of players going to the NBA before completing four years of college (that is, about 22 years of age) is not the fault of the NBA itself. In fact, the NBA, seeing the problems ‘early entry’ brings, in too many cases, finally pushed through a 19-year old age minimum in 2006 and has fought to raise that to a 20-year minimum. I’m sure that, if they had their way, they’d like to set that at a minimum of three years of NCAA play or a minimum of 21 years of age. Of course, they know that’s an uphill battle against prospective players, their agents and their lawyers.
But it’s the best of all ideas. Michael Jordan went to North Carolina for three years and was 21 when he entered the NBA. Did that hurt his performance in any way? Hardly, as he is almost universally considered the greatest player of all time. Did that hurt his career income in any way? Hardly, as he earned more money than anyone else before him. What’s more, three years of college gave him a sense he was ready for the NBA, the skills to dominate the league, the mind set to handle the pressure and the good sense to manage his personal fortune with extreme good sense.
But, what about four years and 22 years of age? Did that hurt Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Jerry Lucas, Jerry West, John Havlicek, Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor (today Kareem Aldul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley, Larry Bird (5 years), Cliff Hagan (5 years), George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Billy Cunningham, Pete Maravich, Dave Bing, Hal Greer, Walt Bellamy, Rick Barry, Pat Ewing, Tom Gola, Gail Goodrich, Kevin McHale and David Cowens? Hardly, as each is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame today.
Of course, people will counter that and say, “What about those with no college at all, like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and others? What about the ‘one-and-done’ players who attend one year of college and then go to the NBA at the age of 19, like Kevin Durant?” True, but what about the ones that did not make it or that had short careers because they were not ‘ready’ as players and as mature young men? Unfortunately, that’s a long list. So, the NBA is hurt in maximizing its talent because that talent often lacks the coaching-playing-schooling the NCAA level would give them. More tomorrow.
When I said, two days ago, that the NBA has some work to do with regard to ‘maximizing’ the talent at its disposal, I hope I did not convey the idea that the NBA was lacking in talent. Not at all. Almost every single player in the NBA has athletic ability that is off the page. Take LeBron James. They talk about Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots as the top tight end in the NFL, at 6’7″ tall and 265 lbs. Well, LeBron is close to 6’9″ tall, weighs 265 lbs. and was All-State end in Ohio, a true football state, in high school. No question but what he could play tight end in the NFL.
Let’s take Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder: 6’3″ tall, 187 lbs. This guy is so athletic, it’s scary. There is not a doubt in my mind that he could play wide receiver, safety or corner back in the NFL. What about Rajon Rondo out there as a wide receiver or on defense as a safety? What about Dwight Howard as a defensive end? Well, the list is endless. No, not endless but let’s put it this way: there are 450 players in the NBA and I’m pretty sure close to 100 of them could play in the NFL. In fact, I’d bet that NFL teams would welcome them with open arms.
So, that’s athleticism. What about basketball, their chosen sport? In some cases, not all of that athleticism is translated into production. That is to say, we have potential. That means, often, that a player has not, yet, realized his true possibilities as a player or as an athlete. Potential means you are at 50 but could be at 100. Or, as someone — and I forget who — called it, “The curse of potential.” The legendary Bill Russell put it differently. He said, “Potential doesn’t mean s–t.” The differce between having potential and realizing that potential inovolves maximizing those possibilities.
Understand, NBA teams are aware of the problem. The NBA itself is acutely aware of the situation. Much of the problem and part of the solution, however, remain outside their control. In the next few days, I’m going to try to take these problems, one by one, and analyze them. Some have to do with the early entry, some with the game’s rules, some with the way the coaches must coach. It’s all tied together. So, potential means an ”athlete’ has possibilities as a ‘player’. It also means he still has a long ways to go before becoming that player. That’s were ‘maximizing’ comes into the picture.
When asking how well the NBA maximizes the talent at its disposal, we have no clear answer because the question itself is so complex. Does the NBA have great athletes? Of course. Some of its players may be among the best athletes on the planet. If some NFL Football players could become Olympic athletes in Track & Field, we can say the same thing about NBA players. What if LeBron James took up the Decathlon? What if any number of NBA players did the high jump (JaVale McGee) or the long jump (Rajon Rondo) or the triple jump (Dwyane Wade)? And I am naming just a handful of super athletes.
But the NBA has been hurt in developing — maximizing — its talent due to factors beyond its control. The first of those is the fact that so many players arrive in the NBA too soon; up until 2005, right out of high school; from 2006 on, after one year of NCAA play. The result is seen in how many ‘limited’ players we find in the NBA today. And, trust me, the NBA itself is most aware of this, which is why we saw the 19-year age minimum come in, which is why the NBA would like a 20-year old minimum, which is why every NBA coaching staff has several ‘teaching’ coaches … to maximize the potential of its players.
A second reason regards the rules of the game itself. By looking only for the 3-point shot or an in-close shot, NBA teams are not using about 50% of the scoring area on the offensive court. They have a “No Man’s Land” from which players no longer take the pick-up jump shot: inside the 3-point line, outside the 3-second lane. The result is no ‘middle game’ to break up the space between the 3-point shot and the dunk. This leads to a physical game, almost totally dedicated to the Pick & Roll. In my opinion, this hurts the development of players, of maximizing their talent.
But this is not the fault of the NBA. This is the fault of the clubs that want kids right out of high school or one year of college. It’s the fault of the rules, which have the 3-point shot, making all other shots ‘bad’ shots, which I find tragic. It’s the fault of the semi-circle under the basket, which encourages players to make hard and risky drives to the basket, leading to rough play and injuries. The talent is there but the coaches — who have adjusted to the reality of the rules perfectly — cannot bring out all that potential. More on the NBA tomorrow, as this is a subject with many aspects.
My partner on our basketball telecasts is Niccolò Trigari, better known as ‘Trigger.’ He also coordinates almost all basketball clips that go on our three channels: Sport Italia 1, Sport Italia 2 and Sport Italia 24. Today Niccolò came out and said what many are thinking but few are saying: Italian Basketball, at the club level, is at a critical crossroads. He said this for two basic reasons. One, the four clubs that finished 1-2-3-4 in the final standings are all going to have new coaches on their benches next year. Two, ACEA Rome, a surprise finalist, will not participate in the 2013-14 European League.
I have never seen so many highly-placed coaches change jobs so quickly. Luca Banchi just won the Series A playoffs with Mens Sana Siena; the next day, he announced he was leaving the club. Marco Calvani just led ACEA Rome to a great year — Italy Cup semi-final, 3rd in the regular season, playoff final — but he also said he was leaving the club the next day. Frank Vitucci was voted Coach of the Year with Cimberio Varese but he also made known his separation from the club. Andrea Trincheri led Lenovo Cantù to the semi-final but he, too, communicated his imminent departure.
All right, fine, coaches have changed jobs before. What is unusual here is that none of the four was fired. Each chose to leave his present situation voluntarily. No doubt about that. Luca Banchi said he no longer fit the profile of the coach Siena had in mind. Marco Calvani simply said it was time to leave. Frank Vitucci is returning to Avellino with a 2-year contract. Andrea Trincheri will coach Greece’s national team and may take over UNICS of Kazan, Russia. So, all may land in better situations. All have been elected Coach of the Year, either this year or in past years, so they are quality people.
But the big news is that ACEA Rome opted not to play in the European League next year because of the high economic cost of playing … at home! Yes, EUR’s PalaLottomatica costs more to open for one game than would a road trip to Russia. Rome would go under financially if they played in the European League. So, with a heavy heart, they left that slot open for another Italian club. This is the first time I have seen this happen in my 40 years in Italy and is, as I see it, an indicator of the times in which we live and work. As Niccolò Trigari pointed out so eloquently today, that includes the world of sports.
To no one’s surprise, the invigorated Miami Heat beat the deflated San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of the NBA Playoffs, 95-88, to win the 2013 NBA title. As Manu Ginobili of the Spurs said: “My mind was still on Game 6.” Trust me, Manu, you are not alone in that. Game 6 was the key to this entire series and the Spurs had it all wrapped up, 94-89, with less than 30″ to play. Well, we’ve been over that. So have others. My son, Bill, told me the sports talk radio shows were coming down hard on Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich for his bench decisions in Game 6. Tough for a supreme coach to take that kind of heat.
I fully expected Manu Ginobili to have a terrible Game 7. I was wrong. He played well, had 18 points in 35 minutes of play and was +6 on the plus-minus. But he also had 4 turnovers, after having 8 of those in Game 6. In a series like this, he is going to have one great game, which he did in Game 5, but the rest of his performances will not be at that level. It’s tough to say that about a player I love, a guy I watched develop in Italy, first with Viola Reggio Calabria, 1998-2000, then with Virtus Bologna, under Ettore Messina, 2000-02. But, he’s almost 36 years old and you can’t beat that clock.
Game 7 was filled with mysteries. I can understand Mike Miller playing 19 minutes and scoring 0 points. That figures. But I am really in a fog trying to figure out how Chris Bosh (who was a key in the Game 6 win, especially the rebound and pass for Ray Allen’s three that sent the game into OT) can play 28 minutes and score 0 points. Zero. Chris Bosh. One of the Big Three. Tim Duncan, however, was his usual self: 43′ of play, 24 points, 12 boards, 4 steals and a +2 on the plus-minus. When they coined the word ‘champion,’ he was what they had in mind.
I’m sure Gregg Popovich will be back next year but I would not be surprised if he stepped down. Why? Because he loves his Big Three so much and I’m sure he does not ever want to be the one that has to tell one of them (or all three) that the club has plans and they are not included. I can identify with that. I retired in 1987 for that reason. I had Dino Meneghin (37), Mike D’Antoni (36) and Bob McAdoo (36). There was no way I could have ever told them they were no longer part of our team. No way in the world. So, I can see the love Pop has for his Big Three. Tough call.
Mens Sana Siena won its 7th consecutive Italian title, by stopping ACEA Roma, down in Rome, 79-63, to take the final series, 4-1. Siena coach Luca Banchi thus celebrated his first title as head coach after taking over last summer for Simone Pianigiani, who left Siena with six straight titles in his first six years as head coach, and who now coaches Italy’s national men’s team. MPS star Daniel Hackett was voted MVP of the final series and he most certainly deserved the award, as he guarded everyone, drew more fouls than everyone, never had an ‘off’ game and played with great energy and inner fire.
The series was marred by controversy regarding the officiating. In fact, ACEA coach Marco Calvani, certainly upset with the referees after Game 3 and Game 4 in Siena, was ejected from last night’s game between the 1st and 2nd quarters. I may be wrong but I believe that is the first time a coach has been ejected in a final series since Italy began the playoff system in 1977. Yes, coaches have been given technical fouls in the final series but an ejection does not come to mind. Last night’s game had that ejection, four technical fouls, two intentional fouls and a lot of physical-rough play.
So, this morning, Rome is disappointed but their glass is certainly more than half full. They pulled off a miracle this year. One year ago, their President-Owner, Claudio Toti, said he might close down the club and leave basketball. And, there were doubts they would even sign up for this season. Coach Marco Calvani was also not sure of coming back. The budget was cut to a bare minimum. Star player Gigi Datome, Series A MVP, took a pay cut to stay with the club. And there must have been a half-dozen teams with a better roster … on paper. They made this final on heart and that deserves recognition.
But Siena had the edge in experience and that’s what paid off for them. Why? Because their nucleus of returning players knew the system and they executed a well-run play almost every time down the floor, often with all five men touching the ball. Rome, on the other hand, over-dribbled, forced drives and shots, and just never seemed to execute a play with a simple ending. By keeping a nucleus of executives, coaches and players for years, Siena has develped a winning culture and that was evident in these playoffs and in this series. And they’ll be the team to beat next year, as well.
Mens Sana Siena took a 3-1 lead in the 4-of-7 finals in Italy’s Series A basketball playoffs with an 81-71 win vs. ACEA Rome, down in Siena last night. The 10-point margin should not fool anyone; this game was a true battle, point-for-point, from start to finish. And, once again, Rome left the arena with the regret of knowing they could have — and perhaps should have — won the game. But they gave Siena their chance to win in the last five minutes and that is like bleeding in front of a shark; you are dead in the water if you do that as Siena lives off other teams’ mistakes.
To give you an idea of how close the game was, it’s enough to look at the score after each of the first three quarters: 20-19 for Siena after one period; 39-37 for Siena after two; 60-59 for Siena after three. Rome hurt its own chances with too many turnovers (16) and too many missed free throws (9-16 at game’s end). Rome did edge Siena in rebounds, 33-32, but their Gani Lawal, with all his athleticism, had just three rebounds. Why? He does not understand positioning: he does not box out on defense and he does not go to the ball on offense. A guy like that should get 12-15 rebounds every game.
Siena had solid performances from their Big Three: Bobby Brown had 14 points and a plus-minus of +14; David Moss had 15 points and a plus-minus of +14; Daniel Hackett had 16 points and a plus-minus of +7. They rotated three centers for exactly 40 minutes total time: Benjamin Eze, Benjamin Ortner and Tomas Ress. Together, they had 18 points and 3 boards. Then, Hackett and Moss, both 6’6″ tall and real athletes, were tremendous on defense. Hackett held Phil Goss to 5 points in 30′ of play and Moss guarded everthing that was moving and gave each man he took a whole lot of trouble.
I felt that Rome’s players should have gone less for the drive to the basket, which often ended in a disaster, and should have taken the pickup jump shot from the middle distance. But, today’s player has been schooled to ‘attack the rim’ and that is what they do. The result is they go into a 3-second lane that is packed with five defenders. That leads to a forced shot, a missed shot, a blocked shot, a charging foul, a turnover. Game 5 is in Rome tomorrow night. ACEA will need more out of Phil Goss, who shot Cantù out in the semi-finals. He has yet to get untracked in this series and he is their key.
Most playoff games, no matter what the sport, are decided by one key play. That was most certainly the case last night down in Siena, where Mens Sana Siena defeated ACEA Roma, 89-81, to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 final of the Italian Playoffs. With just over three minutes left in the game, ACEA had rallied to take a 75-68 lead and had the situation totally in hand. At that precise moment, 7’0″ Tomas Ress missed a three point shot. Now, he may be 7’0″ tall but he is death from 3-point range. In fact, much of their offense is based on having a center guard Ress, who goes outside on that man.
Anyway, it turned out that ACEA’s Lorenzo D’Ercole was guarding Ress. D’Ercole is a point guard or shooting guard about 6’3″ tall, so not used to blocking out his man. In fact, D’Ercole did not box out Ress and, instead, took off for the other end of the floor, as smaller men do. Ress, on the other hand, went to the basket, as big men do. Ress got the rebound, passed out to Bobby Brown, who drilled a three to start a 13-0 run and, in effect, decide the game. Had ACEA taken that one rebound, they would have won the game. Not a doubt in my mind on that. So, that’s what could have been.
Game 4 is in Siena tomorrow night and I wonder of ACEA will be able to recover, psychologically, from last night’s loss. But, they’ve been able to do just that all through the playoffs. Just when you think Rome is finished, they rise up and give you the surprise of your life. The same holds for Siena. That is exactly why these two teams are in the final. A word on Gani Lawal, in the sights of NBA scouts: He needs to learn how to work for position for offensive rebounds. He goes to where there is an opening but you have to go where the ball will come down. That means in traffic.
This final series has come under considerable criticism for the 24″ clock going out for the 2nd half of Game 2 in Rome and for too many long reviews of the Instant Replay last night. One Instant Replay stopped the game for 7′ and another for 10′. I’m for technology but no one wants to see game momentum stopped for that long. Then, the officiating has come under fire, as there were technical fouls on two consecutive plays last night; one against ACEA, one against MPS. That mean 4 straight FTs here and 4 more there. But, that said, officiating today has become Mission Impossible.
MPS Siena took the measure of Virtus-ACEA Rome down in the capital city last night, 85-76. Game 2 will also be in Rome, tomorrow night, again in the Palazzetto, where the 1960 USA Olympic team rolled to a gold medal behind coach Pete Newell and players like Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas. That was the team that transformed basketball in Europe, much more so than the Dream Team of 1992, though they also had great impact on the overseas game, as the 100 ‘foreign’ players in the NBA today indicate. Anyway, the Palazzetto is, really, too small for this final, only about 3500 seats.
Siena lives and dies by the three-point shot and they were smoking from behind the line last night: 13-26, which plots out to 50% shooting. Rome had no answer for that. We did the game on Sport Italia and it always falls to me to pick the MVP of the game. I gave the co-MVP to Daniel Hackett (18 points, 10 assists, 9 fouls drawn) and David Moss (20 points, 6-11 from three). I could have made it a 3-way tie and included point guard Bobby Brown (17 points, 4-8 from three). Then, Hackett and Moss, as I’ve said before, just simply shut down the other team’s guards or guard and forward.
Rome just simply made too many mistakes to win this game. One example: They did a nice job trapping Brown at the half-court line, stripped him of the ball and had a break-away layup. But, their Bobby Jones decided to put a useless block on Moss and it was a foul that nullified the basket. You can’t make mistakes like that against Siena. Then, their two go-to guys, Phil Goss and Gigi Datome, were stopped cold. Goss had 16 but most when the game was over. Datome, league MVP, had just 7. They needed to come out firing and they were just a bit hesitant, and you cannot hesitate against Siena.
Gani Lawal was just so-so for ACEA. Yes, he had 17 and 8 boards but he can’t make free throws, he travels every time he touches the ball and smaller guys box him out with the greatest of ease. Moral of the story: wonderful physique and athletic ability; zero fundamentals and zero understanding of the game. Can he improve if he goes to the NBA? I don’t think so but I’ve been right before. If ever a guy needed an entire summer with Hakeem Olajuwon, this is that guy. Well, Rome is in deep water now. In the 36 years of playoffs in Italy, the winner of Game 1 has won the title 30 times.
After two knock-down, drag-out battles, with both semi-final series going the limit of 7 games, Italy’s Series A finally has its two finalists. Next Wednesday, down in Rome, it will be Virtus-ACEA Rome vs. Men Sana – MPS Siena. That’s because, last night, Siena took the measure of Cimberio Varese, 82-69, to close out their series, 4-3. It must be said that Varese played without its best player, 6’9″ Bryant Dunston, certainly the best ‘foreign’ player in Series A: dunks, tap-ins, blocked shots, defense, incredible hustle, team play, screens, passes. With him, their chances would have been much better.
Siena won two of the four games in Varese, no small task. They did not have an easy road in these playoffs. A bit tired and banged up from European League play, where they almost made the quarter-finals, they finished 5th in the regular season, so they had to start both the quarter-finals, vs. Armani Milan, and the semi-finals, vs. Varese, with the first to games on the road. And, they had to win the 7th game on the road in both series to advance. They’ll also begin the finals with two road games, in Rome, because ACEA took 3rd in the regular season and, therefore, will have ‘home court’ advantage.
Last night’s game was error-filled, as the teams are bone tired right now, in June, at the end of a long, long season. But Siena had what you have to have to win in these situations: defensive ‘stoppers.’ Two of those were David Moss and Daniel Hackett, both about 6’6″ tall, both about 200 lbs., both supreme athletes. Coach Luca Banchi alternated them on Varese’s key man, point guard Mike Green, who is only 6’1″ tall. They backed Green up, made him over-dribble, lose time, call too many plays, force situations, took away easy passing lanes, even stripping him of a key possession last night.
I’ll be off-line for about three days, as we all follow Italy’s national team over in Jesolo, in a quadrangular tournament in preparation for this year’s Europeans, which will be played in Slovenia. The 4-team event in Jesolo will have four excellent teams: Italy, Greece, Turkey, Croatia. All are headed for the Europeans and all are threats to win a medal. All four teams will not have players still active in the playoffs or, as with these two 7-game series, players whose clubs were eliminated in the semi-finals. A truer measure of each national team will come later. But this will be interesting.
This is the first year Italy’s Series A has gone to the 4-of-7 format in all series: quarter-finals, semi-finals, final. The move was somewhat controversial, as the top teams are already overloaded with European League play. The result is that the games are played every other day. That is, a game on Monday, rest on Tuesday, game on Wednesday, etc. Not even the NBA goes at that pace. And, in other nations, like Greece and Spain, the early rounds are 2-of-3. But, hey, of the six series played so far, five have gone to the seventh game. And the series have all been exciting. Something must be right!
Last night, at the ‘Palazzetto’ in Rome, ACEA Roma stopped Lenovo Cantù, 89-70, to win their semi-final series, 4-3, and move on to the final. ACEA did not mess around. They jumped out quickly, 9-2. Lenovo coach Andrea Trincheri called a time out and told his team, in no uncertain terms, that they had to play with more intensity. But ACEA held their pace and led, 42-32, at the half. Cantù closed to 61-53 after three quarters. But, as happens in these deciding games, one team will blow it open late and ACEA did just that, 28-17 in the 4th quarter, and they looked impressive doing it.
ACEA basically beat Lenovo to the ball: 41-30 off the boards. Little Big Man Phil Goss was the key man for ACEA. He only had 16 points but he has a plus-minus of +30 in 26′ of play. Seeing that, ACEA coach Marco Calvani will probably up his minutes in the final series. Gani Lawal was OK for ACEA but he needs some serious coaching on his fundamentals, especially his footwork. He travels every time he has the ball, as he has no concept of how to use his pivot foot. No matter, he was a factor last night, as were Jordan Taylor and Bobby Jones. ACEA is in the final and deservedly so.
Tonight there will be another Game 7, up in Varese, between Cimberio Varese and Mens Sana Siena. Every single game of this series has been, as they say, ‘hotly contested.’ That is, high tension, hard-nosed play, close scores, Coronary City. The key for Varese will be 6’9″ Bryant Dunston, the best player in Series A. If his torn calf muscle is OK, he’ll be a factor. If he can’t play, they are in trouble. Siena, as always, will rely on their mix of defenses, their 3-point shooting and the athleticism of Bobby Brown, David Moss and Daniel Hackett. Like I said, it will go into overtime.
Well, you have to love my awful predictions. I did not see any way Cimberio Varese could win down in Siena in Game 6. Siena is a great team, almost won all three games in Varese, was playing at home, had the momentum, were peaking at the right time, had the shooters. Varese, on the other hand, had looked shaky of late: they nearly gave away Game 5 in Varese the other day; they gave away Game 4 in Siena a few days ago; they had their two key big men banged up; they had not won in Siena in years; Siena had not lost a playoff game at home in six years (41-0). But Varese won, 82-80.
It was not a game for the faint of heart. Varese went up by +13 several times. Then, as has happened in every game of the series, MPS Siena fought back with threes and defense. Siena was up +5 in the last minute, 80-75. Obviously, Varese closed out with a 7-0 run. Mike Green hit two free throws, to narrow it to 80-77. Then, Janar Talts got a put-back and drew a foul on the shot for a three-point play to tie the game, 80-80. David Moss then missed a three for Siena. Mike Green missed a three, Varese got the OR and Mike Green then got his shot blocked on a drive, the ball going out of bounds.
Varese had 62/100 of a second to get the ball in and get the shot off. They had botched several in-bounds plays during the game, so this looked like an overtime. But 6’10″ forward Dusan Sakota caught and shot in one fluid motion and his shot beat the stop lamp with time to spare. So, tomorrow, back up in Varese, it will be Game 7. Let’s see if 6’9″ Bryant Dunston can play, as he had only 11′ last night (10 points in that time) and 6’9″ Achille Polonara had just one minute. Masnago Arena will be Heart Attack City tomorrow night, that’s for sure. Prediction? Yes. It will go to overtime!
Tonight, another game 7, down in Rome at the Palazzetto in Viale Tiziano. It will be, as they say in Italian, a ‘bolgia,’ a madhouse, total bedlam. Let’s see if MVP Gigi Datome is 100% for Rome. He’s their key. Let’s see if Cantù can get its offense clicking again. That’s their key. As the 3-3 situation shows, these are two evenly-matched teams. I expect to see ACEA coach Marco Calvani use some zone and go with three point guards again. I expect to see Lenovo coach Andrea Trincheri tell point guard Joel Ragland to get shooter-killer Pietro Aradori involved from the get-go. No prediction.
Well, I should have known: The playoff final in Italy’s Series A will involve two teams that played in the European League this year! I say that because Euroleague team Mens Sana Siena, as I mentioned yesterday, is 3-1 against Cimberio Varese, with Game 5 of the best-of-seven series up in Varese tonight; and because Euroleague team Lenovo Cantù beat ACEA Rome down in Rome last night, 77-66, to take a 3-2 lead in their series, with Game 6 up in Cantù tomorrow night. Only amazing comebacks can derail Siena and Cantù at this point, as they are both peaking at the right time.
Of course, as I said yesterday, my predictions on both teams were just awful. I mean, I had them both going out in the quarter-finals. And, you know, I came pretty close on those two predictions, as Siena had to win Game 7 vs. Armani Milan, on the road, to advance, 4-3; and Cantù had to win Game 7 vs. Dynamo Sassari, also on the road, to win their series, 4-3. So, today, Milan and Sassari are certainly disappointed but each may be able to say they were eliminated by the eventual champion and only after a hard-fought series, in which both Milan and Sassari led, 2-0, and then, 3-2.
Last night’s game was never in doubt, aside from one brief rally by ACEA, to take a 27-24 lead in the 2nd quarter. After that, Cantù put the game away. ACEA Rome, as I saw it, hurt itself by driving to the basket with every possession, ending up with missed shots, blocked shots, charges or turnovers … or missing free throws if they were fouled. I thought they could have used the pickup jump shot to good advantage. But, that’s basketball today: all threes and drives; no ‘middle game’ and no pickup jump shot. And this cost Rome dearly last night, as their season will be on the line tomorrow night.
But, you have to love the way ACEA plays. They don’t have super talent. In fact, their 3rd place finish in the regular season surprised everyone. No one had them in the top eight, which meant the playoffs. Me? The ‘Great Predictor?’ Oh, I had them about 10th or so. But they play HARD. They have some fighters. A word on their 6’9″ center, Gani Lawal, of some interest to NBA scouts: wonderful athlete (speed, quickness, elevation) but no game. He’s a potential traveling violation every time he touches the ball. Nothing like Kenneth Faried of Denver. If he learns to play? That’s the key.
Last night, down in Siena, Mens Sana Siena made a tremendous comeback to beat Cimberio Varese, 78.77, in their semi-final game, to take a 3-1 lead in the series, with Game 5 in Varese tomorrow. Siena was down, 45-62, after 29′ of play and the game looked to be over. Well, in this year’s playoff, no game is over, as we’ve seen, until the final buzzer sounds. In fact, this game was dead even, 77-77, with one second to play, when Varese’s Mike Green fouled Siena’s Daniel Hackett. Hackett missed the first free throw but made the second. Varese’s last shot went astray and that was that.
Varese’s problems began on offense. Once they got that 62-45 lead, they just seemed to play without the same fluidity and the same cohesiveness that put them up by +17. I like to say, when doing my TV commentary: “Problems in basketball begin on offense.” Of course, you need both offense and defense to win. But, problems start when your offense stops functioning, with over-dribbling, turnovers, forced shots, poor clock management, charges, 24″ violations and the like. That’s pretty much what happened to Varese. They are most certainly angry with themselves today.
Siena, of course, tightened up its defense, using full-court presses, both zone and man-to-man, switching out on everything on the half-court or mixing in some 2-3 zone. But they got back into the game once their offense started clicking. Matt Janning hit a couple of threes. Bobby Brown hit a few threes. And Daniel Hackett was unstoppable on his driving incursions, a guy that goes to the basket like an NFL running back. He’s 6’6″ tall, weighs 210 lbs. and can play 1-2-3 on offense. I call him a ‘pocket-sized LeBron James.’ That is, he overpowers people with his drives and you have to foul him to stop him.
Tonight, ACEA Rome faces Lenovo Cantù down in Rome. The series is tied, 2-2, with Rome winning two games at home and Cantù winning its two games at home. But, Cantù might well have won the two games in Rome, seeing a +19 lead slip away in Game 1 and a +9 lead disappear in Game 2. Well, they’ve won two straight now and have the momentum. Will the home court factor hold up? We’ll soon find out. No question but what Cantù is the more complete team but ACEA is a team of fighters, that never gives up, as their comebacks have shown.
Well, if I ever needed proof that I should not make predictions, the semi-finals of the Series A playoffs is evidence of that. I picked Cimberio Varese to beat Mens Sana Siena, 4-3. Well, put that on hold. As I said the other day, Siena played a great game in Game 1 of the series, up in Varese, winning, 80-72. Yes, Siena was coming in ‘hot’ after upsetting Armani Milan, 4-3, in the quarter-finals. Yes, Varese was, perhaps, a bit rusty after almost a week off after winning the quarter-final, 4-1, against Reyer Venice. But, scoreboards don’t lie and this one says Siena is up, 1-0. Game 2 in Varese tonight.
Last night, down in Rome, ACEA Rome made another comeback to beat Lenovo Cantù, 74-68. Virtus-ACEA was down by -9 at the half. They’d come back from -19 in Game 1 to win that. Both games were in Rome. Naturally, I had picked Cantù to win the series, 4-3. All of this could still happen, in both series, but, so far, the two teams I had picked to win are 0-3 overall. Again, these are best-of-7 series, so anything can still happen, as we’ve already seen. Whatever, ACEA Rome has shown a great capacity to come back, which is not always easy to do at home, with the anxiety of the home fans.
One of the things I find interesting in these semi-finals is that both teams that have won — Rome and Siena — have made use of the 2-3 zone. I’m sure zone gurus like Don Casey and Jim Boeheim would approve of what these two teams are doing. Now, Casey and Boeheim are ‘strategy’ zone coaches. That is, it’s the basis of their defensive game plan and they are willing to go the entire game in a zone. But, Rome and Siena are using the zone as a ‘tactic,’ mixing it in with their man-to-man defenses. So, it’s on-and-off. Now you see it, now you don’t. The changes break up the rhythm of the opposing team.
Quite often, if you play man-to-man for, let’s say, eight minutes, and then put on the 2-3 zone, well, the other team must then shift gears, pick the right card out of the deck, back up, re-organize, and so forth. Like I say, it breaks up their concentration and makes them think more about the change than about attacking. They will also use some 3-2 zone. I still think their best defenses are man-to-man but Rome made its huge comeback in Game 1 after going to the zone. Well, as said, zone gurus are happy, including Siena’s one-time zone master, Ezio Cardaioli. He’s smiling today.
Hell fire and damnation! Sooner or later, I’ll get it right! Just as soon as I say that the big center has gone the way of the Woolly Mammoth, the Sabre-Toothed Tiger and the Tyrannosaurus Rex, along comes 7’2″ Roy Hibbert to beat no less than the NBA Champions, the Miami Heat, with 29 points and 10 boards, not to mention an intimidating presence in the 3″ lane. I’m sure Roy Hibbert does not excel outside the ‘paint’ but he sure does make a difference down low. Just ask Carmelo Anthony, who tried to dunk on him in their deciding game, only to have his crucial shot blocked.
So important has he become that his Indiana Pacers’ coach, Frank Vogel, was criticized for not having him on the floor when LeBron James made his winning drive-in lay-up in Game 1. We can be pretty certain that LBJ would not have had such an easy shot with Hibbert waiting for him. LeBron might have made the shot but it would have taken some serious acrobatics to get it up and in over that size and wing span. So, Roy Hibbert has gone from being ‘stiff’ to ‘star,’ from ‘project’ to ‘presence.’ I’ll admit it: This all takes me a bit off guard. I thought he could be OK but not an ‘aircraft carrier.’
On top of this, 7’0″ Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Another slap in my mouth! Well, basketball will always have the ‘vertical factor’ because the goal is a rim hung 10′ in the air and not an 18″ hole in the floor. So, ‘standing height’ will continue to count, as it has since people all figured this out, around the 1930s or so. Yes, before that, teams might use a big man to control the tap and then take him out. James ‘Buck’ Freeman, who coaches St. John’s, 1927-36, really perfected that idea. There were others but he did it in NYC, which means a lot.
Still, until the 1940s, when George Mikan showed a big man could also be highly skilled, the extra-tall players were referred to as ‘goons’ by the press. They were mocked. Well, that’s ancient history now. Today’s big men move with more elegance than point guards did in the 1940s. So, sure, some teams are doing just fine with a smaller center, often out of necessity. But, if a big man can move and play, he’s going to be a factor. Whatever, the Miami Heat don’t have a lot of time to figure out how to counter the ‘Hibbert-Effect.’ He’s going to be there in Game 3. Right there in Indiana.
The Playoffs for Italy’s Series A Basketball League are now in the semi-finals. The last of the four teams to qualify was MPS Siena, which won Game 7 of their quarter-final series with Armani Milan .. in Milan, by 90-80, as Daniel Hackett put in 25 big points. It was the end of a difficult season for Armani Milan — out in the first round of the European League, the Italy Cup and the Playoffs, plus 12 losses on their home court. Yesterday, in fact, the club and coach Sergio Scariolo parted ways. Siena, on the other hand, becomes the scary dark horse in these playoffs, a team on a roll.
Last night, in Rome, ACEA Roma made an unbelievable comeback to beat Lenovo Cantù, 82-75, in Overtime in Game 1 of their semi-final series, with Game 2 to be played in Rome tomorrow evening. Cantù seemed to have the game won near the end of the 3rd quarter, when they were up by +19, 54-35. They were playing superbly at both ends of the floor. As they say in Italy, “An octopus on defense; a Swiss watch on offense.” They were still up, 56-44, after three periods, as Rome cut back the gap with a 9-2 run to close out the third period. Still, Cantù seemed to be in total control of the game.
Then, ACEA, behind league MVP 6’8″ Gigi Datome, went bananas in the 4th quarter, out-scoring Cantù 22-10 to tie the game at 66-66. Cantù had a chance to win the game with a buzzer shot but missed. Lenovo then lost go-to guy Joel Ragland with five fouls and ACEA, which had missed a ton of free throws early on, began converting those opportunities (8-8 in OT) and started going to the offensive board better. ACEA coach Marco Calvani made ample use of the 2-3 zone and it paid off for him. Well, these are two evenly-matched teams, so we can expect more of the same tomorrow.
This evening, up in Varese, Cimberio Varese takes on MPS Siena. These are the two quickest teams in the league, so they will stretch the floor with their fast break and they will spread the floor with their ‘Open’ offenses. Siena lives by the 3-point shot and Varese lives by their 1-on-1 drives. Neither team has an extra-tall center but Benjamin Eze (Siena) and Bryant Dunston (Varese) are mobile and athletic. I would not be one bit surprised to see this game go into OT or be decided by the last play of the game. Both teams are hot right now and at the top of their respective games.
Well, as they say, this is not for the faint of heart. I’m talking about the quarter-finals of the Series A Basketball Playoffs here in Italy. OK, fine, Varese won its series against Reyer Venice by 4-1 but that should not fool anyone. They had to work hard to win every game. A series always comes down to one pivotal game and Venice let Game 3, at home, slip away. If not, they might be playing Game 7 tonight. But, Varese has a great team, having won the regular season with room to spare. They have great overall quickness, play smothering defense and have versatile center Bryant Dunston, who is everywhere.
Last night, in Sassari, Lenovo Cantù beat Dynamo Sassari, 97-95, to win that series, 4-3. Cantù jumped off to a huge early lead, 29-12, and held on from there to the end, though Sassari missed a three at the buzzer, to give you a rough idea of how close this series was. Cantù pulled it off by having seven players in double figures, as they executed well on offense. Sassari also had seven men in double figures and I cannot recall the last time I saw a game in which both teams had at least seven players with at least 10 points. It was one of the best-played games I have seen in a long time.
Last night, in Rome, Virtus-ACEA Roma stopped Trenkwalder Reggio Emilia, 72-59, to take its series, 4-3. Reggio Emilia was the surprise team of the year: just up from A-2 last year, they made both the Final Eight for the Italy Cup and the playoffs. But their defense ran out of gas last night. So, it’s going to be Rome vs. Cantù in the semi-finals, with the first two games in Rome, the next two in Cantù. Though Rome took 3rd in the regular season and Cantù finished 7th, look out for Cantù, who got a shot in the arm with the recent signing of scoring point guard Joel Ragland.
Tonight, here in Milan, Armani Milan and MPS Siena will square off in Game 7 of their series, which is tied at 3-3. The home team has won every game so far but that was also the case until last night with Sassari and Cantù. Game 7 on your home floor is a slight advantage but it also brings some stress, as the home fans transmit their anxiety through their collective voices. It will be Siena’s overall quickness and outside shooting against Milan’s overall depth and inside game. When you get to this point, forget predictions. Whoever wins the last five minutes will advange. That’s all I know.
This is the first year Italy’s Series A has gone to a 4-of-7 format in each playoff series: quarters, semis and final. Right now, they are in the quarters and only Cimberio Varese has qualified for the semis, taking out Reyer Venice, 4-1, though Reyer went down fighting in every loss. Varese finished first in the regular season with its prime assets: 6’8″ center Bryant Dunston, who just simply out-athletes everyone, and point guard Mike Green, who knows how to run a team. They are the quickest team in the league and their man-to-man defense is suffocating. They are in top form at the right time.
Dynamo Sassari and Lenovo Cantù are 3-3 and play Game 7 in Sassari tomorrow night. Every game has been a battle, as Sassari has had the shot to win or tie at the buzzer in each of its last two losses at Cantù. Sassari has great skill in cousins PG Travis Diener and SG Drake Diener, as they can shoot, create and finish. Then, their Bootsy Thornton still has it and fills it up every game. Cantù was in the European League this year, so they are big, tough, physical and versatile. Two great coaches are on the sidelines: Romeo Sacchetti for Sassari and Andrea Trincheri for Cantù.
Virtus Rome and Trenkwalder Reggio Emilia are also 3-3 and also play tomorrow, down in Rome. It looked like Rome was home free last night, going up by +16 at halftime, 45-29, only to see Reggio Emilia put in 62 in the second half, to win, 91-82. Rome has 6’9″ center Gani Lawal, of interest to some NBA teams, and 6’8″ Italian MVP Gigi Datome, so they’ll be ready. Reggio Emilia is the surprise team of Series A, up from A-2 and in the playoffs. They have the best defense in the league (most forced turnovers) and outstanding point guard 6’4″ Andrea Cinciarini, who can run the break or the set offense.
Armani Milan leads MPS Siena in their series, 3-2, and they play Game 6 down in Siena this evening. So far, the home team has won every game. Siena has quickness, experience and great 3-point shooting, plus PG Bobby Brown, who can fill it up in a hurry, and Italian killer 6’6″ Daniel Hackett. Armani will counter with their depth, size and 20-year old star 6’7″ Alessandro Gentile, who has the skills and the muscle to do a lot of damage. Siena will try to out-quick Milan for rebounds and Milan will try to go inside on their smaller men. Both teams will play some zone to mix it up. Huge game.
F.C. Barcelona took 4th place in the recent European League Final Four in London. So, they are disappointed today but, as I like to say, there’s no disgrace in making the Final Four; it’s the objective of every team in Europe. But, Barça is a power team and expects to win, as they did in 2010. They were upset in the semi-finals by Olympiakos Athens last year and were KO’d in the semis again this year by bitter rival Real Madrid. Then, their one-point loss to CSKA in the consolation game brought to light all of their problems. So, they may do a total makeover this summer. And here is where they should start.
Point guard. Brazilian talent Marcelinho Huertas is their PG. One problem: He’s not a point guard. Anything but that. They had the ball for the last shot (down -1) against CSKA in the 3rd place game. So, what did Marcelinho do? Did he get the ball to ‘King’ Juan Carlos Navarro, their super-champion, their go-to guy, the leading scorer in EL history, with close to 4,000 points in EL play? No. While Navarro was working like mad to get open, Marcelinho dribbled the clock away and then took a horrible, off-balance shot and the game was over. The look on Navarro’s face told the entire story.
Can we imagine what would happen on the Miami Heat if point guard Mario Chalmers, in the 7th game of a playoff series, down by -1, dribbled out the clock to miss an awful shot at the buzzer instead of doing his job, which is getting the ball into the hands of LeBron James or Dwyane Wade for the game-decicing play? He would be cut before he left the floor. Why? Because he didn’t make that play? Yes. Even more important: Because, he did not understand that was his JOB as a point guard. Marcelinho is a talent but I don’t want him running my team at crunch time.
They also have to see if 35-year old Pete Mickeal, their 6’6″ all-around star, has one more year left in the tank after going down with various injuries and ailments these last three seasons. They have to be concerned about 6’10″ Erazem Lorbek, the Slovene star that was coveted by the San Antonio Spurs for his inside-outside game, as he seems to have lost a step or two. Juan Carlos Navarro is 32 but has had plantar fascitas the last two years. Then, will 6’6″ Alejandro Abrines, their 19-year old sensation, go to the NBA? Barca has some tough choices to make this summer.
I had favored CSKA Moscow to win it all in London, in part for the great respect I have for their coach, Ettore Messina, who has won four European titles, two with Virtus Bologna (Italy) and two more with CSKA, in addition to five runner-up finishes. He knows his way around the Final Four. Until Friday, he was 9-0 in Semi-Final appearances. So, he’s not happy today. He’s one of those coaches that expects to win … and usually does. But CSKA was beaten soundly by Olympiakos Athens on Friday, 69-52, and had to survive a final possession to edge Barcelona, 74-73, for 3rd place on Sunday.
CSKA’s first problem resides with its best player: 6’5″ point guard Milos Teodosic, a talent that could start on just about any NBA team … if he had more emotional stability. His disastrous 4th quarter cost CSKA the final last year, as Olympiakos came from -19 with 12’00″ to play to upset CSKA by one on a buzzer shot. This year, he was never in the game in the semi-final vs. Olympiakos and was not a factor in the 3rd place game. He can shoot, score, pass, drive, make free throws, see the floor and was Europe’s MVP in 2010, when he played for Olympiakos. But he falls apart in the biggest games.
CSKA’s second problem lies with the center role: 7’0″ Sasha Kaun can’t play offense (52% on FTs, no game) and 7’0″ Nenad Krstic can’t play defense. Kaun, a Russian, who played on Kansas’ 2008 NCAA Champions, is an athlete, so he can help the team in other ways. But smaller, quicker, centers just gave them all sorts of trouble this year. I love 6’8″ Viktor Khryapa — scorer, rebounder, defender, passer — but he’s not a charismatic leader. I like 6’9″ Andrey Vorontsevich, finally healthy after years of injuries. That’s a pretty decent nucleus of Russians. They can build from these three men.
It’s the rest of the team that is a concern. Their four Serbian stars were AWOL in London: Milos Teodosic, Nenad Krstic, Vladimir Micov and Zoran Erceg. Their two Americans also struggled: Sonny Weems and Aaron Jackson. I’m not sure what they have in mind for next year but I have a feeling they may just back up the truck and haul away a half-dozen players and come in with new faces to go with their home-grown core. Then, maybe a rising Russian star or two. They looked slow and old against Olympiakos, so they need new some young blood. Again, they need on-floor leadership. Badly.
If the Atlanta Hawks do hire Italian coach Ettore Messina, they will be getting their money’s worth, no matter what sum of money they pay him. First of all, he’s an extremely smart guy, with a degree in Economics. Secondly, he speaks excellent English. Thirdly, he has some NBA experience, being on the staff of coach Mike Brown with the LA Lakers last season. Fourth, he has an excellent record for selecting and developing players, having come up through the youth team ranks. Most of all, however, he is a COACH. By that, I mean he is a PRACTICE coach and he is a GAME coach.
Would there be some skepticism about a ‘foreign’ coach working with American players? Perhaps. What should be said here is the the idea of ‘going outside’ has existed in Europe for years. Every major basketball league in Europe has coaches that come from other nations. Many national teams are coached by ‘foreign’ coaches. In soccer, Italy’s Fabio Capello has Russia. In basketball, Italy’s Andrea Trincheri is taking over Greece. Capello also coached England’s national team. No one had any problems with them learning the language or the culture or whatever. They adjusted and that was that.
I used to wonder if a European coach could withstand the 82-game NBA schedule. Especially with an intense guy like Ettore Messina or Zelimir Obradovic. But, you know, teams over here — with the national cup, the domestic league and playoffs, the European League and playoffs — are playing over 80 games a year. And they are thriving on the work load. I also think the year with the Lakers gave Messina insight into the psyche of the American player, especially in dealing with egos, superstar mentality and what have you. He’s a human sponge: He misses nothing.
I’m convinced that his biggest challenge would be selecting the right coaching staff to work with him. But Messina has always selected well with regard to assistants. He understands that loyalty is the prime quality in any assistant. And, he knows that each assistant must bring something specific to the table. I’m not sure if the Atlanta Hawks or the New Jersey Nets are going to make this move but, if they do, someone had better alert the players to this: they will work like they have never worked in their lives and they had better play with 100% intensity or they will sit on the bench.
I’m just giving my own, personal, analysis of each of the teams in the European League Final Four in London. Yesterday it was champion Olympiakos of Piraeus, Greece, the port city of Athens. Today it’s runner-up Real Madrid. It’s impossible to be critical of Real. Me? I didn’t think they had a solid team. So, to make the final game was a monumental accomplishment, a tribute to coach Pablo Laso, who used his personnel beautifully. So, the glass is half full. Or, as they say in Italy, after a tough loss: “Let’s not throw out the baby with the dirty water.” So, what can Real do to improve its chances?
I think any club team must have a nucleus of ‘native’ players. Olympiakos has Vassilis Spanoulis, Kostas Papanikolao, Evangelos Mantzaris, Kostas Sloukas, Giorgios Printezis, Stratos Peperoglou and Dimitros Katsivelis. CSKA has Viktor Khryapa, Sasha Kaun, Andrei Vonotsevich but they miss two Russians that are in the NBA today: Andrei Kirilenko and Alexei Shved, both with the Minnesota T-Wolves. Barcelona has ‘King’ Juan Carlos Navarro, Victor Sada, Alejandro Abrines and Xavier Rabaseda. So, the nucleus — the core — of home-grown players is crucial to any European club’s success.
Well, Real has that nucleus: Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, Carlos Suarez and Felipe Reyes. Me? I would not start Suarez, as Laso does. I’d have him coming off the bench. I have doubts about their backup center, 6’8″ Marcus Slaughter, as he has no shot (50% of FTs) and no game; but he’s an athlete, a bit like Kyle Hines of Olympiakos, and he may develop. But they need a quality starting center and a quality power forward. Again, how they made it that far is a mystery to me. Well, maybe not a mystery: shooting, quickness, defense, character, chemistry. Good starting points.
They had some guys go AWOL in the Final Four. Where was 6’10″ Nikola Mirotic, darling of the NBA scouts? Where was pure shooter J. C. Carroll? Each succeeding phase of the European League — Regular Season, Top 16, Quarter-Finals, Final Four — is a jump in the level of play. Some players can make that jump. Some can’t. Whatever, Real has a solid nucleus but they still need two quality starters. Above all, though, they’re one of those clubs that expects to win. As they say in Italy, “You can’t buy that at the super market.” So, look for them to be in the Final Four again next year.
As I mentioned the other day, Olympiakos Athens won their second straight European League title in the Final Four at the O2 Arena in London. You know, I don’t think they had the best team in Europe in either season but … they won it all both times. When you do that, you are doing something right. Obviously, they had great coaching, last year with the legendary Dusan Ivkovic (“The Godfather”) and, this year, with Giorgios Bartzokas. Both men led Olympiakos to incredible comebacks in the title game, coming from -19 to win last year and from -17 to win this year. That’s game coaching.
A second thing they have going for them is that they have kept a core of key players for several years, inserting new players around that nucleus as needed. Then, they have Vassilis Spanoulis. He’s been to three Final Fours, with Panathinaikos Athens in 2009; with Olympiakos in 2012 and 2013. Here is his record: three titles and three MVP awards. The 6’4″ point guard can create or finish. And, he knows what clutch time means. In Sunday’s title game, he had zero points at the half. He then put in 22 points in the final 20 minutes to simply blow Real Madrid out of the water. They call him ‘Kill Bill.’
Another factor: They have the best defense in Europe. Why? Because they do what a great defense must do: (a) stopping the man with the ball one-on-one; helping & recovering; switching; rotating; trapping; closing passing lanes; diving on loose balls; getting charges. Why can they do all that, superb coaching aside? The answer: great overall team quickness. Every player on their roster has excellent lateral mobility. Then, their 6’4″ center, Kyle Hines, as I’ve mentioned, is all over his man and then helps (switches out on the point guard) on the Pick & Roll. It’s like going up against a threshing machine.
Finally, their club makes all the right moves. They picked up former Texas A&M point guard Acie Law, who had bounced around with six NBA teams in four years before going to Partizan Belgrade and then, last year, to Olympiakos. I though the guy was terrible at the start: No shot, no game, no idea. Well, I was wrong. He has improved tremendously and put down 20 in the title game, plus defending on Real’s Sergio Llull like a blanket. So, we can say there are teams with more talent than the Reds, but Olympiakos Piraeus has athletes, competitors, team players and guys with a hunger to win.
I was off-line for four days because I was in London, at the 02 Arena, doing the color commentary for Sport Italia for the Final Four of the European League. Of course, I was dead wrong on my predictions for the two semi-final games, played Friday evening as Olympiakos Athens ‘upset’ CSKA Moscow, 69-52, in the first game and Real Madrid ‘upset’ FC Barcelona in the second game. Actually, there were not upsets, as each game was, in reality, a toss-up. I mean, we’re talking about four clubs that had won the European League in the past: Real Madrid (8); CSKA (6); Olympiakos (2); Barcelona (2).
The European League is not like the NBA, which has one regular season and then the playoffs. The European League really has four different competitions in the same year. They start with 24 teams, divided into four 6-team groups, and play 10 games to eliminate two teams in each group, leaving a total of 16 teams. Those 16 clubs are then divided into two 8-team groups and they play 14 games to eliminate four teams in each group. The remaining 8 teams then pair off in four quarter-finals, which are 3-of-5 playoff series. The four survivors then play the Final Four.
To many, it’s not logical that teams play five games (max) in the quarters and then one in the semi-finals and one in the final. But, everyone likes the Final Four format because it has a great name and creates interest. Me? I’d like to see them do it all differently but that’s another story for another day. What it comes down to is this: The tension in the semi-finals is unreal. All of a sudden, it’s the game of the year in front of 20,000 fans and 2,000 journalists. The final is big, of course, but the teams have already been through the pressure, seen the court, heard the fans and dealt with the media.
One thing I knew for sure was this: Whichever Spanish club won that semi-final ‘Derby’ was going to lose the final, as they would be wiped out emotionally from beating a home-nation rival. Sure enough, Real Madrid, still high from beating Barça, was ahead by +17 after one quarter, 27-10. Olympiakos then scored 90 points in three quarters on Real’s tired defense and won, 100-88. So wiped out was Real that Olympiakos poured in 39 points in the 4th quarter. But, make no mistake about it, Olympiakos deserved to win, and I’ll get to that tomorrow … or the day after.
A few days ago, George Karl of the Denver Nuggets was voted the NBA’s Coach of the Year. This article says Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs is the best coach in the NBA. We’re back to splitting hairs, as with MVP (Most Valuable Player) and MOP (Most Outstanding Player). I used to like the concept of the most VALUABLE player. It seemed to speak of a ‘winning’ player, a ‘champion,’ a player that ‘made the difference,’ that ‘carried’ a team, that was a ‘clutch player,’ that ’tilted the playing surface.’
Now, though, it may just be time to go to MOP and forget the MVP concept. Why? Because I don’t think the voters have a clear idea of what an MVP really is. The writer that voted for Carmelo Anthony as the MVP just simply (my opinion) has no idea at all of what he’s talking about. He voted for the NBA’s leading scorer. OK, fine, give the award to the leading scorer! But knowledgable basketball people understand all too well that Melo is no MVP. The most games Denver every won with him was 54-28. This year, without him, and in a full season, they were 57-25. I rest my case.
The COY (Coach of the Year) award is a slightly different matter. People tend to vote for one of two coaches: (a) the one that won the title; (b) the one whose team most exceeded expectations. As a former coach, I can assure you of this: Those are two entirely different jobs. Winning with the best team is no small task. John Wooden, with his staggering 10 NCAA titles, once said, “No coach can win without talent. But not every coach can with WITH talent.” So, yes, I think something must be said for the coach whose team is favored to win and then takes that team to the title. A very tough job.
On the other hand, there is a case for the coach whose team exceeds expectations. Oddly, I got the COY award twice in Italy, once for each case. I won it in 1978-79, when we were predicted for 16th and dead last and relegation to A-2 but went to the final, exceeding, by miles and miles, everyone’s expectations. I won it in 1986-87, when we had the best team in Europe and anything less than a Grand Slam would have been a failure. Luckily, we ran the table, winning each title (Italy Cup, Italian Playoffs, European) game by exactly 2 points. Trust me, that was a lot harder than exceeding expectations.
This will wind up my 100-blog series on the differences between US basketball and FIBA Basketball, the ‘international’game. Of course, we went into more than just the differences. I could probably do another 100 just on the history of the international game. In fact, along those lines, I got great feedback from people who loved the 5-Blog segment on the great Jim McGregor, regarding his views as the pioneer American coach in Europe; and on Sandro Gamba’s slants on the game in Italy in the 1950s, the 1960 Olympics and other matters. They were, truly, fountains of information.
With regard to the game itself, I’m not sure if I can accurately express it, notwithstanding the fact that I have been a careful observer of the FIBA game for 42 years, since taking over as national coach of Chile in 1971. Let my try to put it this way: It’s the same sport but a slightly different game. That means the rules are (or were) a bit different, the style of play somewhat different, the lines on the court somewhat different, and so forth. By the end of my second year in Chile, I had adapted to all the differences. That was the key factor in whatever subsequent success I had here in Italy.
I’m over-generalizing but I’d also say the American game is, today, more athletic-physical, while the European game is more technical-cerebral. Don’t misunderstand me: American players have brains and technique and you only have to see LeBron James or Kobe Bryant play to grasp that. Then, there are European players that are physical and athletic. I should know: I coached Dino Meneghin, the most athletic big man ever in Europe; and I coached Roberto Premier, the single-most physical player I ever coached, a natural-born killer that just crushed opponents with his power and heart.
With this, the NBA now has close to 100 ‘international’ players on its rosters, and some are quite good: Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Danilo Gallinari, Nené Hilario, Andrei Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Luìs Scola, Goran Dragic, Serge Ibaka, Ersan Ilyasova, Joakin Noah, Omri Casspi, Marco Belinelli, Tiago Splitter. In the past, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Drazen Petrovic, Ayvudas Sabonis. And, as NBA scouts know all too well, there is a new generation on the way, like Alejandro Abrines of Spain. After all, it’s just five hours from London to Boston, non-stop.
One of the technical ‘innovations’ here in Europe is the use of what Scandone Avellino club team coach Cesare Pancotto terms a “Bonsai Center.” That is, the short center, around 6’7″ tall, give or take an inch, as opposed to the classic seven-foot pivot man. Part of this may be due to finances (not enough money to pay a 7-footer) or necessity (not any good 7-footers to be found). Whatever, creative coaches have found that having a ‘short’ center is not that much of a handicap. The Phoenix Suns discovered this a few years ago when 6’9″ Amare Stoudemire played center for them and hurt teams with his mobility.
The reason for all this is the Pick & Roll. The 7-foot center has trouble defending this play, which is now the staple of every offense in the NBA, NCAA, FIBA, and every club league in Europe. The 7-footer has these problems: (a) he doesn’t like to go out on the floor, away from the basket; (b) he doesn’t like to switch; (c) he has trouble getting back to the basket if he helps; (d) he is constantly beaten by the smaller player if he switches on to him; (e) he either gives up the outside ‘three’ or is taken on the drive; (f) he invariably makes some careless fouls; (g) he looks bad no matter what he does.
So, teams have found that the shorter, quicker center does a better job defending the Pick & Roll than the classic center. The perfect example of this came last year when Olympiakos Athens won the European League with 6’5″ Kyle Hines playing center most of the time. And, he’s taking them back to the Final Four again this year. When he switches out on some point guard, well, that point guard is in for a bad time. Hines can stay with him outside and will not get whipped on the drive. And, he’s a horse, so the point guard is outclassed in terms of height, weight, strength and athleticism.
Yes, teams may have a big man or two, as success in the European League, often, comes down to rebounding and ‘standing height.’ But the modern trend is toward the quicker pivot man, the one that can stop the Pick & Roll, that can step out on a point guard and not look bad, and that can also run the Pick & Roll when he’s on offense. A while back, someone asked, “Where has center play gone in basketball?” The answer: “He was a homicide victim; assassinated by the Pick & Roll; an open-and-shut case of premeditated murder.” Well, more or less. And, in this case, less is more.
In just about every country in Europe, and in the rest of the world outside the USA, the regular season schedule in any nation’s top league follows a precise pattern: the same sequence of games for both halves of the season. Now, this used to be the case when my ETHS played in the Suburban League. If our first of 14 SL games was at Highland Park, well, the first game of the second half of the season would have Highland Park at Evanston. This is not necessarily the case at the NCAA level, nor is it that way at the NBA level. But there is strict aherence to this policy elsewhere in the world.
With this, there are several ‘givens.’ One, in the first two games of the years, you will have one at home and one away or one away and then the second game at home. Two, the same will be true for the last two games of the regular season. Three, you will have two straight home games and two straight road games in each ‘half’ of the regular season. I’ve been in Italy for 40 years and it has been that way since I’ve been here and was that way before I arrived in Bologna in 1973. The same applies in soccer football. You can call this a round-robin form of scheduling and the term fits perfectly.
Whereas kick-off times for soccer football and tip-off times for basketball may vary in Italy’s Series A Calcio and Series A Basket, that does not apply to the last two games of the regular season. Those begin at the exact same moment. In fact, for the last two games of Italy’s Series A Basketball, those games start at 2000 hours, 8:00 pm. It is the same in just about every nation in the world. Why? To avoid a team ‘fixing’ a game to get a more desired opponent in the playoffs. That is, a team that is ‘safe’ may elect to ‘choose’ its first-round playoff opponent by losing a game to alter its place in the standings.
In the USA, we may tend to think that such things can never happen; in the rest of the world, they assume they CAN happen and DO happen. Accusations of losing on purpose to ‘avoid’ an stronger opponent also apply to national teams, which play in the Europeans, the Worlds or the Olympics. So, to avoid some team knowing the score of another game ahead of time and, therefore, being able to decide if it plays to win or plays to lose, leagues make them all play at the same time. Of course, all teams have computers and radios and get up-to-the-second updates on the games that interest them.
When I first started coaching FIBA Basketball, with the national team of Chile, 1971-73, there was a time limit of 30″ to get your shot away, just as the NBA had gone to the 24″ clock in 1954-55. There was one huge difference, though: the NBA had its on-floor countdown clock right from the start, in that 1954-55 season. FIBA went to the 30″ limit two years later. By the way, FIBA went to the 8″ time limit to cross the half-court line in 2000-01 and the NBA followed suit in 2001-02. Anyway, FIBA had the time limit for getting off a shot but I do not recall seeing an on-floor clock at the FIBA level back then.
So, what did they do? They had a sort of ‘Christmas Tree’ apparatus, not unlike NHRA for drag race starts. The NHRA has three lights, like a traffic light, one above the other. FIBA had six light bulbs. Every five seconds, a bulb would shut off. So, you had five white bulbs and one red bulb, which would flash once every second as the time was running down to zero. You know, I don’t recall a single 30″ violation with that Stone Age technology. Knowing it was not perfect, coaches would yell out “5-4-3-2-1.” By the 1980s, the shot clock, as we know it in the NBA, was standard equipment everywhere.
Another example of how closely NBA and FIBA observed each other was in 1988, when NBA Commissioner David Stern came to Gent, in Belgium, for the European Cup Final Four. That was the first year FIBA had the last minute of each period ticked off in tenths of seconds, as opposed to a full second. David Stern, keen observer, liked the idea and implemented it in the NBA with the beginning of the following season. Of course, FIBA has adjusted to the NBA in several matters, such as the 3-point line, the shape of the 3″ lane, under-the-basket in-bounds plays and many other ideas.
For a number of years, FIBA was playing catch-up with the NBA, even modifying the NBA’s 24″ shot clock time limit to 30″ and then to 24″. So, this is a perfect example of two huge basketball realities sharing technology for the benefit of both. Today, if you see a game in the European League, Spain’s ACB, Italy’s Series A, Greece’s HEBA, Russia’s PBL or even less-important leagues, you will see on-court technology, including the 24″ clock, as good as you’ll see in the NBA. Of course, being a hopeless nostalgic, I confess to missing the ‘Christmas Tree’ and all that went with that.
One of the phenomena in sports clubs around the world, as opposed to the USA, is the multi-sport club, called a PoliSportiva here in Italy. That is, the club’s base is its soccer football team but it also has teams in other sports. In the USA, that would be like, in Chicago, the Cubs, the Bears, the Black Hawks and the Bulls all being part of one huge club. There are a few cases in the US in which two major clubs may share the same ownership and the same building: the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden. In Canada, the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Outside the USA, at least half of the teams in any top soccer league are multi-sport clubs. In Argentina, in Buenos Aires, both Boca Juniors and River Plate have basketball teams. In Turkey, in Istanbul, both Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray have powerful soccer teams and strong basketball teams. In Spain, both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have superb soccer teams and powerful basketball teams (both will be in the European League Final Four). In Russia, CSKA Moscow and Dynamo Moscow are multi-sport. In Greece, both Athens teams are multi-sport: Olympiakos and Panathinaikos.
They have several multi-sport clubs in Italy but none is affiliated with a powerful soccer team. Virtus Bologna started out as Virtus Track & Field, Virtus Tennis, and then Virtus Basketball. But they are not associated with Bologna Calcio. AC Milan tried to put together a multi-sports club in the 1990s but it only lasted a few years. I thought it was a great idea and that it had real merit. But the timing was not right. In today’s economic and financial climate, who knows if there will ever be such a working agreement in Italy again? Like I said, it’s a sound idea. Of course, sound ideas demand financial help.
This impacts on European Basketball in a big way. Why? Because the powerful soccer clubs have more money and that helps the basketball program. This year, for example, the four clubs going to the European League Final Four — CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Olympiakos Athens and FC Barcelona — are all multi-sports clubs with powerful soccer teams. In fact, both Real Madrid and FC Barcelona are in this year’s European Champions League soccer semi-finals. So, the concept of pooling one’s resources pays off for the most powerful European basketball teams.
Some note a difference between the USA and all other nations around the world in a sports context is the deep attachment — affecton, love — athletes from other countries have for their national teams. To make the national team is the end-all for them. If you were to ask a young US basketball player if he’d prefer to play for the USA in the Olympics or play in the NBA, chances are he might not even know what the Olympics were all about. That might change as he matured but the ‘jersey’ of the national team is not in his sights when he’s younger. Well, it is with kids in every other nation on the planet.
In basketball, when the USA plays in the Worlds, my guess is that those Worlds don’t get much play in the US mass media. I’m not even certain a good portion of the American fan base knows what the World Championships are. Well, trust me, they do everywhere else. When a team qualifies for the Worlds, there is a national celebration. In the USA, we tend to overlook the Pan-Americans, the Worlds and other ‘minor’ events, and have eyes only for the Olympics. But, in other nations, this love for the national team is seen in every event in which they play, and it holds true for all sports.
To grasp this, look at Rugby. All you have to do is watch the World Cup and see New Zealand’s “All Blacks” do the ‘Haka.’ Or see England’s 2003 World Champions sing “God Save The Queen.” Or see South Africa’s Springboks win the 1995 World Cup in a story that became a film in 2009, “Invictus,” with Matt Damon as Françius Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. But this deep attachment, this love of the national team ‘shirt’ is not limited to rugby; it’s across the board, all nations, all sports. And, when you see it, you appreciate it and you admire it.
I had the honor of coaching the national basketball team of Chile for 2 years, 1971-73. They had a chant before every game: “C-H-I, Chi! L-E, Le! Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le! Chi-le! Chi-le!” It sent shivers down my spine every time they did it, as I knew they meant it. And, with that, like each of our adversaries, our team ‘spit blood’ on the court. Here in Italy, it’s the same. Every soccer player, millionaire though he may be, talks in hushed tones when speaking of the ‘maglia azzurra,’ the blue shirt. That’s one reason they won the World Cup in 2006. Love is a powerful weapon.
One of the best things done with the USA national team in the Colangelo-Krzyzewski era has been the idea of keeping a core of key players involved in the program: Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony. There can be no question but what international experience counts. Yes, the US went with a whole new team in sweeping the 2010 Worlds but that brought in Kevin Durant and doubled the talent pool in one summer. So, instead of starting from scratch every year, the USA is now able to build on what has been done before. That’s called programming.
I’ve already mentioned the change of generations in Blog No. 91. Well, continuity involves not only generation change but, also, keeping a nucleus intact. One reason Giancarlo Primo and Sandro Gamba had success with Italy’s national team was that they built a nice core. Primo had Dino Meneghin, Pierluigi Marzorati, Renzo Bariviera, Giulio Iellini, Pino Brumatti, Marino Zantta and others. Gamba kept Meneghin and Marzorati and worked in Renato Villalta, Romeo Sacchetti, Marco Bonamico, Roberto Brunamonti, Antonello Riva and others. He then left that nucleus for Valerio Bianchini.
But I don’t mean to limit this to Italy. As I’ve mentioned, Yugoslavia did the same thing. Kresimir Cosic played in four Olympic Games for Yugoslavia: 1968 (2nd); 1972 (7th); 1976 (2nd); 1980 (1st). For Brazil, Maciel ‘Ubiratan’ Pereira played in four Olympic Games and Daniel Bezerra ‘Oscar’ Schmidt played in five. Teofilo ‘Teo’ Cruz played in five Olympics for Puerto Rico. Sergei Belov and Gennady Volnov each played in four Olympics for the USSR. Coming back to Italy, Pierluigi Marzorati and Dino Meneghin each playd in four Olympics for “gli Azzurri”.
So, the most successful national teams were those that kept stirring the pot. They kept a nucleus of 5-6 key players and then tinkered with the rest of the roster, working in young talent, perhaps a starter here and there. Col. Alexandre Gomelsky won the Olympic gold medal for the USSR in 1988 by keeping a nucleus of Arvydas Sabonis, Alexander Volkov, and others and working in one key newcomer in the 1987 Europeans, Sarunas Marciulionis. Of course, this is the way NBA teams try to do things. Know what? When it’s done right, it works.
Coaching a national team is a full-time job. Yes, some nations, Italy included, in the past, have compromised on this point, hiring a coach that also handled a club team. In Italy, this worked in 2004, as Carlo ‘Charley’ Recalcati coached MPS Siena to the Italian title and European League Final 4 and then coached Italy’s national team to the silver medal in the 2004 Olympics. But, the double duty was (in my opinion) too much, even for a fine coach like Recalcati: never another medal with the national team; never another semi-final with Siena. My opinion: two jobs is just too much, even for a supreme coach.
I also happen to think the double-duty work load did no favors for US team coaches. Chuck Daly hung on after the 1992 Olympics but no more titles. Don Nelson was fired by NY Knicks not long after the 1994 Worlds. Lenny Wilkens never won another playoff game after the 1996 Olympics. Rudy Tomjanovich never made a playoff after the 1998 Worlds and 2000 Olympics. George Karl is still going strong but left Milwaukee one year after the 2002 Worlds. Larry Brown bounced around after the 2004 Olympics. Even Mike Krzyzewski finally resigned from the USA team after the 2012 Olympics.
Most European teams try to have 4-year or 8-year programs with their coach, from one Olympic Games to the next, or two Olympics. In Italy, it’s been pretty much like that: Nello Paratore (1957-68); Giancarlo Primo (1969-79); Sandro Gamba (1980-85); Valerio Bianchini (1986-87); Sandro Gamba (1988-92); Ettore Messina (1993-97); Bogdan Tanjevic (1998-2001); Charley Recalcati (2002-09); Simone Pianigiani (2010-13). Yes, occasionally, a coach is let go after one year. But the idea is to have continuity, as in Greece, with Panagiotis Giannakis (2004-09). It’s a solid idea and it works.
Here’s why I think the national team requires a full-time coach: He’s in charge of everything, including youth programs. Well, that’s the way it is in Italy. And, I’m certain, elsewhere, as well. I think developing nations (China, for example) may need a ‘foreign’ coach for a while, and the great Del Harris took them to 8th in the 2004 Olympics. And, there are still cases of an ‘outisder’ taking a national team, as Italy’s Andrea Trincheri will take over Greece this summer. But, when all is said and done, a national team coach (my opinion) should be a native of that nation. He knows the territory.
It should be said that the USA Basketball has a smooth-working youth program: U-19, U-17, ecc. And, to their credit, the US youth programs have done an excellent job of spotting and selecting players. One look at the USA’s youth team rosters over the years verifies that the coaches knew what they were doing with regard to the evaluation of talent. And, they did a pretty decent job of competing internationally … most of the time. But the USA’s big club is not the product of a careful force-feeding of talent up from the youth teams; it’s often selected brand new, every year. That’s a 180° from the rest of the world.
Spain. La ‘cantera.’ That’s the Spanish word for ‘construction site.’ Each Spanish club has its own youth teams: U-19, U-17, etc. Understand, so does Italy and every other country. But Spain is a little bit ahead of everyone. All you have to do is see what its national team has done of late to understand that: 1st in the 1999 World Juniors; 2nd in 1999 Europeans; 3rd in 2001 European; 2nd in 2003 Europeans; 1st in 2006 Worlds; 2nd in 2007 Europeans; 2nd in 2008 Olympics; 1st in 2009 Europeans; 1st in 2011 Europeans; 2nd in 2012 Olympics. You don’t do that without programming things.
One of the most important things they do is that they let each club in their top league, the ACB, have a second team, which plays in Spain’s second division. A ‘farm system,’ if you will. So, with all this, we are talking about the DEVELOPMENT of talent. They have a ‘pyramid’ effect, in which a ‘wide base’ pushes young talent up to the clubs and up to the national teams, such as 6’6″ Alejandro Abrines of FC Barcelona, just 19 years old but on the radar of every NBA team as we speak. He’s just one example. There are dozens of others. So, Spain has taken youth development to another, newer, level.
France. Here we find INSEP. Institut National du Sport, de l’Expertise et de la Performance. Tony Parker is just one of dozens of examples of this ‘finishing school’ for sports prodigies. . This is something like what the Kansas City Royals tried to do in baseball a few years ago: Get athletes and train them. France took 2nd in the 2000 Olympics, many thanks to this program and qualified for the 2012 Olympics by taking 2nd in the 2011 Europeans. So, ‘Cantera’ or INSEP, some nations have unique ways of developing national team players.
The national team is the ‘prow of the ship’ for basketball in any country on Earth. I first heard about Italian Basketball when I was coaching Chile’s national team, 1971-73, and Italy made the semi-finals of the 1972 Olympic games, where they lost to the USA, 68-38. I thought: “Hey, Italy must have excellent basketball if they can make it to the Olympic semi-final!” One year later, I was coaching in Italy’s Series A. My two years coaching Chile and observing national teams here in Europe these last 40 years have taught me countless lessons about national teams. One involves generational changes.
Chile. When I arrived in Chile, I knew I had to go with younger players, those that were going to improve. But that was hard to do, as the veterans were better and there was a clear hierarchy: veterans on top, youngsters on the bottom. So, I took them to the USA for 40 exhibition games in 40 days against NCAA teams. At the end, the kids had improved so much, there was no doubt they should make up the 12-man roster. When I started in Chile, my youngest player was 24 years old; when I left, two years later, the OLDEST player was 23. That is an example of a ‘drastic’ changing of the guard.
Czechoslovakia. For years, they had the same coach: Pavel Patera (1977-87). And, for years, they had the same basic team of veterans: Jirzi Pospisil, Kamil Brabenek, Jiri Zidek, Jiri Zednicek, Gustav Hraska, Stanislav Kropilak, Jaroslav Skala. I wondered about this. They had taken 5th in the 1976 Olympics but I thought they needed to re-tool. I’ll be damned. In the 1985 Europeans, they took 2nd with the oldest basketball team ever to step on a court. I thought they were crazy but they were crazy like a fox. This was the exact opposite of my approach but it worked for them.
Yugoslavia. Here we see exactly how to do things. Mirko Novosel coached Yugoslavia for four years, 1973-76. He then came back to co-coach them, along with Ranko Zeravica, to the Olympic gold medal in 1980. He had systematic change. Every year, he cut two veteran players that were not contributing and brought in the two best young players in the system. This is programming at its finest. Sure enough, it all paid off with Olympic gold in Moscow in 1980. Yes, he had talent but, also, he had the idea to implement a constant generational change. That, to me, was pure coaching genius.
No question but what having to dispute two Derby games every year is a huge mental drain on teams, players, coaches and executives. But, there is a beautiful upside to having two teams in the same city: You must fight, every week, to keep ahead of the rival club! If Fortitudo was playing in Bologna and my Virtus team would lose on the road, their fans would jump up and down and celebrate when that score was announced. And, the same if we were at home and our fans heard that Fortitudo had lost on the road. So, you fought not just to win the Derby but, as well, every single game on the schedule.
When Pallacanestro Milano, our Derby rival here in Milan, dropped out of Series A-1 in 1980, it was like a death in the family, our family. Yes, Pallacanestro Milano still lives on, in C-1, but Olympia is in A-1. And they miss the Derby. Olympia-Armani has had its ups and downs this year. Well, I am here to tell you this: If Pallacanestro Milano was still playing in Series A, that would not have happened. The Derby is not just two games; it’s the entire season. And Olympia would have played with the idea they had to win EVERY GAME, just to stay ahead of Pallacanestro Milano.
Once Pallacanestro Milano dropped out, all the mass media pressure fell on us. Before 1980, it was evenly divided and it gave us breathing room. After 1980 — and still today — the full scrutiny of the media is directed toward Olympia: TV, sports dailies, newspapers, weeklies, monthlies, fan magazines, web sites, forums, talk shows and what have you. The Derby would alleviate that. Now, some might say the American players might not understand the Derby mentality. Wrong. You understand when you know you may be cut if you lose the Derby or fall behind the rival team in the standings.
In 1974-75, Fortitudo Bologna dropped into A-2, so there was no regular season Derby in 1975-76. That year, we started out 1-5 in A-1. The full force of the local and national media was all over us. Luckily, we then won 9 in a row and Fortitudo won A-2 and came up to face us in the playoffs,where we eliminated them, 2-0, the second win after a comeback from -13 to win in OT, on our way to the title. The Derby was back in Bologna! Everyone was happy to see that. Well, I’d love to see the Derby come back to Milan, to Bologna, to Rome, to Naples, to Livorno, everywhere. There’s nothing like it.
You’d think I’d be able to forget a game we lost 38 years ago. Well, I’m sorry: You never forget a Derby loss. Coaches usually recall only the TOUGH losses. Well, with the Derbies, you also remember the WINS. Details are etched in your memory bank, never to be erased. Like I said yesterday, my Virtus Bologna team was 9-1 vs. Fortitudo Bologna in the Derby. Well, let me assure you of this: That one loss outweighs the nine wins. We’d beaten them by 25 points in the first Derby in that 1974-75 season, 91-66. We were a much better team and we had no less than 6’11″ Tom McMillen.
Then, in January, we had to go to the USSR to play Spartak Leningrad. It was a Wednesday game. We left Bologna after a Sunday game: bus to Milan. We were to fly the next day. No go: Fog. Another night in Milan. We then flew on Tuesday: Milan Linate to West Berlin, bus to East Berlin, flight to Warsaw, flight to Moscow, flight to Leningrad. We were exhausted. We lost to Spartak, 93-70. We were down -6 with 4’00″ to go and the refs just stopped calling the game. Our return flight was supposed to go out Thursday evening. So, we sat in our hotel all day Thursday. Then, no flight: still fog in Milan.
No flight on Friday: more fog in Milan. On Saturday, we flew to Genoa, then a bus to Bologna, 6-7 hours. We got in late Saturday evening. The Derby was the next day at 5:30 pm. We were wiped out from 7 days on the road (no practice) and distracted, thinking about making up -23 in the return game with Spartak. On the Fortitudo bench was Hall of Fame coach Aleksandar ‘Aza’ Nikolic. They caught us flat and beat us, 83-67. We won the return game against Spartak, 69-58, three days later, but were eliminated from the European Cup on ‘point difference’, still down after losing the Derby.
The Series A stats say I was 14-1 vs. the great Aza Nikolic but make no mistake about this: He had his team ready to win that Derby and he out-coached me something awful. The 7000 Fortitudo fans chanted: “Peterson; Pistola; Aza ti fa Scuola.” Translation: “Peterson, Fool. Aza’s teaching School.” Was he ever! Does that recounting, in such minute detail, sound like I’m over that game or that I have put it behind me? No way. That will never happen. That loss haunts me to this day. And, no, I will never, ever, get over it. That’s how bad it hurts to lose just one Derby.
It should be understood that the Derby is not a concept limited to English soccer or Italian Basketball. It’s true in every sport in every European nation. Soccer? Try getting a ticket in Holland when powers Ajax Amsterdam and Feyenoord Rotterdam square off. Or in Turkey when Istanbul giants Fenerbahçe (from the European side of the Bosphorus) faces Galatasaray (from the Asian side of the Bosphorus) face off. Or in Spain, for ‘El Clàsico’ between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, though they be separated by 621 kilometers. It’s Castille vs. Catalunya and you can’t buy a ticket at any price.
It’s the same in basketball. Istanbul has four clubs in its Series A: Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, Besiktas and EFES. So, each of those clubs will have SIX Derbies in the regular season and, perhaps, more in the playoffs. More in the Turkish Cup. In Greece, they have two huge Derbies: ARIS Thessaloniki vs. PAOK Thessaloniki; Panathinaikos Athens vs. Olympiakos Athens (actually, the port city of Piraeus). Some of these matches have had uprisings between fan factions. That’s why the European League was relieved when Panathinaikos and Olympiakos did not meet in the recent quarter-finals.
Let’s move over to Serbia. This clip shows the fans of Partizan Belgrade, in storied Pionir Hall. They list the seating capacity at 8150. Please. There are well over 10,000 fans every time they play at home. You want to talk about an intimidating atmosphere? One of the things I’m proudest of in my coaching career is that I was 1-1 in Pionir, losing with Virtus Bologna to Partizan in the 1975-76 European Korac Cup, 99-82; then winning with Olympia Milan vs. Red Star in the 1984-85 Korac Cup, 100-99. Never coached tougher games.
Of course, it can get scary at Pionir when there is a Derby scheduled. Not just Partizan vs. Red Star. In the past, the city also had Radnicki and OKK. Yes, they’ve had to call out the riot police more than once. Like I said, intimading. When you see 10,000 fans clapping their hands above their heads and screaming ‘PAR-TI-ZAN’ in unison, that can upset your timing. And their teams, driven by those fans, never fail to play above their ‘standard’ level of play. So, the Derby means teams will play with an intensity above and beyond anything people can imagine. Every time out.
One of the ‘tragic’ things to happen to Italy’s Series A-1 basketball league is that we have lost just about every Derby that once made the league so colorful. Yes, they still have ‘regional’ rivalries. The old ‘Lombardy Triangle’ will always have Milan vs. Varese; Milan vs. Cantù; Cantù vs. Varese. No question about it: They are as tense as any same-city Derby. In the 9 years I coached Olympia Milan, those games vs. Varese and Cantù were hard-fought battles. We were 16-7 vs. Varese and 14-14 vs. Cantù. That’s 21 losses, including losing the 1983 European Cup final to Cantù. Bitter memories.
But Italy, at one time, had any number of Derby match-ups: Olympia Milan vs. Pallacanestro Milano, until PM folded in 1980; Blue Star Rome vs. Lazio Rome until both clubs dropped out of A-1 in the early 1980s and Virtus Rome came in to take their place; Libertas Livorno vs. Pallacanestro Livorno, up until 1989; Virtus Bologna vs. Fortitudo Bologna until Fortitudo had financial problems and dropped out not long after winning the national title in 2005. This just about covers the major Derby encounters from teams within the same city, sometimes called ‘cross-town rivalries.’
Then, as mentioned above, with regard to the Lombardy Region, there were such rivalries that involve two teams from the same region. In the Veneto Region, you had Reyer Venice vs. Benetton Treviso (until Treviso closed up shop last year). In the Friuli-Giulia-Venezia region, they used to have APU Udine vs. Ginnastica Trieste. In the Campania Region, you had Juve Caserta vs. Partenope Naples, until Naples folded. The fans of the losing team are in tears when any Derby ends; the coach may be fired; players may be cut; and the mass media has a ‘process,’ demanding explanations.
Right now, Series A has two same-region Derbies: Scandone Avellino vs. Juve Caserta in Campania; Scavoloni Pesaro vs. Sutor Montegranaro in the Marche. But we’ve lost the rest. They filled arenas, filled newspaper space, created a fan base, brought in partners, lined up sponsors and fired enthusiasm. Italy’s Series A is suffering on all those fronts without the many Derbies it used to have. I’m hoping Bologna gets Fortitudo back up in Series A. Bologna used to be called ‘Basket City.’ Not now, though; not without the Derby. The Derby is the aircraft carrier of any league in Europe.
No. 1 Miami Heat (66-16) vs. No. 8 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44). Are we kidding? This is a 4-0 sweep. The Bucks do not have one player that could make the Heat’s starting lineup. The Bucks have made their season by just making the playoffs. But the Heat are on another planet: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen and an excellent supporting cast. They are playing team ball, they are playing excellent defense, they are rebounding and they are running the floor. I know the NBA does not have a ‘Mercy Rule,’ as in Little League Baseball. Too bad: They might need that here: 4-0 Miami.
No. 2 New York Knicks (54-28) vs. No. 7 Boston Celtics (41-40). The two ‘original’ NBA franchises square off. They also have the NBA’s most beautiful uniforms. But this is no match-up. The Celtics might be able to ‘steal’ a game in Boston but they do not have the size, depth, athleticism, bench, versatility or firepower of the Knicks. Of course, they had a few testy games during the regular season and there is no love lost between the two teams. The referees had better bring their ‘A’ game or things might get out of hand early. Still, the Knicks move on: 4-1 New York.
No. 3 Indiana Pacers (49-32) vs. No. 6 Atlanta Hawks (44-38). We could have the makings of an upset here. The Pacers are favored but have a few key people banged up. The Hawks are the underdog but have talent. I’m going to go with the more disciplined team here. The Pacers were right up there with the Knicks all year long, falling back only at the end of the season, which is not a good sign. The Pacers do the little things well and they execute on offense, which means guys will pass the ball, as opposed to going 1-on-5. Again, upset alert but the Pacers survive: 4-3 Indiana.
No. 4 Brooklyn Nets (49-33) vs. No. 5 Chicago Bulls (45-37). Obviously, the best match of the first round. I never get these right but I’m going with an upset here. I like the Bulls. They are fighters, they defend and coach Tom Thibodeau has done a great job without MVP Derrick Rose. They’ve re-done the team to make up for the loss of Rose and it’s worked, so far. The Nets have all sorts of possibilities and 49 wins is a great piece of work. But the playoffs are another story. The Nets are the favorites but I see the Bulls ready to make a move: 4-3 Chicago.
No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) vs. No. 8 Houston Rockets (45-37). Houston has had a fine year: 45-37 and making the playoffs. Their numbers crunchers have done a nice job of assembling a young team with huge upside. But this is playoff time and the OKC Thunder have too many weapons for them: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, athleticism, defense, depth, and versatility. The Rockets, with James Harden, might ‘steal’ a win at home but, as they say in Italy, “Class is not water.” And OKC has the class. They’ll be rested for the quarter-finals: OKC, 4-1.
No. 2 San Antonio Spurs (58-24) vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers (45-37). The Lakers have been just about the hottest team in the NBA, going 27-12 (.692) after opening the season 18-25. But they did most of that with Kobe and he’s out for the year with his torn Achilles tendon. The Spurs are deep, versatile, can shoot the ball and have one player for whom no one ever has an answer: Tony Parker, who will slice up the Lakers’ recently-improved D as he sees fit. Yes, the Lakers might steal one at home but they are not deep, are banged up, are getting old and will miss Kobe terribly: San Antonio, 4-1.
No. 3 Denver Nuggets (57-25) vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors (47-35). The Warriors have done a superb piece of work this season, and they have the most fun-to-watch player in the NBA in youthful-looking Stephen Curry, who can light up any arena in a hurry. And, GS goes with a small, quick lineup, scrambling well on D. But the Denver Nuggets, even without Danilo Gallinari (knee operation) are too deep, too athletic and they have “The Manimal,” in 6’8″ Kenneth Faried, who occasionally gives the impression he fell from the ceiling. Upset alert but, Denver, 4-3.
No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (56-26). Two teams with identical records. Upset special here, as I like the way Memphis flies under the radar. Yes, the Clips can run and jump and they have a game-breaker in point guard Chris Paul. But I like the Memphis work ethic. I like Marc Gasol inside (is he the best center in the NBA today?) and I like their big lineup. Memphis plays somewhat like a FIBA team: nothing sensational but everything done well. Of course, I’m never right on these guesses but I like Memphis’ chances. Memphis, 4-3.
In European nations, they refer to any game between same-town rivals as a Derby. This is especially true in soccer football. In England alone, you have Manchester United vs. Manchester City; you have the North London Derby with Arsenal vs. the Tottenham Hotspurs; the Mereseyside Derby, with Liverpool vs. Everton; the Second City Derby, in Birmingham, with Aston Villa vs. Birmingham City. That’s just a sample. In Scotland, in soccer football, there is, of course, the Old Firm Derby in Glasgow, between Rangers and Celtic. Many of these rivalries are heated and not for the faint of heart.
We have the same thing in the USA, to some extent. I wasn’t even born, yet, but it bothers me that ‘The Hitless Wonders’ of the Chicago White Sox beat my supposedly invincible Chicago Cubs in the World Series of 1906. We call these encounters by names like “The Subway Series” or “City Series”. Some rivalries have a ‘Derby’ nature about them, like when the Chicago Bears meet the Green Bay Packers, when the New York Yankees meet the Boston Red Sox, when the Toronto Maple Leafs meet the Montreal Canadiens. Or when North Carolina meets Duke in NCAA Basketball.
European Basketball has the same phenomena. You can talk to me about important games I’ve had but none had more tension than the Derby games I coached here in Italy. Yes, my teams did well in those games: my Virtus Bologna team was 9-1 vs. Fortitudo Bologna; with Virtus, we were 3-1 vs. Gira Bologna; with Olympia Milan, we were 3-1 vs. Pallacanestro Milano. That’s just 18 games out of the 500+ games I coached in Series A. Well, 18 is just a number. Trust me, it took me, my players, my team, my club, and our fan base at least a week to get over each of those highly intense matches.
I’ll add this: Those three losses still bother me to this day. I’ll get to those in a day or so. The one against Fortitudo will never leave me because of the circumstances. Dante Gurioli, a close friend, coached Pallacanestro Milano to that win against my Olympia team. I’d give anything to have those games back or to be able to play them again. That’s the effect any Derby has on any coach or any player. In fact, you have to work extra hard not to look too far ahead to the Derby and stub your toe along the way, or look backwards after it’s over and fall on your face as a result. Never-ending stress.
Sports dailies. When I arrived in Italy, there were four sports dailies: La Gazzetta dello Sport (Milan); Tutto Sport (Turin); Corriere dello Sport (Rome); and Stadio (Bologna). Like having four ‘Sporting News’ come out every day. But, basketball coverage was slim, one-eighth of one page. That expanded over the years, as La Gazzetta often has two entire pages for basketball, though part of that will cover the NBA. These sports dailies were apart from daily newspapers, such as Il Corriere della Sera here in Milan, what I call “The New York Times of Italy.”
Magazines. The monthly ‘Giganti del Basket’ was born in 1966 and the weekly ‘Super Basket’ was started up in 1978. They dominated the scene for decades but both closed their doors in recent years. Giganti gave in-depth coverage and personality profiles, rankings, investigations, superb photos, etc. Super Basket gave more up-to-date news, box scores, schedules, stats, and what have you. They were saved and bound by collectors, semi-pricless items today. Their time ran out with the technological age and the coming of the Internet. I still have a few copies of each and nothing could pry them away from me.
Television. When I came to Italy, the RAI had one Series A game per week, and only the second half of that game. Still, this gave basketball tremendous exposure, over one million viewers every Sunday for the ‘early’ game. When Cable TV came in to being, that changed everything. SKY put the games on the air but the viewing public dropped under 100,000 for most games. Back then, there was also TMC (TeleMonteCarlo), which ran Series A games. Then, on Channel 5, we did NBA games and some NCAA games. It was a boom period but we’ve gone backwards since those riotous days.
Internet. This changed the landscape. Forget monthlies, weeklies and dailies. The Internet will give you everything in real time! And, there are 1000 other sites for news, gossip, controversy and such. You can download game films, photos, whatever. So, the Mass Media landscape has been altered totally. The basketball magazines are gone. The sports dailies are fighting to survive. TV is hanging on by its fingernails. What’s next? Some think everything will be on line; Newspapers, Magazines, Television. Whatever, the future will be in the hands of who is most creative. Let’s see where that goes.
Yesterday I gave a few thoughts (though no hard-and-fast conclusions) on Kobe Bryant’s injury, which I called a ‘freak’ injury because it’s one of those injuries that’s impossible to foresee. I’ve had players have unusual injuries in the past. It goes with the territory. I tried to avoid injuries with my practice methods: stretching at the start; gradual warm-up; no 5-on-5 until after one hour of practice. Now, in games, many times I had guys go the entire 40′. Not always. But it happened. Some guys can do that. Others can’t. Every player demands an individual read of his situation.
One thing that helped my teams avoid injuries was the tremendous importance I put on physical conditioning. When I had Delaware, I had the starting five play two games, back-to-back (5′ break between games) every Friday night. That’s 80′ of play, almost non-stop, as opposed to a 40′ game. My players hated this. In 1968-69, my two co-captains, Jim Couch and Loren Pratt, asked me why we did it: “Who’s going to play 80′?” Then, we won a 4 overtime game up at Lafayette and Couch and Pratt went the entire 60′. After, they said, “Now we understand.” So, guys that are in shape are Supermen.
The strangest injury I had was in pre-season of my second year in Milan, 1979-80. We were playing against Vigevano in the Lombardy Tournament, up in Cantù. Dino Boselli, a part-time starter at off guard, a left-handed guy, about 6’3″ tall, got an offensive rebound. No one was near him. No one touched him. He brought his left foot closer to his right foot to go up for the put-back. His left knee went out: ACL + Meniscus. Gone for the entire regular season, with operation and rehab. The kid was just 21 years old and a superb athlete. To this day, I cannot understand how it happened.
Dino Boselli worked like crazy, came back to sit on our bench for the playoffs. And, we missed his defense and toughness in those playoffs. The next year, 1980-81, with a full summer of work, he came back even better than before and started the whole year for us. Athlete? At age 12, he won the Italian national U-12 backstroke title in swimming! We talked several times about the injury. I saw it happen, right on front of me. He told me he had no idea what happened. So, again, many injuries have no logical explanation. If we saw them coming, they wouldn’t occur.
There has been some speculation about what might (or might not) have led to Kobe Bryant’s injury, tearing his Achilles tendon and being out for the rest of this season and at least half of next season. First of all, every injury is a freak happening. Could Kobe’s injury have come from a lack of physical conditioning? Absolutely not. The guy is a fanatic with regard to his physical conditioning: weights (the right amount); stretching (properly); cardio-vascular (the guy plays 48′ a game in the NBA). Sometimes an out-of-shape guy gets hurt because he’s not tuned up. That’s not the case here.
What about starting out in the NBA at the age of 17? Does that mean his body started playing 82 games + playoffs way too early, as opposed to 30-35 games a year between the ages of 18-22, as would happen at the NCAA level? Yes, Kobe has a lot of miles on his legs, a near-record number of minutes. That does tend to take a toll. But, he had been at top efficiency this year. And, other early entry players have had long careers: Kevin Garnett, for example, who also went to the NBA at the age of 17, just out of high school. He and Kobe are examples of durability. So, who knows the answer to that one?
What about taking a lot of hard contact? Yes, that can be a factor. Hard hits and hard falls tend to sap the strength of an athlete (just look at the injuries to running backs in the NFL). And, he took a few hits in the game his Achilles went out. But he’s such a tough guy: He’s used to the hits, he has balance and he has resiliency, so I’m not sure about that. Too many minutes this year, especially of late? Anything is possible but Kobe told everyone he was going to play the whole 48′ because he wanted to make the playoffs and go for another title. Anyway, that is impossible to demonstrate.
That leaves us with the ‘freak’ answer. Kobe himself said he did it on a move he’d made “… a million times before.” The Achilles is also a tough thing to read. There is no advance warning with the Achilles; it just goes. Even with stress fractures, there are ‘hot spots’ but the Achilles injury is unpredictable. People can blow out their Achilles tendon just stepping off a curb. We’re thus left with other questions: (a) can he come back in 9 months? (b) will he be the same player he was before the injury? My guess: He’ll be back but not at his previous level of greatness. Sorry to say.
After Blog No. 81, on arenas in Italy, I got a couple of calls from friends that said, “Dan, are you now an expert on arenas?” They actually didn’t disagree with what I said. After all, I just stuck to the facts. They said, “You should also mention the future; that some great plans are on the drawing board.” They are, of course, correct: The next generation of big arenas may be up before 2016. But, I had to get the last word: “Hey, let me know when the last brick is positioned for those arenas and I’ll put out a Blog.” Of course, they love this and tell me they are counting on me to keep my word.
The legendary Sandro Gamba also called, to give me a historical update: “I was on the national team for the ’55 Europeans, which were held in Budapest, at Honvéd Football Stadium, which held about 50,000 people at the time. They laid the hardwood floor right on the grass and we played outdoors. That was common back then. Why so many people, when basketball was really in its infancy? Well, under Communism, they didn’t have much of a life, so it was a chance for them to do something different. The stadium was packed for every game. And, Hungary upset the USSR for the title.”
Gamba: “Two years later, in 1957, the Europeans were played in Sofia, Bulgaria, and those games were also played in a soccer stadium, outdoors. It was the same situation: a sectioned, hardwood floor was laid on the stadium grass. The stadium itself held about 30,000 and, again, it was jammed for every game. This time, the USSR did not waste any chances, though the host team, Bulgaria, gave them a fight in the gold medal game, before losing, 60-57. All this was really before covered arenas were built in Europe, which was still recovering from World War II, a recovery which ended, really, about 1960 or so.”
Gamba: “Going back even further, I remember my first game in Series A, for Olympia Milan. I was 19 years old in 1951 and we played outdoors in Ravenna on a packed earth surface, not unlike the tennis courts at Roland Garros in Paris. Even when we went indoors, it was never anything simple. We played Virtus here on Christmas Eve of 1954, indoors in front of 8,000 people, at the Milan Fair, with a court laid in the middle of the Velodrome, which had been constructed for the 6-Day Bicycle Races. Let’s just say that arenas in Italy and in Europe have come a long ways since then.”
In the 14 years I coached in Italy’s Series A-1, 1973-87, there was never a problem with regard to travel to road games that were played inside Italy. Outside of Italy? That’s another story and I’ll get to that tomorrow. When I say ‘no problem,’ I mean no team ever missed a game or got to a game late, though we came close once and I’ll tell that story herein. One reason for this efficiency was that the Series A League had a rule: You had to leave for the game by bus or by the next-to-last train or plane for that destination. So, if you missed one train or plane, you still had back-up. Good policy and it worked.
Our one close call was with Olympia Milan, in the 1980s. We took the bus to Livorno. A blizzard hit and we could hardly move over the mountains on the icy roads. We stopped the bus and got the uniforms on board. The guys dressed out and taped up on the bus. We got there about two minutes before we’d have forfeited the game and the demoralized Livorno fans told me, “Seeing you sprint off the bus, dressed out, was like seeing the US Marines land at Iwo Jima.” So, a potentially disastrous situation turned out well, as we won easily, with only about 15′ of pre-game warmup.
If we never really had a serious problem with regard to travel inside Italy, the same cannot be said for travel outside Italy, for European Cup games. With few exceptions, these were ‘wild life’ adventures worthy of any National Geographic documentary. Of course, Europe was still divided back in the 1970s and 1980s: the NATO nations of Western Europe and the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe. Every time we went to the USSR or into Eastern Europe, it was like a voyage to the dark side of the moon: bad connections, bad hotels, bad food, bad weather, bad everything.
All that aside, the biggest problem going outside Italy to play in any European Cup was the time you lost going and coming. Nothing was easy. After the fog experience, my Virtus Bologna team never flew out of Milan (always fog-bound back then) again, taking the train to Rome and then flying from sunny Fiumicino Airport. Whatever, back then, a one-game road trip for an Italian team was about like a 3-game road trip for an NBA team today. It took us 2-3 days to shake off the effects of it all: travel, food, accomodations, and everything. Man-making and team-making experiences, that’s for sure.
I was watching ESPN the other day, just after Kobe Bryant’s devastating injury to his Achilles Tendon. In fact, the press was interviewing Kobe, who was still in his game uniform and, really, quite shaken by what had happened. One journalist asked him if the injury was caused by too much playing time in recent weeks. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of the question. I took that as a direct shot at the LA Lakers’ coach, Mike D’Antoni. Of course, I coached Mike all 9 years I coached here in Milan, 1978-87, and will forever be in his debt for the myriad championships he won for us. So, yes, I’m pro-Mike.
But there’s more. I coached Mike exactly the way Mike has been coaching Kobe: wire-to-wire. I never took him out of any game unless we were ahead by 25 with 5 minutes to go. And that seldom happened because everyone played the Game of the Century against us and we often had to come from behind to win. So, Mike went the entire 40′ often. I told him we were going to do it that way and he welcomed it. What true athlete doesn’t want to play until he drops? The mass media here crucified me for this ‘abuse’ of Mike. I was called ‘cruel,’ ‘insensitive,’ ‘merciless’ and much worse. But he went the distance.
Know what? Mike only fouled out of two games in 9 years: 1985-86 playoff semi-final, Game 2, up in Turin, with 12’43″ to go; final European Cup of Champions, vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv, in Lousanne, with 1’43″ to go. We won both games. Know what? He was only injured twice. Our first year, 1978-79, first game, stress fracture in his left foot, certainly the result of many previous injuries that cut down on conditioning, etc., missing five games (we were 2-3). And, in 1983-84, pulled left hamstring in a morning practice, missing four games (1-3). That year, we were 24-2 with Mike, 1-3 without him.
The stress fracture was like an Achilles injury: it’s a freak thing and you have no warning signs. Well, none in 1978-79. The pulled hamstring was my fault: practicing in an ice-cold arena, though the hamstring went after 55′ of practice. Mike’s last year with me, 1986-87, he was 35, Kobe’s age. We played 58 games, a European record at the time. He went the distance in most of them. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about ‘resting’ and ‘rotating’ guys. That policy has its pluses and minuses. And, I’ll try to list all of the possible reasons why Kobe went down. Recent minutes overload will be at the bottom of the list.
One of the big — and positive — changes in Italian Basketball regards the shoot-around on the morning of the game. When I came to Italy (to Bologna) in 1973, the visiting team could not shoot around the morning of the game in the arena in which the game was to be played. Why? Because the home team would not let them shoot around! Period. So, if Cantù came to play against us at the Palazzo dello Sport in Bologna, well, we could shoot around and have a walk-through on our home court the morning of the game but they had to sit in the hotel or find another arena in Bologna to have their practice.
Of course, the reverse was true when we went to play on the road. Now, the games were played, at that time, at 5:30 pm. That’s 1730 hours. So, if we played in Venice that day, about a two-hour bus ride from Bologna, we might have a 10:00 am shoot-around at the Palazzo dello Sport, get on the bus at 11:00 and make it to the hotel in Venice for lunch at 1:00 pm. On a longer trip, we might not shoot around at all. For longer trips, like Turin or Varese, we might cut it close and shoot around at 9:00 am and then get on the bus at 10:00. So, it took some serious juggling to get that done.
That has all changed in recent years and the Series A League must be given credit for making it mandatory for the home team to allow the visiting team an hour on the court the morning of the game. It’s a good policy. It makes for a better game and a more level playing field, if you will. Where does it help? In shooting, mostly. The visiting players become somewhat familiar with the surroundings, the depth perception, the background behind the bankboards, etc. In FIBA Basketball, it’s hard to have a good shooting percentage from 3-point distance in road games; so, this helps that a bit.
It’s also more professional. And, I think part of this began to change when the NBA teams came over to Italy to play exhibition games in the 1980s. They stipulated they would have a morning shoot-around. People saw the wisdom of this and got on board with the idea of sharing the floor. By the time I wound up my career, in 1986-87, we were giving teams an hour on our court in Milan and they were giving us an hour on their court when we were on the road. There is no doubt in my mind that this helped improve the quality of play and made for better shooting percentages.
Arenas have come a long ways in both Italy and in Europe since I arrived here some 40 years ago. My arrival, in 1973, coincided with the first great edict by the FIP, the Italian Basketball Federation: that you had to have an arena with at least 3500 seats or you could not play in Series A-1. Cantù, whose Parini Arena held (maybe) 1500 people, had to play that entire season at the EIB Arena in Brescia, over an hour away. Reyer Venice could not play in tiny (1200) Misericordia School, so they played in Vicenza. And, DUCO Mestre (1200) had to play in Castelfranco Veneto. It was wild.
When the ULEB took over the European League in 2000, they said you had to have an arena of at least 10,000 seats to play in the EL. Of course, not everyone met that minimum, so they re-set it at 5000. So, the size of the arenas in most of Europe is not what we see at the NCAA or NBA level in the USA. In Series A, only two teams play in arenas with more than 10,000 seats: Milan at the Assago Forum (11,200) and Pesaro at the Adriatic Arena (12,000). Rome has EUR, site of the 1960 Olympic Basketball Tournament, and it holds 12,000, but they play at the Palazzetto and it holds about 3800.
Arena size is still a major problem in Italy. No less than NBA Commissioner David Stern said any future NBA expansion to Europe would not include Italy because Italy’s arenas were nowhere near NBA standards. He’s right on that. And, this cost Italy dearly in their candidacy to host the 2014 World Championship for national teams, which went to Spain. Italy did well to take second to the nine presenting nations but it came down to this: FIBA saw that Spain had arenas that were already built and had huge seating capacities, while Italy did not. The vote against Italy was 9-5 but it wasn’t as close as that.
Of course, it’s easy to say, “Hey, build arenas.” Arenas cost money to build and money to maintain. In Italy, to break even, here in Italy, an arena has to host at least 120 events (aside from basketball!) per year to break even. That means conventions, concerts, displays, you name it. Try getting 120 nights plus basketball. It’s a near-impossible task. So, Italy is behind England, Germany, France, Spain, Turkey, Greece and other nations with regard to size and quality of its arenas. And that hurts their political image with FIBA and ULEB. And the NBA.
Parting shots from 1952 Olympic gold medal winner ‘Big Frank’ McCabe: “The USSR team was older than we were and they never went anywhere without an executive with them. I remember the ball was nothing like today’s molded basketballs; it was 16 pieces of leather sewn together. It didn’t bounce right, so we stressed passing. We had no problems with the tight rims or the wider lane. I just lined up a step wider the the problem was solved. Our shoes, Converse, were much superior to theirs. An Argentine asked me for mine after it was over. No problem. More room for souvenirs.”
Big Frank: “Head coach Warren Womble and assistant ‘Phog’ Allen worked well together. I think the big adjustment was to the officiating, as the games were physical, though not dirty. Then, the language barrier with the referees was tremendous. The quality of play was pretty good but the international game was in its infancy. No way, back then, I could have foreseen all these European, Asian and South American players in the NBA, as is the case today. The most impressive team we faced was Argentina. We only beat Brazil by four, 57-53, but Bob Kurland sat out that game, as I’ve mentioned.”
Big Frank: “We had to adjust to the food in the dining hall, though we’d brought some food with us from the USA. The dining hall was where you made contact with athletes from other sports and other nations. A fair number of them spoke English and some of them spoke excellent American English. They were full of questions about the USA, about where we came from. Our ‘dining hall’ was actually a huge, long tent. Nothing like the beautiful facilities you see today at any Olympic Games. One of the guys we saw there was boxer Floyd Patterson, later World Heavyweight Champion.”
Big Frank: “We were just simply ahead of the rest of the world, at the time. We had better players, better coaches, better equipment, better everything. I’m not sure any player from any of the other 15 nations could have made our team. The other teams could not stay with us physically: height, weight, athleticism. Nor could they match us technically, as all of our players could shoot and handle the ball. Finally, we were a team; well-coached, unselfish. Well, this has been a trip into the past. That was over 60 years ago, so I hope I didn’t leave out anything.” No, big fella, you sure didn’t.
More from ‘Big Frank’ McCabe, 1952 Olympic gold medal winner: “I am a Catholic and have gone to church a lot more than is required. Always before games when possible. At that time I didn’t know that we had been encouraged to sing the National Anthem when it was played. As each country entered the stadium their national anthem was played. As we entered I could very faintly hear ours being sung and it seemed to come from all directions. I was sure I heard angels singing. I was so moved and thrilled to be there. I can’t tell that remembrance, after all these years, without ‘welling up’.”
Big Frank: “A couple of sidelights. We were free to go out of the village whenever we wanted. But, being Americans and tall, everyone knew we were gold medal winners and wanted our autographs. So nobody else from the team would go out with us 4 tall guys because we’d be hounded. It didn’t seem all that bad but it happened wherever we went. Another thing was all the housekeeping type duties done around the village was done by Finnish Army young men. It seems that when they turned 17 they had to spend a year or two in the military. No exceptions. Most of them could speak some English.”
Big Frank: “When we beat the USSR the second time they told us to bring our gold medal to the boxing finals and they’d let us in without a ticket. I saw the heavyweight final from the second row when Ingemar Johansson was DQ’d and the Swedish flag was left at the bottom of the staff. All because he couldn’t understand what the ref was saying to him. The ref told him: “Mix it up or you’ll be DQ’d.” He kept backing up so he’d was DQ’d only to go back home, keep on fighting and, as you know, eventually became the heavyweight champion of the world. He was also a very good Caterpillar customer!”
Big Frank: “One final sidelight. My medal also got me a front row seat for the highjump finals. I got to watch Ken Wiesner, a former Marquette basketball team member take a Silver Medal, finishing second to Walt Davis. Ken was a dental student at Marquette. I had sat for a couple of his State Boards before he graduated. After he got out of the Navy, and was in general practice in Milwaukee, I was one of his patients. Sue and I stopped to visit him in Eagle River, WI a couple of years ago. To close, the 1952 Olympics were absolutely nothing like they are now a days!!!” More tomorrow.
More from ‘Big Frank’ McCabe, 1952 Olympic gold medal winner: “The Olympics were, as always, short of money. So they thought they could raise some funds by scheduling a game in Hutchinson between the two disciplines. Tickets sold out in a matter of hours for the first game in a 12000 seat facility. Wow! A second game was scheduled and sold out in 2 days. So a third was scheduled. Then, a game was scheduled for the Bradley Fieldhouse in Peoria. The four were split 2-2 so everyone was happy. The Olympics had made a bundle and the coaches had had a good time evaluating their players. So, on to NYC.”
Big Frank: “A ticker tape parade was scheduled. They asked Kurland if he would carry the flag at the head of the parade. He said no. He’d done it in ’48 and it was too much. I said I’d be happy to, and I did, quite proudly! Pan Am Airways had the charter to take the athletes and entourage over to Helsinki. They only had so many DC6′s scheduled for the contract. So there was no big exodus over or back. We had to wait 4 days after the Olympics ended for our ride home. We were housed in Kapala, outside Helsinki, a village/group of apartment buildings built for the Olympics but then for the people to rent afterwards.”
Big Frank: “This was ‘Cold War’ time and it was evident, as the USSR and all their allies were housed in their own facility. Actually that was the only place where any kind of weapon was in view. We practiced outdoors, on a wooden court built a short walk from the village. The wind blew on occasion. It wasn’t until we got closer to all the countries finally arriving before we got to work out indoors. Basketball wasn’t a big sport back then. Our games were played in a converted tennis facility. I doubt there were more than 5000 at the finals. We could only dress 12 players per game. So the coaches had to sit 2 out each game.”
Big Frank: “Our closest game was vs. Brazil, when Kurland sat out. He was definitely a factor. I basically was the third center with Lovellette being the second. Only time I was the fourth tallest on a team, as our Marcus Freiberger was 6′ 11″.
Track & Field was definitely the ‘main event’. The big stadium was built for them and, of course, the opening ceremony. That was held in the afternoon, without TV to worry about. Countries went in alphabetically with host Finland last. So we stood out in the warm sun for a long, long time until they got to the letter U for USA.” More tomorrow.
More from ‘Big Frank’ McCabe, gold medal, 1952 Olympics: “After the AAU Tournament, I went to Juneau, AK to begin work for the Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of Public Roads. I was working the stretch between Big Delta and Fairbanks, repairing and resurfacing asphalt. I was told I’d receive a long distance phone call. Not told who it was from, I was left to worry and stew expecting bad news. It was Peoria Caterpillar exec Marv Hamilton and coach Warren Womble calling to see if I had interest in joining, working for, and playing for the Cats. I said yes.”
Big Frank: “I had my transcript of credits sent to Caterpillar. Since I was a charter member of the new chapter of Chi Epsilon, civil engineering honorary, I was hired without any interviews. I joined Cat on September 1st, 1950. All this background is to indicate basketball, at that time, was my means to use my education as best I could. In fact, I went against Womble’s wishes when I told him I was through after the 1954 Denver Tourney, even though that was our 3rd National Championship in a row. That win gave Caterpillar the right to represent the US in the 1954 Worlds in Argentina.”
Big Frank: “With all of this having been said, you can see that being in the Olympics was a big surprise, not something I’d ever even dreamed of, or planned for. When we beat KU in the Garden we learned that that made Womble the head coach and Kansas’ Phog Allen, his asst. And that each coach got to pick 7 players from their discipline. Allen took all 7 from his team. Warren took his starting 5 and added Bob Kurland and Wayne Glasgow from Phillips. He wanted Bob’s Olympic experience and intimidating presence. We met in Hutchinson, KS, JC, to work out and let the coaches see how we all fit together.”
Big Frank: “It seemed to me that there wasn’t really any plan formulated to take us from KS to NYC for catching planes to Finland. Back then the Olympics were supposed to be strictly amateur. There was a ‘stink’ from the pros saying we were paid to play because Clyde Lovellette and Chuck Darling were going to Phillips rather than enter the pros. Cat actually took payroll records to NY to show we weren’t paid anything extra. We actually practiced from 5 to 7 after work. So we had to change the team name from Peoria Diesels to Peoria ‘Cats’. Phillips Oilers became the ’66ers’.” More tomorrow.
Frank McCabe, “Big Frank” to many, played for the USA’s 1952 Olympic gold medal winning basketball team. I asked him for some thoughts on the ‘old days’ of International Basketball. Frank receives these Blogs and often gives me valuable feedback on a variety of subjects. So, I decided to ‘lean’ on him for a trip into the past — the Day Before Yesterday — in the history of the FIBA game and what it was like to play in those historic Games. First of all, though, I wanted you to know “Big Frank” a little better, so I asked him to tell the story that led up to that memorable experience.
Big Frank: “It was only my 9th year of organized basketball. Started as a junior at De La Salle in Chicago, then four years at Marquette. I only played less than a minute per game as a freshman, less than three minutes as a sophomore, 20 minutes as a junior, then was a starter and captain as a senior. Boy, talk about slow growth. Anyway I became a coop student during my third year. Switched from Electrical Engineering to Civil Engineering and became employed in the Engineering Department at the Town of Lake, a Milwaukee suburb on their south-side. (It has since been annexed.)”
Big Frank: “Coop students go to school for 3 months and then go to work wherever for 3 months. Great experience. Makes you a better student and earns a better degree which translates into a better starting salary when you get a job after graduation. Anyway that gave me time, during my 5th year at Marquette, to play for Allen Bradley in the NIBL. My last test in my last quarter at MU was on St. Patrick’s Day 1950. I capped my pen and headed for the train to Colorado to join the Allen Bradley team for the Denver AAU Tournament. We were eliminated in the quarter finals.”
I’m going to stop here today and will pick up Frank’s background tomorrow. I wanted to include this because I found it all to be a fascinating look into the reality of college sports some 60 years ago. I thought it all underlined how a player could develop over his career, how he could work his way through college on CO-OP, what the reality was like in 1952 with regard to a basketball career after college, the importance of the NIBL, the importance of the legendary AAU Tournament, and more. Things like this just do not happen today. But they sure did back then. And I’m glad they did.
Alessandro ‘Sandro’ Gamba is, today, in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. He’s also a charter member of Italy’s Basketball Hall of Fame. He has been a study in determination. He was a self-taught player, done by learning from every opponent he faced. He was a self-taught coach, absorbing every lesson available to him. Finally, he was a self-taught student of English, which he mastered early on, so as to be able to learn even more from American coaches, either by reading their articles or by understanding them at clinics or in personal conversations.
Gamba: “Up to this point, I have talked only about the impact the American coaches and players had on Italian Basketball. There is no question but what their contribution was supremely important. As I like to say, ‘You can’t buy that at the super market.’ But European club teams and national teams also impacted on all of us. This was really accelerated by two events: the European Championships for national teams, held every two years in odd-numbered years; and the beginning of European Cup play for club teams in 1958-59, with the birth of the Cup of Champions for national champion teams.”
Gamba: “The USSR’s national team was, by far, the best in Europe. They won eight consecutive Europeans, 1957-71. And, they were always in the Olympic final: 1952, 1956, 1960, 1964. So, they were the ‘gold standard’ for European Basketball at the time, before Yugoslavia took over in the 1970s. The thing that overwhelmed everyone was their athleticism. They were just simply stronger and better athletes. So, we all noted they worked with weights. Not sophisticated machines, like we have today, but free weights, barbells, and such. With that, Western European teams began stressing this aspect of the game.”
Gamba: “Once European Cup play began, we were all able to ‘measure’ ourselves against the best from other nations, just as soccer football was able to do. The USSR clubs dominated at first: ASK Riga (Latvia) and CSKA Moscow. But, quickly, Real Madrid began to close the gap. Then, the Italian teams: Simmenthal Milan, Ignis Varese, Virtus Bologna, Forst Cantù. We found we had to run if we wanted to compete with Real Madrid. So, it was ‘full immersion’ at all levels and the European game jumped forward with this learning process.” That’s it from ‘The Warrior.’
When Alessandro ‘Sandro’ Gamba took over as Italy’s national team coach, 1980-85 and 1988-92, one of his priorities was to invite prominent US college coaches to Italy to hold clinics for Italian coaches, a program that influenced generations of Italian coaches. There is no doubt but what Gamba’s experience with such clinics influenced his desire to continually ‘update’ his coaching colleagues. Gamba: “Like many Italian coaches, I tried to absorb all I could from NCAA coaches. I would visit the USA when I was national team coach: 10 days with Dean Smith and 10 days with Bob Knight .”
Gamba: “In the mid 1960s, we had the first great clinic in Italy. Lou Carenesecca had just taken over at St. John’s and came over by himself the first time. He was here for two weeks. Had he been here just two days, I’m sure we’d have learned a lot but, in two weeks, we were able to observe his complete methodology: how to plan a practice; how to prepare for a game; how to run a practice; how to coach a game. It was a seminal event for us, a turning point, a watershed year. Coaching in Italy took a quantum leap forward from that moment on, as hundreds attended his lessons.”
Gamba: “You have to understand that the Italian coaches, prior to that clinic, had almost no exposure to American method in coaching. Yes, the Federation sent observers to watch great coaches like John Wooden and Adolph Rupp run practice. They came back and related what they had seen. But, as good as that was, it was second-hand. The Lou Carnesecca lessons were first-hand. No explanation was needed. And, Lou spoke just enough Italian to make himself understood. Even in English, we understood almost all of what he said. Again, he had a huge impact on that generation of Italian coaches.”
Gamba: “The Federation was quick to understand that these clinics were vital to the schooling of Italian coaches. Even before I took over the national team, Giancarlo Primo, who coached Italy for 11 years, 1969-79, had US teams and US coaches here for lessons. I mean, great names like Jack Ramsay, Ben Carnevale, Tom Young (Rutgers), Tom Nissalke (ABA) and others. I simply took up where he left off. The coaches we invited were like a Who’s Who of Basketball: Morgan Wootten, Eddie Sutton, and others. So, we owe a huge debt to what American coaches ‘lent’ to us here in Italy.”
Alessandro ‘Sandro’ Gamba played for Italy’s national team in the 1960 Olympic Games, held in Rome, under legendary coach ‘Nello’ Paratore. Italy took 4th place, losing the 3rd place game, for the bronze medal, to Brazil, 78-75. Italy faced the USA twice in those Olympics, losing both games, 88-54 and 112-81. I once asked Gamba who he guarded on the US team. He said, “Jerry West.” I said, “Whoa! How did you do?” He said, “I held him to 29.” I smiled. He said, “Two games. Total” He was right. West had 29 vs. Italy in the two games, some excellent defense by ‘The Warrior.’
Gamba: “You know, we had some terrific guards on that 1960 Olympic team: Sandro Riminucci, Gianfranco Pieri. They really knew how to play. Then we ran into the USA, with Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. They shut out Riminucci, Italy’s greatest scorer, zero points, in both games. Pieri had zero in the first game and just 9 in the second. They were great players but they had never seen people defend like Robertson and West. Everyone talks about scoring when speaking of West and Robertson but they were also unbelievable defenders. This was an eye-opening lesson for us, a tremendous jolt.”
Gamba: “Then, the whole US team was a shock for everyone, not just Italy, but every team in the 1960 Olympics. We had never seen a team with 12 players that were all outstanding athletes and all with outstanding technical skills. With this, I came to understand that a national team had to be 12-deep, that it had to have athleticism, that it had to have role players. There is no doubt that this influenced me when I took over Italy’s national team as coach in 1980.” (Note: Gamba coached Italy to 2nd place in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, upsetting the USSR on its home court, 87-85, to reach the final).
Gamba: “As we know, Pete Newell was the US coach for those 1960 Olympics. We were all surprised by the simplicity of his offensive system. Then, every opponent was overwhelmed by his team defense. We had never seen an ORGANIZED all-court press like that. Finally, Jerry West. The jump shot in Italy can be defined this way: Before Jerry West and after Jerry West. Before 1960 (and seeing Jerry West in Rome), European players jumped and then shot. After 1960, they coordinated the athletic gesture and the technical gesture. My head is still reeling from all we learned in those two weeks.”
Another history lesson from Italian player-coach legend Alessandro ‘Sandro’ Gamba: “If Elliott Van Zandt and Jim McGregor gave us our first coaching lessons in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it must also be said that we received on-court, practical lessons from American teams that were from the many US military bases placed around Italy. In fact, it is often said that ‘modern’ basketball began in Italy in Trieste, just after WWII, in 1945, as the American 5th Army was stationed there and impacted on the coaches and players from Trieste in every way you can possibly imagine.”
Gamba: “Understand, these games were not only played in the summer months but, basically, all year around. You have to remember that, at that time, there were very few ‘covered’ arenas, that is, with a roof, in Italy. You played ‘in the open’ out of doors, in Series A on many courts: at Cantù, at Pesaro, at Pavia, at Gradisca. Even indoors, the surfaces were not the hard wood we see today. When we played at the Sala Borsa in Bologna, the surface was marble. Even here in Milan, with the great Olympia-Borletti teams of the early 1950s, five straight titles, we often played outdoors, where we could.”
Gamba: “As the schedule did not yet have European Cup play or the Italy Cup, we had more open dates and we would play in San Remo, in their famous outdoor tournament. This was like opening a window to the outside world for us. We’d face mighty Real Madrid, and this told us what the upper level of European Basketball was like. But it was the U.S. military teams that really opened our eyes. Those U.S. teams, from every branch of their military service, had a great influence on Italian players, coaches, executives, referees and the Italian Federation itself.”
Gamba: “Let me give you one example: zone offense. If we played zone against a U.S. military team in the early 1950s, they could have cared less. They were the first teams we saw that used PENETRATION against the zone. There is no way I can explain how this impacted on us. A revelation. So, yes, we had great American coaches here, like Elliott Van Zandt and Jim McGregor. But we also had great ‘professors’ in the American players that played for the military bases in Italy. Every game against them was like getting a PhD in basketball at some major university.”
In this series of Blogs on the differences between US and FIBA basketball, I’ve tried to show what preceded and caused some of these differences, a history lesson, if you will. With this, I spoke with Italian coaching legend Alessandro ‘Sandro’ Gamba, who won 10 national titles as a player with Olympia-Simmenthal Milan and who played for Italy’s national team in the 1960 Olympics. He later coached Ignis Varese to two Italian and two European titles and took Italy to 2nd in the 1980 Olympics and 1st in the 1983 Europeans. He was as tough as they came. They didn’t call him ‘The Warrior’ for nothing.
Gamba: “You have to credit two Americans with revolutionizing coaching in Italy. The first was Elliott Van Zandt, an African-American that was a Sergeant in the US Army during WWII. He was Italy’s national team coach, 1947-51, but he also worked with us here in Milan. He not only taught the fundamentals, he also taught us HOW TO TEACH the fundamentals. Everything was planned, organized, easy to grasp. This was the first time any of us had ever seen a professional, systematic, step-by-step, ‘method’ approach to coaching. From Van Zandt, we learned how to play and … how to coach.”
Gamba: “Jim McGregor was the second coach that impacted on all of us. I was on the national team when he was our coach for two years, 1955-56. Though he was later famous as an offensive coach, because his teams always scored over 100 points, I am here to tell you he was, first and foremost, a great defensive coach and was ahead of his time. He had played at USC and coached at New Mexico State, so he knew the NCAA game and brought that to Italy. Yes, of course, the up-tempo style. But, also, how to attack a press or a zone, how to in-bound the ball. He left nothing to chance.”
Gamba: “Jim McGregor also taught the fundamentals. Van Zandt taught us all the offensive fundamentals and McGregor taught us the defensive skills. The ‘overplay,’ for example. This was a revelation. Then, boxing out for defensive rebounds. He also gave us our first idea of organized team play: the fast break, the all-court press; the pick and roll; the give and go; pass and screen away. Jim is such a wonderful and colorful personality that people may forget what a basketball genius he was. We all remember his contribution to basketball in Italy. He and Van Zandt were the start of it all.”
Many years ago, Sports Illustrated had an interesting story on the coaching ‘family tree’ of some famous college basketball coaches. They also had a diagram of the ‘generations’ of coaches spawned by the legendary Hank Iba at Oklahoma A&M. It was a fascinating look at how a man like Iba influenced later coaches. Of course, many old-time coaches had pupils that went on to great things in the profession: Ward Lambert had John Wooden at Purdue and Wooden had his disciples; Jim Needles had Pete Newell at Loyola (Los Angeles) and Pete’s influence is still being felt today at all levels of play.
Jim McGregor had much the same influence here in Europe. There are countless examples but one should illustrate what I am talking about. Kenny Grant, now a famous player agent in Europe himself, played point guard for Jim’s summer touring teams in the 1970s. Well, today, Kenny Grant is the agent for Ettore Messina, who may be the top coach in Europe, though an evaluation like that is always open to challenge. But, Ettore Messina has won four European League titles, two with Virtus Bologna and two more with CSKA Moscow. Not a bad lineage, at all! And, that’s just for starters.
Jim McGregor coached nine different national teams. One of those teams was Perù, where he did a fabulous job. One of his players, Luìs Cipriani, is now a Cardinal in the Catholic Church in Perù, and was recently in Rome to elect the new Pope. Former UCLA star Bill Sweek was a super coach in France. Fran O’Hanlon has been coach at Lafayette for over 20 years. John Thomas of South Dakota is a huge CEO. Lon Hughey became a major exec for Gulf Oil. Tom Chestnut worked for the NBA and in TV. Roscoe Pondexter became head of discipline at California’s Corcoran State Prison.
Sandro Gamba, today in the Naismith Hall of Fame as a coach, played for Jim on Italy’s national team in 1955. Gamba would be the first to tell you that every player that had Jim McGregor as a coach took something away from that experience. Well, I’m sure the ‘tree’ has more ‘branches’ than even that of Hank Iba. What else could we expect from a guy that was in the U.S. Marines in WWII and who ran the mile for USC under coaching legend Dean Cromwell, where he was a teammate of USC pole vaulter Fred ‘Tex’ Winter? Yes, THAT Tex Winter. Jim McGregor stood over all of them.
I should mention that Jim McGregor also coached in Italy’s Series A-1 and A-2: Pesaro; Gorizia; Perugia. His crowning achievement was bringing SSG Gorizia up from A-2 to A-1 in 1979-80, making the playoffs out of A-2, an unbelievable piece of work. So, Jim was not only a superb organizer of all-star teams but a tremendous coach, as well, a master of the fast break and the zone press. His style was not unlike that used by Paul Westhead with Loyola Marymount, 1985-90. That is, run and gun. He dictated the game. I should know: I coached against him and my guys said it was like a track meet.
He was also a great talent scout. He convinced Olympia Milan to take one of his underrated and under-publicized players, Art Kenney, who receives these e-mails. To describe Art Kenney as a legend here in Milan is to deal in understatement. He is forever to be remembered as “Arturo,” or “The Big Red One.” Yes, back then, Art Kenney had red hair. He played three years for Simmethal-Olympia Milan, 1970-73. He’s now a major success on Wall Street but I’m sure his basketball career was over in 1968, when he left Fairfield U. Jim placed him first with LeMans and then with Simmenthal.
No, I didn’t have the honor of coaching ‘Arturo,’ though we remain in contact by e-mail. But I was the beneficiary of Jim’s discovery of 6’6″, 220 lb. guard Roberto Premier. McGregor discovered him playing center in Series C and brought him to Gorizia, showed him how to play facing the basket and sold him to us in 1981. Premier was, no question, the greatest ‘killer’ I ever coached: a devastating scorer (he even develped a ‘three’), a punishing one-on-one player, a bruising rebounder and that rarest of champions; totally fearless, the winner of countless games for me with clutch plays as time ran out.
I cannot tie a direct link between Jim McGregor and the scouting services of today. But he was better than any of those high-tech businesses. He didn’t give you numbers, he gave you an on-the-money evaluation. And, he put his money where his mouth was: If you didn’t believe in that player (and no one believed in Premier), well, by God, he did. And, he showed us all. With this, clubs in Italy invented the figure of the ‘player consultant,’ hoping to find a McGregor clone. Well, Jim and Rich Kaner were the orginals. They broke the mold after they made them.
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, if a US player did not make the NBA, his opportunities to keep playing basketball after his NCAA career was over were close to zero. Not quite zero but almost. Before that, in the 1950s, there were many avenues that would keep a career alive: AAU Basketball; the NIBL (National Industrial Basketball League); the Eastern League. That all began to change when the old ABL, Americal Basketball League, was formed in 1961, though it lasted just two seasons. The end came with the birth of the ABA in 1967. With that, post-college basketball for non-pros was virtually dead.
Italy had re-opened its doors to ‘foreign’ players in 1965-66. Those doors had been closed the previous six seasons. With this, clubs began to look for the one allowed ‘foreign’ player for Series A play and a second US player for those clubs that were in European Cup competition, where two such ‘foreign’ players were permitted. Jim McGregor and Richard Kaner had perfect timing with regard to seeing the potential of the European market and moving quickly to fill that void. We might say that their motives were economic, to place their players and take their commissions. But there was more.
There is no way to fully explain what European Basketball meant with regard to keeping alive the careers of American players that could not make an NBA roster or that had been cut from NBA teams or that were injured, or had gone undrafted. Bob Morse of Penn, a 3rd round pick, played a dozen years in Italy and France. He’s just one of thousands of examples. Yes, McGregor and Kaner also placed coaches around Europe, some of whom had great success. Again: without Rich Kaner, I would not have come to Italy. And there are thousands of stories just like mine.
Let’s take Mike D’Antoni. No, he was not a client of McGregor or Kaner. He was a 2nd round NBA pick out of Marshall in 1973. He played two years in the NBA, 1973-75, often injured. He was cut by St. Louis of the ABA in 1975-76 and by San Antonio of the NBA in 1976-77. But Italy was open and he came to Olympia Milan in 1977-78. I took over the next year and Mike carried the team for my entire 9 seasons. He played 13 seasons in Italy, then became a successful coach here and has coached 4 NBA teams, been Coach of the Year and now coaches the LA Lakers. Amen.
There is no way I can possibly explain how big summer tournaments used to be in Italy. I mean, huge. And, there were several of these events every weekend. Series A teams entered many of them with most of their roster, excluding those that were with the national teams. They would bring up promising youngsters from the Junior team. They would ‘try out’ American players. They would ‘try out’ other Italian players they wanted to evaluate, who were playing in Series B. In all this, the figure of Jim McGregor loomed large: The most important tournaments always included his All-Star team.
People talk about summer leagues in the USA, like the Rucker League in New York City or the summer leagues organized by NBA teams. Well, ‘tornei estivi,’ summer tournaments, in Italy were at least as big as that. There is no way to describe how people packed “The Park of the Roses” in Roseto — 5,000 strong — for their famous summer tournament. Series A teams fought to get included. So, you might see Simmenthal Milan, Virtus Bologna, Richard Kaner’s Riccadonna powerhouse and Jim McGregor’s Gulf Oil All-Star team in the three-day event. A ‘quadrangular,’ as they say in Italian.
These tournaments took off when Jim McGregor began to enter his team. Before that, fans in Italy might see an American player here or there but one per team. All of a sudden, there was a whole team of American players and they played well and hard. These were the days before television began to show NBA games to the Italian audience. That came in 1980-81. So, McGregor and Kaner were about 15 years ahead of the NBA with regard to capturing the Italian audience with their touring teams. They were the life blood of every summer tournament their teams entered.
The summer tournaments began to fade in the early 1980s, what with the NBA on TV, better means of telephone contact, scouting services and what have you. I coached in one of the last years of the summer tournaments, 1979. My Olympia team, without Mike D’Antoni, entered three such events in Sicily: Palermo, Messina and Capo d’Orlando. Little did I imagine that, 25 years later, tiny Capo d’Orlando, with just 13,000 people, would make its way into Series A. But that was the effect of the summer tournaments and Jim McGregor was, no question, the Main Main in those events in the 1960s and 1970s.
This is another topic I’ve touched on before but which merits another look: player agents. When I came to Italy in 1973, only the American players had agents. And, there was only one allowed American (called a ‘foreign’ player) per team at that time. Now, at that time, just about every American player had an agent … in the USA. Dealings were difficult. You could not direct dial to the USA from Italy at that time. You had to dial 170, get the international operator, give her your number and the number and the number you wanted in the USA and wait for her to call you back with your party on the line.
So, again, each 10-man team Italian had one player that had an agent, the American player. And, again, you seldom saw those agents, who basically transacted everything by telephone, telegram or mail. These were the days before the FAX, before e-mail, before any modern means of communication. This was the way business was conducted in Italy in the late 1960s and during the 1970s, as long as the Italian teams had just one allowed ‘foreign’ player (1965-77) or just two ‘foreign’ players (1977-96). So, until 1996, more or less, the only agents working in Italy were US agents or their European sub-agents.
With the explosion of the player market, due to the Bosman Ruling, every player in Europe suddenly had an agent. I mean, Italy brought in players from Greece, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden … just about every one of the 12 UE nations at the time. Then, Americans and Argentines with Euorpean ‘passports.’ Then, non-UE nations, called Bosman-2 nations. With this, almost overnight, European sports in general, and basketball in this case, were up to their elbows in agents. The agents became scouts and ‘found’ talent, so the clubs came to depend on them for this aspect of their work.
The relationship between the clubs and the agents has not always been easy. One reason is that the European agents, in all sports, ask for a 10% fee and get that fee from the CLUB. In the USA, it’s different: it’s a 4% fee and the PLAYER pays the agent. You can imagine how the clubs feel about 10% of their income going into someone else’s wallet. Whatever, the impact of the player agent on European Sports and European Basketball — FIBA Basketball — has been considerable. It’s still a ‘Work in Progress,’ so we’ll see where this all goes. For now, it’s an armed truce.
I mentioned Jim McGregor a couple of months ago, on the occasion of his 90th birthday. I mentioned that he was a living legend in International Basketball circles, that he had coached nine — NINE! — different national teams, that he was, no doubt about it, the Godfather of the agent for American players here in Europe in general and in Italy in particular. His contribution to European and Italian basketball went far beyond simply placing his player-clients on European or Italian teams. He truly revolutionized things in Italy, whose club teams benefited most from his work.
Jim receives these e-mails, as does the other ‘Godfather’ of agents in Europe, Richard Kaner, who placed me with Virtus Bologna in 1973, as the club was looking for an American coach and Virtus’ US player, John Fultz, a 6’7″ scoring machine out of URI, was Rich Kaner’s client. I’d sent my resume to Richard in March of 1973, near the end of my contract with Chile. Kaner was straight up, saying there was nothing at the time. In late May, Virtus asked him to find an American to coach their team. He sent me a telegram and the rest, as they say, is history.
But Jim McGregor was the catalyst. He started by touring Italy and Europe in the summer months with his touring team, first sponsored by Gillette, then by Gulf Oil. As Jim recounts in his hilarious autobiography, “Called for Traveling,” his team played a game in Italy and Giovanni Borghi, owner of Ignis Varese, stopped him after a game and said, “I’ll give you $5,000 for your player (Stan McKenzie).” As Jim said in his book, “I suddenly realized I had to change professions!” With that, the player agent, still new even in the USA, was born in Europe. Rich Kaner was, of course, hard on his heels.
As Italy had the best summer climate, McGregor’s teams played most of their games on the Peninsula. I am convinced that this first-hand, close-up look at his players gave Italian clubs an edge back then and was a principal reason for Italy’s almost total dominance in European Cup play for decades. Jim had a 10-man team: 9 big guys and one point guard, Kenny Grant. As one of his big guys would sign with a European club, he’d have another on the way over on the next flight. With this, he also perfected the first basketball ‘shuttle system’ ever known, a machine. It hummed like a Ferrari.
Actually, ‘recruiting’ is not the exact term I’m looking for. ‘Recruiting’, to me, means ‘romancing’ some athlete with the idea of convincing him to sign with your team. Yes, there is that in Europe, though not nearly as sophisticated as it is at the college or professional level (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) in the USA. Actually, I mean the discovery, scouting and evaluation of talent. In the USA, it’s all so simple for the NCAA coach, in any sport. His ‘farm system’ is in place: the high schools. All he has to do is organize how to find and recruit players. Hard work, to be sure, but at least he knows where to look.
As I’ve said, that is not the case in Europe, where sport within the school structure simply does not exist. Yes, there may be an exception to that, here and there, but it’s rare. Interestingly, the schools that do have teams that compete against each other are often American Schools or International Schools. So, the Italian clubs, in all sports, have to hit the bricks and look for talent. This means they try to establish contacts with every lower level club possible, just as a college coach in the USA will try to establish a rapport with each high school coach in his area … and outside his area.
This puts Europe slightly behind the USA with regard to identifying talent. The US athlete is ‘discovered’ early on, in grade school. One of my top players in Milan, Vittorio Gallinari, did not start playing until he was 15. That could never happen in the USA; no 6’9″ kid would go undiscovered until the age of 15. No way. With this, we see that the ‘discovery’ of talent in Europe is nowhere near as easy as it is in the USA. Not so in Europe and some wild stories come from this, like Serbia’s Drazen Dalipagic, now in the Hall of Fame, being ‘discovered’ as an extra-tall soccer goalie!
In Italy, in other sports, it’s the same. Sara Simeoni was Olympic gold medal winner in the high jump at Moscow in 1980. She was just the second woman to clearn 2.00 meters, about 6’7″. I once asked her how she got started in Track & Field. She said, “Purely by chance.” Had she taken a left turn instead of a right turn one day, Italy would not have found one of its true sports icons, a legend in her time. Again, that could never happen in the USA. So, ‘mining for nuggets’ is a harder job in Europe than it is in the USA. It’s a lot more complicated than mere ‘recruiting.’
I’ve told this story before but it’s worth telling again. It regards the famous (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘infamous’) “Bosman Ruling,” handed down by Europe’s Supreme Court in 1995. It was this. In 1990, Jean-Marc Bosman, a Belgian soccer player, wanted to leave his club, RFC Liege, to play for Dunquerque. Dunquerque wanted Bosman but refused to pay Liege his transfer fee, so Liege refused to release him. He took his case to the newly-formed European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, and sued the Belgian Federation for a ‘restraint of trade,’ and ‘free movement of workers.’ He won his case in 1995.
This ruling had far-reaching effects on all of European sport. Before, Italy’s Series A had set rules regarding the number of Italian players: 8 for every 10-man team in the league. And, there was a limit for ‘foreign’ players: Two per team. Well, that was out the window with the Bosman Ruling. Now, a Spaniard could play in Italy and would not count as a ‘foreign’ player. The ECJ said that Europe was a nation and not a group of nations. There were no more borders in sports. With this, teams in Italy began loading up with players from Spain, Greece, Denmark, Germany and other nations in the UE.
The first effect of this on Europe’s basketball teams was the terrifying rise in costs to pay star players from other nations. By the way, this was also the case in soccer football, where top teams are millions of Euros in debt. Manchester United is about $1 Billion in debt; Chelsea is close to that; Valencia is at about $700 million. Liverpool is about $500 million in the red. The list goes on: Real Madrid, Barcelona, AS Roma, Schalke 04, Arsenal, Fulham. That’s soccer. Basketball has the same problem, though not with those numbers. And it all started with the Bosman Ruling, no question.
The second effect was the death of the youth programs in the top clubs. These youth teams, the lymph of Italian Basketball, were phased out. The money that was used for youth programs went to sign ready-made players from another nations. Then, there were American or Argentine players that could prove Italian or Spanish or English or Irish ancestry and, thus, qualify as ‘Bosman’ players. So, we are talking about the absolute destruction of what was before. All thanks to one soccer player and one court system. Neither of whom saw the bigger picture. Well, they see it now.
When I coached here in Italy, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a rule called the ‘vincolo,’ the ‘bond.’ That is, a player was ‘bonded’ to his club, not unlike the old ‘reserve clause’ in baseball. In other words, the player was property of that club forever. There was no real means of ‘escape’. Oh, he could be traded, sold, loaned or released. The power was all one way: In favor of the club itself. Well, just as free agency had an earthquake effect on Major League Baseball in the 1970s, the ending of the ‘vincolo’ had the same effect on Italian sports, and Italian Basketball, in the early 1990s.
This all came about when Italy’s Series A League decided that its basketball was ‘professional’ and not ‘amateur.’ In what may have been an attempt to emulate the NBA, Series A declared itself a professional league. It was that even before they decided to ‘go pro,’ but this open declaration meant the league would adhere to new laws regarding contracts, taxes and such. It was a quantum leap and, for a while, it worked pretty well. But, once that window was open just a crack, the players’ union fought for the ‘svincolo,’ the undoing of the ‘bond.’ They achieved that objective.
Yes, players are still ‘bound’ to a club if they sign a contract with that club. If they sign a 2-year contract, well, they are bound to that club for two years. Again, the club may want to sell or trade or loan that player but, often, all parties must be in agreement. It’s somewhat different in the USA, though things have changed in the US, as well. In the 1940s or 1950s, a star player that transferred from one high school to another was a cause for sensation. I recall 1953-54, when Ron Purcell left Pinckneyville HS (Illinois) to transfer to Litchfield HS. All hell broke loose. It was a rare happening.
It was the same at the NCAA level. Transfers were, at one time, a rare occurrence. Today, it’s an everyday event. Still, there are rules in place at both the High School and College levels. It used to be that way in Italy’s Series A. Major trades were uncommon. Players stayed with teams for a decade. Now, Series A is not unlike the NBA: Clubs shuffle and deal themselves a new hand every year. This makes for any number of problems, the first being that teams no longer have the continuity that comes from the cohesion players get by playing with the same nucleus for five years. That’s a shame.
They have a great term in European languages: ‘Addressing.’ This means ‘sending’ a youngster into one sport, as opposed to another. Or, into one activity, such as music, as opposed to science or some other field of study. Even in the USA, we will say someone has his “…address in life.” Well, the ‘addressing’ in the USA is something that is done in the school system about 95% of the time. Or, back in my time, the YMCA. In Europe, yes, there are sports programs but is often the family or the parents that will ‘address’ a boy into sports, almost always because “…he needs the activity.”
This is because there are no sports programs in the schools themselves. In fact, in Italy, with rare exceptions, the schools do not even have physical education programs. The schools and the State itself tend to think that schools are for schooling only and that sports are something that should be handled outside the school system itself. This in the nation that coined the famous Latin tag “Mens Sana in Corpore Sano.” In any event, once the school day is over, young boys have nowhere to unleash their boundless energy … unless someone ‘addresses’ them into sports. That’s where Mom and Dad come in.
With this, there is much more parental involvement in sports than in the USA. Why? Well, in the USA, all sports are what they call ‘in-building.’ That is, under the same roof. The kid leaves the study hall, walks maybe 50 yards and he’s in the locker room to change out for sports. In Italy — and Europe — the sports facility is often far removed from the school. So, either the boy is able to reach that facility by public transportation or one of his parents will pick him up at school and drive him to that arena, stadium, gymnasium, practice field or court. And, that parent often stays until practice is over, to drive him home.
This, of course, is a drain on the family, in terms of time and effort. It also often involves a cash outlay, as some sports ‘schools’ require a tuition. Now the families are ‘all in.’ If you are laying out a sum of money to have your son play basketball, then you expect to see him play in the games. This can lead to conflicts. My clubs did not ask for any money for kids in the youth program. Nevertheless, we insisted that every kid suit up for the game and play at least one quarter. So, ‘addressing’ is one thing in the USA, another thing altogether in Europe, especially in Italy.
It was odd: I found FIBA players to be excellent offensive rebounders but not that proficient at defensive rebounding. As is always the case, this had to do with soccer. On a corner kick, the melee in front of the goal mouth is like a rugby scrum and offensive players learn how to jockey for position for the tap-in. This helped my guys go to the offensive boards with fire and detrmination. But, there is no such concept as ‘boxing out’ in soccer, so we had to bring our guys up to speed on that or lose games while the other teams got offensive rebounds, got put-backs or made tap-ins.
Every basketball coach has rebounding drills and I’ve stolen mine from the best of them! One of the most difficult things is to have a REALISTIC defensive rebounding drill. I mean, they just sort of slow-motion through those. So, I actually invented a drill. It was 5-on-5. I’d shoot the ball while the three defensive big men had the three offensive big men boxed out. One guard defender was under the basket, out of bounds, and would come in to ‘strip’ the ball from any defensive rebounder. The other guard defender was at half-court. The two defensive guards were at the sidelines, free throw line extended.
We’d go to one basket. The team that scored got to box out for the next shot, a huge advantage. Well, let me tell you, this was the best drill we had! Why? Because the three offensive big men understood this: If you get the offensive rebound and score, then YOU GET TO BOX OUT. Or, if you get the OR and work it around and score, you get to box out. No one wanted to get boxed out, so it was like thermonuclear war under the boards when I shot (to miss, so there was a rebound). I thus had REALITY for both defensive rebounding (boxing out) and offensive rebounding (going to the board).
Our rebounders learned this quickly: “Don’t go to where there is an open space; GO WHERE THE BALL WILL COME DOWN.” That meant traffic. So, as I said above, GO TO THE BALL. The FIBA guys caught on quickly and loved the 5-on-5 box out drill … because they were PLAYING. They were thinking “Dumb old Coach! He has us having fun with 5-on-5. We’re not working on some boring drill, we are having fun playing ball.” So, everyone was happy: Dumb Old Coach and Smart Young Players. No problem. All I wanted was rebounding; and that’s what we got.
I’ve already mentioned that but it’s worth saying one more time: I found the FIBA player did pretty well was maintain good spacing on offense. Again, this innate ability came from the fact that they had all played soccer football for hours on end. If you see just one soccer football game at the top level (Italy’s Series A; Spain’s Liga; European Champions), you’ll see spacing that would make any basketball coach wish his team would be that proficient at spreading the floor against any type of defense. It’s a matter of knowing where to go and why you are going there.
Yes, in a big-time soccer game, you might see two players in the same area for a brief moment. But they immediately see the situation and spread out again. If you see any game at Milan’s San Siro Stadium, you see soccer teams that look like they have been coached by some ‘maestro’ at the Bolshoi Ballet. They move in perfect synchronization, perfect timing, keeping perfect distance between each player, spreading the defense to open it up, if possible. So, FIBA basketball players would use those same principles in basketball. This gave every FIBA offense I ever saw a sort of beautiful fluidity.
One thing this does for the FIBA player is that it eliminates mistakes. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coaching at the FIBA level, teams might have turnovers due to pressure on the dribbler or passer or receiver. But they would seldom force a drive into a set defense. As in soccer, they would probe and then kick out, probe and then kick out again. Even the greatest soccer players will not try to dribble between two men (called doing a ‘tunnel’). They know they’ll be stripped of the ball. So, even Diego Armando Maradona would try the defense, see his way blocked and then drop the ball off to a teammate.
Now, a lot of this beauty has been lost in recent years, what with over-emphasis on: (a) Pick & Roll; (b) going to the basket on every drive, meaning no pickup jump shot; (c) trying to draw fouls, as if the game of basketball were a free throw shooting contest. So, today, we see more dribbles stripped, more shots blocked, more charges committed. Much of this came with the new breed of American players: unskilled and untrained in the finer points of the game. Well, that’s another story for another day. For now, it’s enough to say that FIBA players know how to use spacing and they use it well.
Another skill I found lacking in the FIBA player was being able to ‘feed’ the pivot man. If that pivot man, center, was not wide open, they didn’t want to risk a pass inside to him. Of course, as any basketball coach knows, you have to have your big man touch the ball or he feels excluded from team play. If ‘left out,’, he loses interest in the game and his energy level drops; so, he no longer runs, boards, helps on D, etc. I don’t say he has to shoot it but he has to touch it. In fact, they call them ‘touches.’ And, back then, if you didn’t have an an ‘inside game’, with pivot play, you didn’t have an offense.
When I came to Italy, in 1973, there were 2-3 Italian point guards that would make that pass, not many guards, even fewer forwards. One of the secrets of the feed is to make a half-dozen fake passes before firing the ball in. When I came to Milan, in 1978, I had Mike D’Antoni, who was a master at the fake pass and post feed. He’d make 5-6 fake passes in one second and the defense would just freeze, as they didn’t know WHEN he was going to pass it inside. He mixed it up, as well, sometimes passing in after just a couple of fakes, sometimes after multiple fakes. Again, they never knew when.
But, everyone has to know how to get that ball inside, not just the point guard. In fact, they say the small forward is the one that should be best at feeding the pivot because he’s on the side of the court, an angle which makes it easier to feed the center. So, I had a drill I’d often use: O-X-O, as there were two offensive players (O’s) and just one defensive player (X). The X-man would be in the circle and the O’s would have their toes on the edges of the circle. The O’s would pass back and forth between the two of them, while the X would try to deflect the pass. If X touched the ball, the passer replaced him in the circle.
Quickly, the O’s learned how to make fake passes. I’d then move the location of the drill to the pivot area and they all saw they could feed the pivot if they used fake passes. The pivot man also learned how to box out his man with his body, how to get low, how to extend a ‘target’ hand (opposite the defender). The passer learned how to fake his own man, how to ‘read’ where the defender was playing his center (which side) and make the according pass. Today, the FIBA player is quite adept at this still, often better than American players, as the NBA’s “international” players show us every game.
One of the skills I found lacking in FIBA players when I began coaching internationally, with the national team of Chile in 1971-73, was the so-called ‘Baseball Pass’. I say ‘so-called’ because it’s really a ‘Football Pass.’ In fact, the technique is the same as for a forward pass in American Football: no wind-up motion, just bring the ball back to the right ear and fire. Now, the FIBA player knew how to make the 2-hand overhead pass because he used that skill to in-bound in soccer. But, no sport he played had anything similar to the baseball or football pass, a natural instinct for American kids.
I keep drawing the parallel with American Football because the other half of that skill — catching the ball on the dead run — was another thing I found lacking in FIBA players. That is, unlike American kids, who were used to playing at least ‘touch’ football and all of whom had ‘gone out’ for a long pass many times in their lives, the FIBA players had no such experience. So, they would see a long pass coming and, instead of running to get under it, they would stop to judge where the ball was going and then start running, which caused the ball to sail over their heads due to the lost-time factor.
So, both with the national team in Chile and with my two club teams in Italy, I had at least one drill every day that would incorporate those skills because this is a pass-catch you must be able to execute if you are to have any semblance of a fast break. So, for some reason, I called this drill TENNESSEE. I think Ray Mears may have used it at Tennessee and I always liked to give credit for drills and plays to the inventors or popularizers of said plays or drills. Anyway, it was a warm-up drill we often used to get the blood running in practice. As the year went on, we’d use it maybe every other day.
It was simple. A player would take the ball out of the net and fire a football pass to a teammate sprinting down the court, who would make a layup or a jump shot. The player that passed the ball would then become the sprinter and the next guy up would get the ball out of the net and fire a football pass to him. It was like a big wheel, with two balls in use at the same time. We’d go counter-clockwise one day, clockwise the next. It got everybody moving, touching the ball, using those two skills. And, as always happens when you work on something, we improved. And it helped our fast break immensely.
You only have to see one photo of FIBA Basketball in the 1960s to understand the difference between the sneakers worn by European players and those worn by US players. The old-time shoes were manufactured in-country in almost every case. One of the big international manufacturers, at the time, was BATA, and my Chile team wore those shoes until we toured the USA and Converse outfitted us with shoes for our 40-game tour in 1972. You would have thought my players had discovered the Pacific Ocean. In most cases, the in-country shoes were a blend of soccer, track and basketball sneakers of the era.
In Italy, the big change came in the early 1960s, when Cesare Rubini, coach of Olympia-Simmenthal Milan brought in the Converse sneakers, red in color, low-cuts. The team is still referred to as “The Red Shoes.” Then came Adidas and Puma, German manufacturers, and they dominated the European market. Italian makers, like Diadora and Lotto started up and they were actual shoe manufacturers. They struggled, technically, at the start. My Virtus Bologna team had a deal with Lotto but the shoes were so low-quality that our guys put the Lotto logo on Adidas shoes, after taking off the Adidas stripes.
NIKE came with the 1980s and with American players that wanted their own shoes. By the time I came to Italy, in 1973, everyone had the right sneakers. Let me put it this way: Converse was top quality; BATA was good quality; Diadora and Lotto were improving their product every single day; NIKE and Reebok then hit the market. With this competition, the FIBA player finally had sneakers equal to those of any NBA player. So, I came to FIBA Basketball as the old-style, hand-made shoes were being phased out and the newer, high-tech shoes, American or otherwise, were being phased in.
Today, for top soccer and basketball stars, companies will custom make the ‘boot’ or ‘sneaker.’ That is, as they would do for a speed skater, they will make a plastic form of the athlete’s foot and construct the shoe around that so that it ‘fits like a glove.’ So, today, there is, virtually, no difference whatsoever in a high-quality shoe. It’s all a matter of preference. Of course, kids are influenced by ads and who wears what shoe. But today’s sports shoes, boots or sneakers are so high-tech and so comfortable that you feel right in any of them. Again, it’s a matter of preference. All that in just 40 years.
When I came to coach in Italy’s Series A-1, in 1973-74, there was no real standardization for the courts. Oh, they were all 26 x 14 meters, which was regulation, at the time. It’s 28 x 15 meters today. I’m talking about the playing surface. First of all, if it was wood, it was almost always a DARK wood. This made for poor viewing for the fans, at the arena or on TV, and poor illumination for the players. When we put in our new court in Bologna, in 1977-78, my GM, Avv. Gianluigi Porelli, let me pick the wood and, of course, it was No. 1 white maple. We had the lightest-colored and most beautiful floor in Italy.
Teams caught up to that. For my first five years in Italy, Pesaro was a nightmare. Their stands looked like they could collapse at any time. The lighting was more for developing photos than playing basketball. And the playing surface was of green linoleum. They later overhauled their arena in Via Partigiani, and put in cement stands, modern lighting and white wood parquet. Greatest place to play in Italy. Every team in Italy now has this type of playing surface. Of course, the TV cameras love this, as it gives them a much better image. Nothing worse than seeing a sports event played in the dark!
In Europe, surfaces were a problem. Today, Olympiakos Athens (the port city of Piraeus) has Peace & Friendship Stadium, a thing of beauty, used for the 2004 Olympic Games. Well, when my Virtus Bologna team played against Olympiakos in the 1977-78 European Cup of Cup Winners, they had a green Tartan floor and my players, used to our brand-new floor, mentioned above, really flipped out. My newly-arrived American player, John Roche, asked me what the hell was up. My other American, Terry Driscoll, was a veteran to European play and helped John settle down a bit.
It’s funny how these things come a full circle. Gigi Serafini was my center during my first four years with Virtus Bologna, 1973-77. I now call him “The King of the Parquet,” as he installs floors all over Italy and imports his wood from Northern Europe. No longer is it necessary to import No. 1 while maple from Canada. So, today’s playing surfaces are all high-tech, as FIBA, ULEB and FIP regulations demand they be that way. Well, it was not always thus, so I enjoy telling people I coached in Europe during the ‘Pioneer Years’ or, when I’m feeling full of myself, during the ‘Heroic Times.’
When I started coaching at the FIBA level, game uniforms were not as high tech in international play as they were in the USA. In many instances, players had jerseys made of wool or some wool by-product. They irritated the skin, over-heated the body and did not permit perspiration to find a way out. Of course, that has all changed in recent years, as the FIBA teams have modern and good-looking uniforms that are every bit as high-tech as those worn by NBA teams. But, for years, FIBA teams could only admire the beauty, design and construction of the uniforms worn by US teams.
When I coached Chile, I had our game jerseys made in the USA, in my home town of Evanston, Illinois. A local outlet did them for me and I took them back. Red T-shirts. You know, 40 years before the Golden State Warriors became the first NBA team to use T-shirt tops, this season. Then, my first year in Bologna, 1973-74, I picked out the material and did the design for our team uniforms for Virtus Bologna. I thought we were a little ahead of teams in this but not by much. Simmenthal Milan, Ignis Varese and Forst Cantù also had nice-looking uniforms which were beautifully made.
The real jump came in the early 1980s, when I was coaching Olympia Milan. I had our uniforms made in the USA, by the McGregor Company, out of Milwaukee. I knew one of their top execs, Howie Fagan, a supreme high school coach in his day at Mt. Carmel HS of Chicago. They were white home uniforms and red away uniforms. The sides had that ‘ribbing’ effect the Milwaukee Bucks had in the 1980s. You know, dark red, crimson, magenta, red, rose, pink, etc., each ‘rib’ being lighter in shade than the one above it. People here went crazy for these and the other clubs caught up quickly.
Here’s a film of Game our 1986-87 EuroLeague qualifying game vs. ARIS of Thessaloniki, Greece. We won this game, 83-49, for a +34, after having lost by -31 in Greece the week before, 98-67. You can see the uniforms I’m talking about: red with the ribbing in gradations of red. We were the best-dressed team in Europe, in my opinion. I loved those uniforms, which were perforated and made for easy respiration. Today, all the top teams in Europe have uniforms that are similar in quality. A quantum leap forward.
Yes, when I came to FIBA Baskeball in 1971-73, with the National Team of Chile, they were using the glass bankboards (or backboards) we know today. They were used even earlier, as photos of the 1960 Olympic Games, held in Rome, demonstrate. But, that’s where the resemblance to the US backboards ends. There was one very good reason for this. Back then, there were no companies that manufactured the SUPPORTS for the baskets that we see in every major basketball game played today. The NBA has high-tech structures that sit way back off the floor, a safety precaution for today’s athletic players.
Back then, when I was coaching Chile, and when I came to Bologna, 1973-78, and Milan, 1978-87, these ‘standards’ were manufactured by local pipe fitters, artisans that made them by hand, according to specifications handed down by the FIBA or by national federations. They almost always had a base that was set back just a bit off the playing floor and four curved pipes that went to the four corners of the glass bankboard. There was usually a rectangulare pipe or flange that fitted to the pipes. The glass had four holes in it and the glass was then screwed onto the flange or the pipes themselves.
Once athletic players came to the FIBA game, they brought the dunk with them. With that came shattered glass boards, not unlike what happened in the NBA. There was a reason for this: The rim sructure was screwed right to the glass. That was somewhat the case in the NBA as well. As we know, when you have the rim attached to the glass — as opposed to the support structure itself — then something will give if a player makes a violent dunk or hangs on the rim. I saw a lot of shattered boards in the 1970s and 1980s. With that, like the NBA, the FIBA went to detachable rims, which helped matters.
The glass boards had one other problem in FIBA play: No protection. A player with great elevation might hit his head or his hand on the bottom edge of the glass and get a serious cut. In the 1970s, I tried to have an artisan put a makeshift (but well-made) strip of protective foam, covered with flexible plastic, to prevent accidents on our court. The referees said we couldn’t do that. It was standard in the NBA but no-go here. Of course, FIBA has also caught up to the NBA with regard to this, as well. So, no more accidents with flying glass or from contact with the edge of the glass bank board.
By the time I started coaching FIBA Basketball, 1971-73, with the National Team of Chile, almost every major game used the modern, ‘molded’ basketball. And, in many cases, the ball used was manufactured in the USA: Wilson, Spalding, etc. But that was not always the case. We went over the Buenos Aires to play Argentina in a ‘friendly’ game in 1973 and I wondered why the ball didn’t ‘feel’ right. It was made locally and they had a deal with the manufacturer. I’m good with that, as long as the manufacturer knows how to make basketballs. That was not the case in this instance.
Also, I often found the ball to be over-inflated or under-inflated. So, before every game, I’d ask the referees to see the game ball. I’d then perform the old ‘test’ we all used in the USA. That is, the ball is inflated properly if you drop the ball from the level of your eyes and it bounces back up to your waist. Obviously, a shorter guy, like myself, is not dropping the ball from as high as a guy 6’5″ tall, so it will have less bounce. But the ‘rule’ works. Of course, I’d tell them this was a real ‘rule’ in the USA and they believed me! I was glad for that, because we got a standard inflation every time.
In recent years, Asian and European manufacturers have come onto the equipment market. The two major companies in that field have been Japanese: Mikasa and Molten. We’re all a little different when it comes to liking a ball or not. I always liked the Spalding 100 because the rubber ‘seams’ were narrow, better ‘fit’ for my smaller hand. That said, I like the Molten ball, with it’s unusual paneling. This is the ball used now in Series A here in Italy. The European League uses a Wilson ball. So, the Italian teams that play in the EL have to adjust to two different basketballs.
With this, I’d say that the quality of the basketballs manufactured outside the USA has improved markedly since I started coaching at the FIBA level. Still, about an hour before every game I do on TV (before the fans fill the arena), I take a ball from the rack and bounce it for the dribble ‘feel’ and take a few shots to sense the shooting ‘feel.’ Anyone that is familiar with basketball ‘knows’ when a ball has that right ‘feel’ to it. So, it took the non-American manufacturers a while to catch up to the US manufacturers but they’ve done that. At least, that’s the way if ‘feels’ to me.
People on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean know Maurizio Gherardini today. He had incredible success as GM of Benetton Treviso: four Italian titles, six Italy Cup titles, one Cup of Cup Winners title; two European League Final Fours and a slew of Italian Super Cup titles and I may be forgetting others. Then, in 2006, he became the first non-American to hold a front office post with an NBA club: Vice-President and Assistant GM with the Toronto Raptors, hired for those jobs by Bryan Colangelo, someone with a sharp eye for FIBA talent: players, execs, coaches, conditioning coaches.
Understand, Gherardini had already been a successful GM with Libertas Forlì, earning various promotions from A-2 to A-1 and nearly giving me a heart attack in the 1979-80 playoffs, as they almost knocked us out in the 2-of-3 quarter-final, upsetting us in Milan in Game One, 91-87. We were down -20 in Game Two, 10-30 after just 10′ of play. We won, 77-75, and then won Game Three in Milan, 96-65. Still, what he had done with Forlì was why I knew he was a great GM, and not for all those titles listed above with Benetton Treviso. Those are simply a confirmation of what I already knew about him.
But his greatest work with Treviso may have been with their youth teams. Maurizio was a former assistant coach himself, with Libertas Forlì, so he demanded teaching. You might say he founded the “Benetton School of Basketball.” The youth coaches in their program taught the skills like no one else. Everyone tried to sign their youth coaches, because they taught the game so well. I was Consultant for Reyer Venice, 2007-11. The head of the youth program, Francesco Benedetti, had come over from Benetton’s programs and he installed their system, piece by piece, for Reyer. A work of art.
Maurizio Gherardini is all about DEVELOPING talent, not just identifying it. Along with his youth teams and his system, he started the Treviso Summer League and the Treviso Big Man’s Camp. Plus, Basketball Without Borders. And I am just scratching the surface. In all this, the emphasis was on TEACHING, not winning titles (though they won many of those) or showcasing talent. Any high school Athletic Director in the USA would LOVE to have a coach from Maurizio Gherardini’s system running his basketball program. Teaching pays.
Toni Cappellari was our GM when I came to Milan in 1978. In fact, he ‘recruited’ me to leave Virtus Bologna for the ‘big city,’ though Milan was not that much bigger than Bologna: 1,200,000 to 600,000. Toni was not only GM for the big team, my ‘Varsity,’ but head of the Youth Programs, as well. He had four youth level coaches: my two assistants, Franco Casalini and Guglielmo Roggiani, plus youth team coaches; Claudio Bardini, Giampiero Hruby and others. He had two hard-and-fast rules for those coaches: Man-to-man on defense (no zones); give-and-go on offense (no plays).
He told me he came to this when he coached in Olympia’s youth program, 1968-70. One day, the legendary coach (Naismith Hall of Fame for Basketball; Water Polo Hall of Fame for Olympic gold in 1948) Cesare Rubini called the youth coaches into his office. ‘The Godfather’ said, “You are doing a poor job.” Cappellari raised a hand and said, “But, Rubini, we are winning national championships.” Rubini answered: “That only looks good on the letterhead stationery. Your job is to develop players, not win games. I don’t see you developing talent for the first squad.” They all got the message.
So, Toni Cappellari was absolutely inflexible on these matters. If you didn’t work on the fundamentals, you would be fired. I mean fired. I mean on the spot. I saw it happen. Toni went to every youth game and practice he could see. By God, if you were that youth team coach, your team had to know how to run the fast break, play man-to-man defense, move without the ball and read the defense. And, if the other team played zone, he didn’t care. You ran the give-and-go and used spacing and took the good shot. Olympia’s youth teams won 95% of their games and many national titles.
I was the beneficiary of all this that first year, 1978-79. I had the youngest team in the history of Series A-1. I had four veterans on my 10-man roster and six ‘babies’ up from the youth teams, six teen-agers. Experts picked us for dead last, 16th place, and ‘relegation’ to A-2. We stood them on their heads, as the “Little Basset Hounds,” those six kids, who really knew how to play, helped take us to the playoff final. I’d come to Milan figuring I’d teach those kids the game. Wrong. They already knew the game, thanks to Cesare Rubini and Toni Cappellari. I’ll forever be grateful to them for that.
In 1981, ATEBA, the Argentine coaches’ assocation, invited me to Buenos Aires for a coaching clinic. As always, they asked for on-floor work, none of this ‘blackboard’ stuff. This is, by the way, typical of overseas clinics: practical, not theoretical. The clinic was held at the gym of Ferrocarril Oeste. They gave me the Junior team for ‘Ferro,’ minus their three best (and biggest) players, who were with the ‘selection’ team for the Capital Area. So, I had players 4-13 to work with. I was stunned by how good they were, what athletes they were, what skills they had, how hard they worked.
I remember thinking this: “I have never seen the three best kids they have but I am certain that I could take this group, as it is, and win Italy’s Junior championship with ease.” In fact, right after the clinic, I came back to Italy to observe Italy’s Junior championship, with the final game between SSG Gorizia and Squibb Cantù. As good as Gorizia and Cantù were (Cantù had Antonello Riva), I was still convinced that the kids from ‘Ferro’ would have beaten them. And, I was told that ‘Ferro’ was just one of many teams loaded with such talent. So, Argentina’s world emergence came as no surprise to me.
But here was the key to it all: No national championship for their club teams at the youth level! The youth coaches were not ‘rewarded’ by winning some inter-zonal or national title. They were rewarded by producing kids that were selected for the various regions. So, their aim was not to WIN GAMES but, rather, to DEVELOP PLAYERS. Now we understand how a Manu Ginobili, Pablo Prigioni, Luìs Scola, Carlos Delfino, Andrès Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto, Walter Hermann, Pepe Sanchez and Ruben Wolkowyski all made it to the NBA. Their clubs developed THEM and not title-winning club teams.
They don’t have this system in Italy and I’m sorry it isn’t in place here. What they do have is what we have in the USA: Coaches that coach to win some title, at whatever cost, as opposed to coaches that are programmed to develop individual players. Well, Argentina put emphasis on TEACHING, as opposed to an emphasis on COACHING. As the legendary Pete Newell once said about basketball in the USA: “Over-coached, under-taught.” Well, I’m sure Pete Newell would have approved of what Argentina was doing — and is still doing. Again, a huge gap between the FIBA approach and the US approach.
The name Ettore Zuccheri is most certainly unknown in the USA. But he’s well-respected here in Italy. He was one of my assistant coaches when I arrived in Bologna to take over Virtus in 1973. He was from Bologna (Budrio, to be exact), had played for Virtus for many years and had been on Italy’s national team, taking part in the 1963 Europeans. Though he was just 30 when I arrived, his playing career was over due to a devastating knee injury. He was my assistant and head coach of our Junior team, as well as the Head of Operations for Virtus’ youth programs.
I was the luckiest coach in the world! From Day One, I saw I had a jewel in this guy. I had a 16-year old kid on the big team, Marco Bonamico, a 6’7″ super-athlete, super-tough kid from Genoa. One problem: He had the worst-looking shot I had ever seen, with his right elbow pointing out to the right instead of at the basket, an error of some 90°, a technical disaster. I said, “If this kid could shoot, he’d be a national team player some day.” What do you know? He learned how to shoot and played in two Olympics for Italy, 1980 (silver medal) and 1984 (5th), and won a gold in the 1983 Europeans.
What happened to Marco Bonamico? Ettore Zuccheri happened! He had Marco with our Varsity and with his own Junior team. He dedicated himself to getting Marco’s shot in order. I would love to tell you that I ‘launched’ Marco Bonamico. Oh, I definitely played the guy at the age of 17 as a starter. But, by that time, he’d gotten his game and his shot together and I credit Ettore Zuccheri with doing that. My guess is that Ettore had at least a dozen SHOOTING TECHNIQUE drills for Marco and he had a willing student, as Bonamico had as much determination as any athlete I ever coached.
One drill was this: Marco would ‘dribble’ the ball off the wall, up high. The ball would come back to his right hand and he would flip it again. I’m not talking about a few times. I’m talking about doing this for 10 minutes straight, often much longer. Ettore removed Marco’s left hand from the equation. He ‘grooved’ his right hand. I was GM of Virtus in 1988-89 and Marco drilled a long ‘three’ for us to send an Italy Cup game into OT vs. Venezia and we won to move to the semis, eventually winning it all. As that shot split the net perfectly, I said, “Thanks, Ettore.” Just one reason why FIBA kids know the skills.
Kobe Bryant: “I feel fortunate that I was in Italy when AAU basketball [got big] over here. They stopped teaching kids fundamentals in the United States, but that didn’t affect me. Over there, it wasn’t about competition and traveling around and being a big deal; it was about fundamentals, footwork, spacing, back cuts — all of those things. When I came back it was about acclimating myself to the competition, but I had all the fundamentals they didn’t have. Look at Pau Gasol. Same thing. Look at all the skills he has compared to the guys who grew up playing AAU ball.”
This is a devastating comment about basketball in the USA in the 1990s and 2000s. In Italy, kids do not have AAU play in the summer months. They have two months of fundamentals camp with their own clubs or they have two months with the national team in their age bracket. Add in the fact that the FIBA season, for youth play, is 9 months, more than twice the time allowed by high schools and the NCAA, and you have European players that are working on skills and fundamentals 11 months of the year. Yes, they work on team play but fundamentals come before everything else.
A few years ago, I read a story (perhaps Sports Illustrated) that came down hard on AAU Basketball in the summer for US players. One, it said kids should not be playing 90 games in 90 days. Two, it said those same kids never had one minute to work on skills. Three, it said the games were for the AAU ‘organizers’ to showcase players for college scouts, perhaps pocketing a finders’ fee along the way. Four, it said a game every day dulled the kids’ competitive edge, as you can’t get fired up every day and there was always another game the next day. I agree with all four points.
Kobe Bryant played youth basketball here in Italy while his father, Joe Bryant, played in A-2: Reggio Calalbria, Rieti, Pistoia, Reggio Emilia. You’d see his dad’s team play and Kobe was out there, at half-time, shooting around, and looking good. He did this for seven years, age 6-13. When he went back to the USA, he had the basics and knew how to work on his game. I believe he still does some of the drills he did in Italy. So, the US and FIBA games could not be more different with regard to the development of young talent: Know Time vs. Show Time, as Kobe stated quite eloquently.
In 2000, there was a split between the ‘old’ FIBA and the ‘new’ ULEB, Union of Leagues of European Basketball. These powerful clubs, from powerful nations, wanted to remove the ‘power’ from the hands of FIBA and run their own tournament. For one year, 2000-01, there was a division between the two entities, each holding its own competition: the FIBA had the Supra League; the ULEB began the EuroLeague. The next year, everyone was all in with the ULEB and FIBA was left with some smaller cups, no longer run by FIBA World but, rather, by FIBA Europe.
This, of course, was a monumental seismic shift in European club basketball. But another such shift was already under way. At the start of the old Cup of Champions, only national champions could enter. And, in 1960, the CC had just 19 teams. By 1970, that number was up to 24 teams. By 1980, it was 34 teams. By 1990, it was back to 28 teams. By 2000, it was back to 30 teams. Several nations now have more than one team in the European League: Spain has 4, Italy has 4, Russia has 2. The number is now 24 for the Regular Season … after knocking out the ‘minnows’ in qualifying tournaments.
The ULEB also held the second-level ULEB Cup for several years and now calls it the EuroCup. These competitions involve a pretty good number of teams. Then, there are the newly-formed ‘combined’ leagues. So, a team from Croatia may play in the Croatian League but, also, in the Adriatic League, which is, in essence the old Yugoslav YUGO League. Teams from Russia may play in the Russian PBL League but, also, in the VTB United League, basically old USSR teams and old Warsaw Pact teams. So, clubs are gaining playing time, experience, exposure, conditioning and enhanced competition.
It should be said that the ULEB Cup (now EuroCup) was like the old Korac Cup, in that it has provided European Basketball with up-and-coming teams, players and coaches. Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, for example, played in the ULEB Cup, and his coach at Girona, ‘Aito’ Reneses, later coached Spain to the silver medal in the 2008 Olympics. It would also be a fair guess to say that almost all of the Europeans in the NBA today have played in the EL. There are NBA scouts at every single EL game, combing through the rosters for the Marc Gasol of the future. And they will definitely find him.
The European ‘Cup of Champions’ began with the 1957-58 season and was phased out after the 1999-2000 season in favor of the new European League. The ‘Cup of Champions’ was copied directly from soccer football, which began in 1955-56. At that time, the ‘Cup of Champions’ was organized and administered by the FIBA. The ULEB took over all this with the European League. Without question, this was the flagship event for FIBA, as the European League is today for the ULEB. In fact, in 2008, ULEB and FIBA, together, celebrated the 50th Anniversary of this tremendous competition.
In the ‘old days,’ some 24 countries sent their national champion from the PREVIOUS season into this event. There were then 12 first-round (qualifying) shootouts, home-and-home, which reduced the number to 12 teams. Another qualifying round home-and-home shootout got that number down to 6 teams. Those six teams went into the Final Round. This was the big one. Our team in Milan would take in over $1,000,000 in gate receipts alone for the five home games against the other five teams, all big names: CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Maccabi Tel Aviv and the like. So, making the final round was everything.
The top two finishers in the 10-game final round would then meet in the one-game final on a neutral court. In 1987-88, with more teams, they went to a Final Four format. But, in those early years, there were some wild upsets. In 1976-77, Varese beat Maccabi by 23 points down in Tel-Aviv, 102-79; then beat them in Varese, 81-70. Then, in the one-game final, in Belgrade, Maccabi upset Varese, 78-77. And, on several occasions, a tie-break was needed to decide which team was placed second, thus going to the final. So, tension was the order of the day in every Cup of Champions game.
Even the qualifying round home-and-home encounters had some high drama. In 1986-87, my Olympia Milan team lost to ARIS in Thessaloniki, in the ‘away’ game, 98-67, a -31 point deficit. We had to win by +32 in Milan, a week later, or we were out of the event. We won by 34, 83-49. To this day, I don’t know how we did it. Well, when you are playing for the big prize, and we went on to win it all that year, you come up with extraordinary effort, energy and determination you didn’t know you had. It was that way in every Cup of Champions game I ever coached. Coronary City.
The second-in-importance European “Cup of Cup Winners” began in 1966-67 and was phased out after the 2001-02 season. This event was reserved for the winners of ‘national cups’ in their respective nations. That meant that each nation would send one team — its national cup winner — into this tournament the following year. In every European Cup, the defending champion was given automatic entry into that event the following year, so a country might have two teams entered in this cup. If a team won both its national title and national cup, the national cup runner-up would go into this tournament.
The prestige in qualifying for the Cup of Cup Winners was huge. When my Virtus Bologna team won the 1973-74 Italy Cup, we were automatically qualified for the 1974-75 Cup of Cup Winners. After the final gun in that 1974 Italy Cup final, I saw a scene like I’d never seen before. Grown men were running around the court with their arms out like so many airplanes, screaming: “And now we’re going to fly.” Meaning they’d be flying to games around Europe. Yes, we had people follow us as far as the USSR. We were KO’d in the quarter-finals by eventual winner Spartak of Leningrad, USSR.
My teams participated in the Cup of Cup Winners on two other occasions and we made the final both times. My Virtus team lost the 1977-78 final, played here in Milan, to Forst of Cantù, Italy, 84-82, on two free throws by Carlo Recalcati as time ran out. Then, my Olympia Milan team lost the 1983-84 final, played in Antwerp, Belgium, to Real Madrid, 82-81, as they hit two free throws as time expired. These were the two toughest losses of my career, along with the 1982-83 final of the Cup of Champions, which my Olympia team lost to Ford Cantù, 69-68, missing the game-winning shot at the buzzer.
I keep saying the Cup of Champions was the top event … and it was. But, in many years, I felt the winner of the Korac Cup or the Cup of Cup Winners was the best team in Europe and could have won the Cup of Champions. So, these events filled the arenas of each participating team. They were played like there was no tomorrow, which was often the case. As with the Korac Cup, this tournament saw a parade of great players, great coaches and great teams. It’s the only event I never won as a coach and that still bothers me. I’d give anything to have another crack at the Cup of Cup Winners, a beautiful event.
I’m working backwards here, as the third-in-importance Korac Cup began most recently, in 1971-72. Origianlly, it was only for teams from the ex-Yugoslavia, in honor of 6’6″ Radivoje Korac, legendary scoring star of OKK Belgrade, whose 99 points in one game is still a European Cup record. He died in a tragic car accident in June of 1969. After its first season with only teams from Yugoslavia, the FIBA opened up this competition to all European nations. It soon took on a great importance as a tournament for up-and-coming teams, coaches and players, a sort of unmined talent pool.
Back in the 1970s, a nation like Italy would send six of its teams into European cups, based on what they did the previous season. The national champion of Series A-1 would enter the “Cup of Champions.” The winner of the Italy Cup would enter the “Cup of Cup Winners.” Finally, four teams would enter the Korac Cup, usually those that placed 3-4-5-6 in the league standings. League games were played on weekends, almost always on Sunday. Korac Cup games would be played on Tuesday, Cup Winners games on Wednesday and Champions games on Thursday. This format held for years.
I can tell you that the Korac Cup was a tremendous competition. My teams entered twice. With Virtus Bologna, we were knocked out in the semi-finals by eventual winner Jugoplastika Split (Croatia, Yugoslavia) in 1975-76. We won it with Olympia Milan, beating another Italian team, Varese, 91-76, in the final in 1984-85. I’m still sick about losing to Jugoplastika. We had won by +9 over there, 83-74, in the ‘away’ game. We had it in the bag. Then, Coach Petar Skansi’s Jugoplastika upset us by 13 points, 92-79, in Bologna in the return game. I was out-coached, plain and simple. There is no other explanation.
Like I said, the names that came out of this European Cup are legend: Naismith Hall of Famers Kresimir Cosic, Dino Meneghin, Drazen Dalipagic, Drazen Petrovic, Oscar Schmidt. Olympic gold medal coaches Mirko Novosel and Ranko Zeravica with Yugoslavia. Olympic silver medal coaches Petar Skansi (Croatia), Carlo Recalcati (with Cantù, Italy). If we include FIBA Hall of Famers: Vlade Divac, Dragan Kicanovic, Pierluigi Marzorati. It would be hard to find a super player or super coach that did not come up by way of the Korac Cup, which was phased out in 2002.
The term ‘cup’ is used often outside the USA when referring to a sports trophy. Yes, we use the term Stanley Cup in NHL Hockey but, then, there are teams from Canada in the NHL. Canadian Football also has the Grey Cup. Tennis has the Davis Cup. Golf has the Ryder Cup. Soccer has the World Cup. English soccer football has the FA Cup. We might call it the Lombardi Trophy in the NFL but it would be the Lombardi Cup if played elsewhere. The logic is this: If they give you a trophy, it’s almost always a huge cup … not unlike the Stanley Cup. And basketball has its own cup play.
National Cups are played in all sports in Europe but we’ll limit this to basketball and Italy. The Italy Cup is an in-country event, involving, obviously, only Italian clubs. Right now, only eight teams participate: the top eight teams in the Series A standings at the half-way point in the regular season. The format is a Final Eight: quarter-finals, semi-finals, final. The winner of this competition used to go into the “Cup of Cup Winners,” an all-European playoff for teams that won their national cup the previous year. That was the derivation of the name … Cup of CUP WINNERS.
I liked the old format, the one used when I first came to Italy. Back then, 1973-74, every team in Italy participated, with Series D and C teams facing off in the first round; those winners facing Series B teams in the second round; those winners facing the Series A teams from the Round of 16 forward. Yes, there were upsets galore in those early years, in part because the Series A teams only had one American player and 9 Italian players. I liked that concept, of everyone participating. I thought the interest was high and everyone had a shot at the big prize. But, schedule restraints in recent years stopped that.
If you follow English soccer football, you know the story of the FA Cup, which many consider more important than the great Premier League. If you go to Google, you’ll read the history of the event and the names of the ‘minnows’ that swam with the big sharks and held their own. In 2003-04, tiny 3rd Division Millwall found itself in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium against legendary Manchester United. They lost, 3-0, but you cannot imagine the interest it brought to the event. So, the Italy Cup, like all national cups, is a big deal. I was lucky enough to win three of them, one with the old format. A great feeling.
A few days ago, I mentioned that my 1985-86 Olympia-SIMAC Milan team set a Series A-1 record with 10 consecutive road wins. Now, this sort of ties in with ‘game management,’ but it also has to do with tie-breakers. First, let me say that I had a tie-break situation … that broke my heart, in 1982-83. My Olympia Milan team and Virtus Rome both tied for first at the end of the regular season, at 22-8. They were placed 1st and we were 2nd because they beat us by 11 in Rome and we beat them by 8 in Milan. In the 2-of-3 playoff final, they won the title, 2-1, winning both games in Rome.
We had the worst piece of luck you can imagine that season. We lost at home to Livorno by one point when their player, Roberto Paleari, hit a shot at the final buzzer from at least 60′ from the basket, from the free throw line in the back court. That loss was one of our eight losses. I still have nightmares about that. So, I never wanted to find myself in a tie-break situation again! With that, we never let up, at home or on the road, whether we were ahead or behind. Yes, we’d always done that. But, after 1982-83, with even more urgency. We won the next three regular seasons, which required a lot of road wins.
We also did well on the road in the playoffs, as my teams won 22 road games in 11 playoff seasons, which was a record at the time. We were 13-2 in regular season road games in 1985-86. Here are the 10 straight wins in 1985-86: 110-104 at Pesaro; 92-86 at Reggio Emilia; 91-86 at Reggio Calabria; 99-85 at Treviso; 89-86 at Livorno; 71-68 at Turin; 87-83 at Naples; 86-84 at Rome; 95-93 at Varese; 88-87 at Rimini. Do you notice a common denominator? It’s this: All close games! And, they were against teams from every level of the standings, from the 2nd place team right down to the last place team.
Yes, I think the ‘Peterson Rule’ helped us. What it did was this: It have everyone on the same page with regard to handling late-game situations. There was no doubt when we’d freeze the ball if we were ahead; and there was no doubt when (and why) we’d press if we were behind. So, that rule helped in two ways: knowing what to do in tight situations; avoiding tie-break situations. That meant going 2-0 against the top teams, not 1-1, as in 1982-83, which let ‘scoring difference’ decide the entire season because it determined who will have home court advantage in the playoffs.
Yesterday I talked about the gut-wrenching emotion of watching a one-game shootout between two club teams that are playing to ‘stay up’ in their division and not ‘drop down’ (called ‘relegation’) to the division below. It was an entirely different matter when you’d see teams playing to ‘go up’ to the next highest level. That meant that no one really ‘lost,’ as the losers simply stayed in their division, while the winners would jump a level the next season. These shoot-outs may involve two, three or four teams. These promotion-relegation games are now decided without on-court games, by tie breakers.
But, in past years, they were huge events. Now, before going on, I should mention that I saw a three-team tournament in Genoa in 1974-75 which was another dramatic happening. Three teams — Blue Star Rome, Fortitudo Bologna, DUCO Mestre — played to determine which team would stay up in A-1 and which two would drop to A-2. Even though I was the coach of rival Virtus Bologna, I went to lend support to Fortitudo, our ‘cousins.’ Unfortunately, for them, Blue Star Rome edged them by three points in the deciding game. Rome stayed up; Fortitudo and Mestre dropped to A-2 the following season.
In 1978-79, there was actually a four-team ‘quadrangular’ tournament involving four A-2 teams, to see which would be the other A-2 team promoted to A-1 the following season, as three other teams had already made the jump on the basis of their regular season 1-2-3 placements: Superga Mestre, Libertas Forlì (with present Toronto Raptors VP Maurizio Gherardini as their GM) and Lazio Rome. This tournament would involve: Pinti Inox Brescia; Virtus Rome; SSG Gorizia; AP Udine. Here are the standings: Brescia (3-0); Rome (2-1); Udine (1-2); Gorizia (0-3).
So, sure, there was disappointment for the three that stayed in A-2 but their world had not ended. I loved the event because there were four great coaches: Riccardo Sales (Brescia); IHOF inductee Nello Paratore (Rome); IHOF inductee Dido Guerrieri (Udine); and legendary American Jim McGregor (Gorizia). With games to ‘avoid going down,’ teams play with fear; with these games, to ‘go up,’ they play with no fear. It’s all the difference in the world. Whatever, tie-breakers, on-court or off the court, are a vital part of FIBA Basketball, at both the national team and club levels.
Years ago, in Italy’s Series A-1 and A-2, if two club teams tied for an important spot in the standings, no tie-break rule was put into effect; instead, as would happen in the USA, the two teams would play a one-game shootout. This was especially important near the bottom of the standings because this often meant which of the two teams would stay up in A-1 and which would drop down to A-2. It was the same in A-2: which team would stay up in A-2 and which would drop to B-1. It was that way at every level of play in Italian club team basketball. Since then, tie-break rules have been installed.
I can tell you this about those one-game playoffs: They were gut-wrenching experiences. In 1979-80, Superga Mestre and Scavolini Pesaro had tied for the last slot left in A-1, both with