A while back, I mentioned that Mike D’Antoni was given a special night here by our club, Olympia Milan. They retired his number 8 jersey and it was quite an evening. The photo below, left to right: Michael D’Antoni (Mike’s son); Laurel D’Antoni (Mike’s wife); Mike D’Antoni; yours truly. Several readers asked me about my relationship with Mike, as not everyone is aware of all that it involved. So, let me take a few episodes here to see if I can sort it all out and give a year-by-year account of how it all came about. It was one hell of a ride.
Actually, I first knew about Mike when he was still in high school, in Mullens, West Virginia. That’s a little town of about 3000 people, up in the Appalachian Mountains. Mike likes to say it’s in a little valley between two mountains where “The sun comes up at 11:00 am and goes down at 1:00 pm.” Anyway, I was the head basketball coach at Delaware and learned about Mike through the noted scouting service: HSBI. There were other scouting services on high school kids but this one, run by the famous Howard Garfinkel, was the best.
I thought Delaware had a chance with Mike: small school, not that well known, etc. And, he was an excellent student, which was paramount at Delaware. Plus, I was always on the lookout for a point guard and that was his role. So, I tried to recruit him, all by mail. But, he was even better than HSBI had thought and his older brother, Danny, was playing at in-state Marshall University. That was that. Well, in recruiting, you lose 99% of the prospects you are after. As with all of those losses, I sent a note to him, wishing him well at Marshall.
I didn’t have much of a chance to follow him after that, as I was coaching the national team in Chile his last two years in college, 1971-73. Then, as he left Marshall, as a 2nd round NBA draft choice (Kansas City Kings) in 1973, I left Chile for Italy. So, he wasn’t on my radar and I sure wasn’t on his radar. In fact, after four years, I might not have recalled the whole thing as I do today. But, it was in the back of my mind, somewhere, as is all information we store over the years. Little did I know but we were on a course where our paths would intersect again.
The next time I heard about Mike D’Antoni, after my vain attempt to recruit him for Delaware in 1968-69, was 8 years later, here in Italy. This was 1977-78 and I was in my final season with Virtus Bologna and Mike had just signed with Olympia Milan, an important rival. No, he was not considered an Italian player, as yet, his ancestry notwithstanding. But Adolfo Bogoncelli, Olympia’s forward-thinking Owner-President, had that in mind. But, for the moment, Mike was simply a ‘foreign’ player, just like any other American or European.
But I knew Olympia had made a smart move. They had done this before, signing Mike Sylvester out of Dayton in 1974. After a 3-year waiting period, in which Sylvester could not play in Series A, but could play in the European Cup of Cup Winners, he was an Italian for the 1977-78 season. And, I knew Sylvester was an outstanding player, as he led Olympia to the title in that 1975-76 Cup of Cup Winners, even though the team, in Series A-1, without him, had dropped to A-2. That told me, right there, what a difference an excellent ‘oriundo’ could make.
I saw Arnaldo Taurisano, coach of Cantù, during the pre-season. I asked him how D’Antoni was doing. He said, “Every pass he makes is a determinant pass. Every dribble is a determinant dribble. And he’s a threat to steal the ball at any time.” I found this out myself when CINZANO Milan came into Bologna and upset us, badly, 104-89. Nothing like seeing an NBA-level point guard run the opposing team to drive home how good he was. He not only ran the offense but he stopped our go-to guy, John Roche, and nobody stopped Roche. I was duly impressed.
We went to the final in both Italy and Europe that year, but I knew we’d have won both with a guy like D’Antoni. No, we did not play against him later in the season, as he was out with a fractured hand, whereupon Milan simply fell apart and nearly went to A-2. I remember thinking, “We have to do a better job of finding people like that; with talent, with Italian ancestry, with NBA experience.” Just as I was getting started on that project, I had the offer to leave Bologna and take over Olympia Milan … and Mike D’Antoni. I accepted immediately.
It took me one practice to see I had what any basketball coach needs for success: a coach on the floor, Mike D’Antoni. He was a highly skilled player (shooting, passing, dribbling), an intense defender, a smart quarterback, a hard worker and a natural leader. But I could tell his confidence was down a bit. Why not? In four years of pro basketball (NBA and ABA), he’d sat behind Nate Archibald for two years and was also injured in those two years; he was then injured and cut in the ABA. Then injured again his first year in Milan. It adds up.
I was going to get on him to shoot more but, in our very first game (see photo below, Mike in the white uniform), against defending champion Emerson Varese, Mike suffered a stress fracture in his foot … yet another injury. He was dragging that foot the whole second half, when the photo was taken. But, he brought us back, with his passing and quarterbacking, from 33-44 at the half, to win, 77-68. Mike beat their press and got the ball to our shooters, C. J. Kupec and Mike Sylvester. Then, after the game, the diagnosis: stress fracture; out six weeks.
When he came back, I knew I couldn’t overload him with pressure to shoot more. I just wanted him healthy. You just can’t go too fast when an athlete is coming back, not with technical pressure, not with physical work load, not with mental pressure. Guys may be back in person but being ‘really’ back takes a while. But he righted our ship and, with the smallest and youngest team in the league, we qualified for the playoffs, despite a 0-20 forfeit for a fan throwing an object during a game. Without that loss, we’d have finished in 2nd place, a huge upset.
We basically won on hustle: pressing, trapping, boxing out, taking charges, diving on loose balls, scrambling for every little thing. One writer, Oscar Eleni, said we were like the little basset hounds, small but nipping at the heels of the ‘prey.’ With that we had our identity, the Banda Bassotti, the little basset hounds. Our guys loved that, especially Mike, who still says that was his biggest year in basketball. Well, the year was not over, yet. We still had the playoffs. But we had our identity. We knew who we were and Mike was the very embodiment of that.
To understate it, we were the underdog in the 1978-79 playoffs. We had been predicted for dead last in the regular season, which would have been 16th place and dropping to A-2 the next year. But we had several things going for us that people don’t usually count on: a great work ethic, smart guys, a 10-deep roster, two killer scorers in Mike Sylvester and C. J. Kupec, some very tough inside guys in Vittorio Ferracini and Vittorio Gallinari, our feared 1-3-1 half-court zone-trap defense, and the man that held all that together, point guard Mike D’Antoni.
Quarter-final vs. Blue Star Rome (All series were best-of-3). We beat them down there in Game 1, 94-92. We were behind by -10 the whole game and down -7 with 1:43 to go and they had the ball. But Mike D’Antoni, out of the 1-3-1, stole six consecutive passes for six straight assists-baskets and we won on a put-back by Kupec at the buzzer. We then knocked them out, 81-74, in Game 2, at Milan’s Pala Lido. We were down, 20-12, early on but Mike put on the 1-3-1 again and Rome just simply collapsed. Those two games fed the credibility of Mike and the 1-3-1.
Semi-final vs. Emerson Varese. In Game 1, we jumped off 31-10 after 10 minutes, then hung on to win, 86-76. Great team that they were, they beat us, in Milan, in Game 2, 77-73. We won Game 3, up there, 87-84. I played the starters all 40′, with no substitutions. With 6’00” to play, we had three guys with four fouls (including Mike) and two with three. No one fouled out. We ended with all five starters having four fouls each. Mike’s passing (see photo below) up there was the key, and he was also crucial in the 1-3-1 and with some big rebounds.
Final vs. Virtus Bologna. We were beaten, 2-0. I’m still upset about the officiating. But they were a great team, with Hall of Fame center Kresimir Cosic. They won Game 1, in Bologna, 94-81, and Game 2, in Milan, 113-94, as we only had one day of rest before the first game, emotionally drained after knocking out arch-rival Varese. But Mike had taken us to the final with his all-around play. He was, in my opinion, the MVP of Series A-1 that year. No other player made such a difference for his team. I was lucky to have him and the Banda Bassotti.
1979-80 should have been a great year … but it didn’t turn out that way. First of all, we played only in the Italian Series A-1. There was no Italy Cup, as that had been phased out after the 1973-74 season, and would not be back until 1983-84. That was a great event and helped us stay sharp with mid-week games. Worse than that, our legendary President, Dr. Adolfo Bogoncelli, decided against playing in any European cup except the Cup of Champions. By taking 2nd the previous year, we were qualified for the Cup of Cup Winners, a great event. But he said no.
Dr. Bogoncelli, truly a legend, was a guy we all loved and respected but he was winding down. In fact, he would sell the team at the end of the seson. So, he was in a shutting-down phase: selling off good players; not buying replacements; not playing in any European Cup. That left us with a starting five and little else. On top of that, our backup combo guard, Dino Boselli, tore up his knee in the last pre-season game. We won the regular season at 22-4 because we could rest between games. But you lose rhythm when you play just once a week.
Quarter-final vs. Libertas Forlì. We sat out 10 days while Forlì knocked out Mens Sana Siena in the first round. Forlì then came into Milan and upset us in Game 1, 91-87, in a 2-of-3 series. We were flat and they were hot. In Game 2, down there, we were behind, 30-10, after 10′ of play. Mike D’Antoni then played, perhaps the best 20′ any player has ever played for me, and brought us back, with the 1-3-1, to win, 73-71. We won Game 3 in Milan, 96-65, but the damage was done. We had spent too much emotional energy in that series and it would cost us.
Semi-Final vs. Gabetti Cantù. Cantù had taken our place in the Cup of Cup Winners and lost the final to Emerson Varese, by two points. So, they were game sharp and upset us in Game 1, here in Milan, 100-95. Again, we just didn’t have enough people, enough rhythm, enough tough games under our belts. They then knocked us out, in Cantù, 76-75, even though we played our hearts our. Mike was crushed after the loss but any chance we had to win was thanks to him … and we almost won. But almost doesn’t count in sports and we were counted out.
Over the summer of 1980, our club, Olympia Milan, was sold, from legendary founder-owner Dr. Adolfo Bogoncelli to the Gabetti Family, headed by Cav. Giovanni Gabetti, a real estate giant. With that, our team was gutted of some 65 points per game in scoring, as Marco Bonamico, on loan to us, went back to Virtus Bologna, costing us 15 points per game; then, as we needed a taller American player in the middle, we had to release C. J. Kupec, a 25 points per game scorer. Finally, before selling the team, Dr. Bogoncelli sold off Mike Sylvester, another 25 points per game.
We went through the pre-season with a ‘skeleton’ team: 6’3″ guard Franco Boselli; 6’3″ point guard Dino Boselli (back from his knee injury); 6’9″ captain Vittorio Ferracini; 6’9″ stopper Vittorio Gallinari; 6’5″ veteran shooter Mauro Cerioni; and 6’3″ point guard Mike D’Antoni. Six men. That was it. Not the best way to start off with new ownership but the Gabetti family had sponsored Cantù for three years, 1977-80, so they knew about such difficulties and didn’t panic while we looked hard for our other allowed American player.
We took a run at Hall of Fame player Kevin McHale, who was not going to sign with the Boston Celtics for the contract he had been offered. He was in Milan, actually saw us play a game at Pala Lido, had his agent with him and was ready to sign with us when the Celtics finally called and gave him the offer he had been waiting for. We all pitched in with the recruiting of Kevin McHale but no one did more than Mike D’Antoni, who was with him almost constantly during the 3-4 days he was in Milan. I was sorry we missed on McHale, as he was a great guy.
That left me just over one week to sign an American player for the 1980-81 season. As a backup, I’d been working with Chicago-based agent Herb Rudoy, an Evanston HS grad like myself, as a ‘broker’ for 6’11” John Gianelli, a versatile player with 8 years of NBA experience, including an NBA title in 1972-73, under the great Red Holzman. John signed with us seven days before the season opened, was behind on conditioning and would not have the benefit of any exhibition games before the season started. But I knew we had ourselves a real player. Below, Mike & John on the ‘L’ play.
As I said, our 1980-81 team was paper thin. We basically had six players, so I was worried sick the entire season about the possibility of a serious injury. Luckily, no one went down with such an injury. Still, I was concerned about depth. Like every coach, I would have preferred to run on offense and press on defense. But, when you don’t have depth, you can’t do that or your team will be out of gas the last ten minutes of every game. So, we went from being the highest-scoring team in the league to being the lowest-scoring team in Series A-1.
I was lucky to have two team-oriented American players: 6’11” center-forward John Gianelli and 6’3″ point guard Mike D’Antoni. When your two Americans are helping your Italian player, well, you have a team and you can perform miracles. When the two Americans think the Italians should just pass them the ball and get out of the way, you have a recipe for disaster. Not everyone understood this. La Gazzetta dello Sport ran an article: total points per game of the US ‘duos’ on each team in A-1 and A-2. John (16 ppg) and Mike (15), with 31 ppg, were dead last.
I didn’t like running a slow-down offense, not with a guy at the controls like Mike D’Antoni. But, we had to save energy, though we probably spent a lot of what we saved on defense, as we were first in A-1 in defense. We also led the league in boring, as we used up a lot of the 30″ on every trip down the floor, keeping the other team on defense as much as possible. We were hurt by not playing in any European Cup, though that would have cost some energy. But it would have helped us stay in rhythm for the games, keep our shooting in a game groove.
We also had a lot of tough games, a lot of close games, some overtime games. Yes, we were saving energy by slowing it down but we may have also used up some of that just by being under stress for 40′ every game. Still, we took 2nd in A-1 in the regular season, with a 23-9 record. I don’t believe I ever had a team work harder in practice or play harder in games. When they say a team “Left everything they had on the floor,” well, that was this team. And the spiritual leader-example of that was Mike D’Antoni. Everyone else just followed his lead.
The regular season is one thing and the playoffs are another thing. The regular season rewards consistency; the playoffs reward true power. That means this: You can ‘steal’ a few games during the regular season through consistent effort and by having more intensity than the opponent. That is not the case in the playoff, where you either have a powerful team or you don’t. By powerful, I mean talented and deep. We were a regular season team, no doubt about that: 23-9 and 2nd place. But I knew we were not deep and that we did not have any supreme scorers.
We were also hurt by a couple of things. One, again, we did not play in any European Cup. You need those games to keep you sharp and to toughen you up for the playoffs. Two, we were, in effect, a 6-man team, with no depth to speak of. Our slow pace would save energy in the regular season but the playoffs demand an expenditure of energy that’s impossible to measure. What happens in a situation like that is this: You understand you have to play the perfect game if you are going to have any chance of winning. Well, as close to perfect as possible.
We had played a lot of ‘perfect’ games during the regular season. In fact, on paper, we were the underdog in just about every game we played. We were setting some sort of world record for 1-point games won and overtime games won. In fact, a rival coach, Elio Pentassuglia, of Cagiva Varese, said on the nation-wide TV show, Domenica Sportiva, “Peterson is the luckiest coach in the world; he always wins by one point.” My answer: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” End of that. But I was lucky: I had Mike D’Antoni and some very tough guys.
I knew that the emotional expenditure of energy for each of those wins — and in the losses — was staggering. I would see the guys after the game and they were totally wiped out. I’d see Mike and he could hardly take off his socks from the fatigue he had. Sweat was pouring off him even after the game was over. I knew the lack of depth was forcing me to squeeze every drop of blood from the team. With that, I thought: “The playoffs will depend on us being healthy and Mike having enough energy.” And the key to all that was Mike. Him getting hurt was my worst nightmare.
The turning point in our 1980-81 season came in a regular season game down in Forlì and it involved Mike D’Antoni and John Gianelli, our other American player. I’d gone on a scouting trip down to Florence the night before and I must have eaten something spoiled because I had never been sicker in my life. I threw up the entire night and all the next day. I was so doped up with medicine that I could hardly talk. My assistant coach, Franco Casalini, basically coached the game. I was seated on the bench and did not move and did not say a word.
Early in the second half, Franco says: “Coach, you have to talk to Mike. Tony Francescato (Forlì) is fouling him and the referees are not calling anything. Mike is getting mad and he’s going to get thrown out of the game and disqualified for the next game.” I said, “Call a time out.” A time out was called. Like a drunk, I tried to talk to Mike but it must have been comical: “Now, Mike, listen … ” You only have 60″ at a time-out and I was slurring words and making no sense at all. After about 30″, John Gianelli said, “Dan, stop! I’ll take care of it. Mike, call the L play.”
The ‘L’ is the Pick & Roll and John came out to set a block on Francescato. Block? He nearly tore his head off. John came out and ripped up his right forearm under Francescato’s chin. Francescato’s head snapped back like a doll’s head. But John was so good at what he did that no foul was called, as Francescato did not drop to the floor … a minor miracle. But the message was sent: “Don’t touch my teammate or I’ll have your head.” Tony Francescato and Forlì got that message. Our team, and Mike, also understood: John has our backs.
John had struggled a bit up to that point. There were a few doubts about him, perhaps within the team itself. After that play, no more doubts. We also knew we had the toughest team in the league: all killers. John just completed that circle. Well, from that play to the end of the game, no one from Forlì came near Mike. With that, a bond was sealed between Mike and John. We all knew we had the toughest guy in the league on our team and that he’d get it on with anyone to protect a teammate. I was one happy coach: I had North Pole and I had South Pole. Below, Gianelli (15).
The 1980-81 playoffs gave us a bye through the eighth-finals (first round), which were played 2-of-3 and Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. So, when we faced Superga Mestra in the quarter-finals, we had been off for three weeks and they were battle-ready by way of their 2-0 sweep of Sebastiani Rieti. What’s more, they were well-coached by Massimo Mangano and had a great team, which had won the A-2 that year, with top young Italians, ex-NBA player John Brown and former Pallacanestro Milano star Chuck Jura. All the makings of a nightmare.
What’s more, during the year, we rarely used the 1-3-1 because John Gianelli, fresh from the NBA, said to me, early on, “I don’t like the zone.” I explained, “John, it’s not a zone. It’s a zone press and it works if you believe in it.” No big deal: we had a great defense (first in A-1) and John was a supreme defender and gave us 100%. I hoped he’d come to see the possibilities of the 1-3-1. That came in Game 1, at Pala Lido Milan. With 10:00 to go, we were -10 and John fouled out. I coached him three years and that was the only time he fouled out.
That gave me the chance to use the 1-3-1: 6’9″ Vittorio Gallinari on the baseline; 6’9″ Vittorio Ferracini in the middle; 6’3″ Dino Boselli on one wing; 6’3″ Franco Boselli on the other wing; 6’3″ Mike D’Antoni on the point. With Mike stealing several passes and running the 1-3-1, we came back to win, 86-83. After the game, John said, “The zone worked.” I said, “Dammit, John, it’s a trapping defense and it works if you believe in it.” He said, “I believe.” He became great in it. And, he could play any of four positions in the 1-3-1, a holy terror.
We were back in our basketball groove with that game under our belts. Mestre, on the other hand, saw its biological time clock run out with that game and we crushed them over there in Game 2, by 91-58, never needing the 1-3-1. As often happened when we didn’t use the 1-3-1, the other coach asked me why we didn’t put it on! Well, Mike D’Antoni pulled us out of another ungodly mess and we were on our way to the semi-final against arch-rival Squibb Cantù. We were ready but they were fresh off winning the European Cup of Cup Winners, a powerhouse.