Our International Basketball Voice
By Dan Peterson
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