In modern European basketball, there are few cases of foreign players who stay with the same team for more than two or three seasons. However, 30 or 40 years ago, it wasn’t that unusual to see players wearing the same jersey for five or even more years. One of the cases that stood out most was the one of Robert “Bob” Morse, the great American scorer who rejected an NBA career – he was drafted by the Buffalo Braves – to chase glory in Europe. Morse was born on January 4, 1951 in Philadelphia and after standing out in high school, the next logical step for him was entering the University of Pennsylvania.
With a height of 2.03 meters, Morse was a power forward with the shooting touch of a small forward and the rebounding skills of a classic center. He was a natural scorer, with a steady hand from all distances. His last three years in college with the Quakers, from 1969 to 1972, are still considered the best in the long history of the school, which had the honor of playing its first game against Yale on March 20, 1897. It is true that the only time that Penns reached the NCAA Final Four was in 1979 in Salt Lake City, where they were stopped by the Michigan State squad led by the legendary Magic Johnson (101-67). But the longest period of steady quality coincided with the Morse’s time in the team. There were also good players like Dave Wohl, Steve Bilsky and Corky Calhoun, but the leader was Bob Morse. He finished his college days with 1,381 points after being the team’s top scorer for three seasons. The team’s record in those years was 25-2 (1969-70), 28-1 (1970-71) and 25-3 (1971-72).
When everyone expected a good NBA career out of Morse, he surprised many with the decision to play in Europe. He was going to Varese, a place most of his teammates would have a hard time locating on a map of Italy. But this small town had a great basketball team, which was already a double European champ (1970, 1972) and had a great coach, Aleksandar Nikolic, who insisted on his signing. As a result, Morse became the key man on the team in his new European adventure.
Aca Nikolic’s influence
On occasion of the celebration of 50 Years of European Competitions at the 2008 Euroleague Final Four in Madrid, Morse, who was elected by a board of experts among the 35 best players during that period, had this to say about coach Nikolic in a Euroleague.net interview:
“I got to know the city of Varese, the team members and our coach, Aleksandar Nikolic, especially. He was impressed enough to sign me to a two-year contract. My real education came when I first arrived for training camp. We didn’t go to Varese, but instead to a bunch of exhibition tournament games, which were mostly outdoors at the time, 10 or 11 on the road at different resorts around Italy. I was impressed by Nikolic’s coaching. He was really strong on physical conditioning, and had a special coach for that, which at the time was unusual. The emphasis was so much on physical conditioning that we went for 10 days to a mountain resort and didn’t touch a basketball the whole time. Instead we did cross country running, calisthenics, weights, time trials on a track in the afternoon. I got in the best shape I had been in until that time. I think that was the key for me that first season, in which we won the European Cup, the International Cup in Brazil, as well as the Italian League and Italian Cup, and I won the Italian League scoring title…
“I mentioned a little about Nikolic’s emphasis on physical conditioning. That carried over to the season, as well, when we had practices with only physical conditioning. He was also big on shooting, which was my forte already. But he did some things that I had never experienced in the U.S. He was big on fundamentals, both individual defense and team defense, help and recover. He had us get up on Sunday morning before games for exhaustive team meetings, more than an hour, with scouting reports for each opposing player, telling us their tendencies, what to expect, their weak points and strong points, how to shut them down. He was an amazing tactician, too, and just really understood the game of basketball. He was very adamant that we had to play the way he wanted. If we ran a play, we had to run it the way it was drawn. He wasn’t big on individual improvising. He was certainly a great coach who deserves his place in the hall of fame. I had good coaches in college, one of which was Chuck Daily, a great people manager and motivator. But in terms of tactics and the technical side of the game, I don’t think anyone surpassed Nikolic, in my opinion.”
The start was not easy at all. Morse arrived to a city that already had a foreign idol, the Flying Mexican, Manuel Raga. In the European League, the two could play together, but not so in the Italian League, which only allowed for one foreigner, so Nikolic chose Morse over Raga. In the first game, under pressure, and according to Morse himself, he missed the first 6 shots he took and the fans in the stands started chanting Raga’s name. Things changed when he scored all of the next 10 he attempted. A new star was born.
Real Madrid, the eternal rival
The first season had a great finale. First of all, the third European crown arrived after defeating CSKA Moscow in the final played on March 22 in Liege, Belgium. Raga scored 25 points, Morse 16 and the team held on to win 71-66 despite the great Sergey Belov and his 34 points. After that, the Italian Cup and League titles also arrived. It was not only the season of the triple crown, but the year of four titles because Varese also won the Intercontinental Cup by defeating in Brazil the local team of Sirio.
Though in the early 1970s, the main opponent of Varese was CSKA, starting in 1974 the number one enemy for the Italian team would be Real Madrid. In the 1974 European final played on April 3 in Nantes, France, Madrid won 84-82. Wayne Babender led the Whites with 22 points in a good team effort, while on the other side Dino Meneghin had 25 points, Morse 24 and Raga 17. The following year, they met again for the title in Antwerp, Belgium, on April 10. Real Madrid entered the game as the favorite, especially because of the absence of Meneghin with a hand injury. However, Varese won 79-66 with a huge Bob Morse: he played 40 minutes, scored 29 points on 12 of 19 two-point shooting and 5 of 6 free throws, plus 14 rebounds. In defense he played as a center.
On April 1, 1976, in Geneva, Switzerland, Varese and Madrid played their third straight European final and the Italians won again, 81-74, behind 28 points by Morse (13 of 19 two-point shooting in 40 minutes) and 23 by Meneghin. Varese was also in the 1977 final, but this time the rival was Maccabi Tel Aviv. In a final full of drama, which I witnessed live at Pionir Arena in Belgrade, Maccabi won its first European crown 78-77. The duo of Morse (20 points) and Meneghin (21) didn’t let anyone down, but the Israeli team had an unstoppable Jim Boatwright (26) and a star in the making, Miki Berkowitz (21). After the one-year break, Varese and Real Madrid squared off once more in the final, this time on April 6, 1978, at the Olympiahalle in Munich. Madrid won 75-67 thanks to the great duo of Walter Szczerbiak (26) and Brabender (16), while Morse and Meneghin had 12 and 23 points respectively.
On April 5, 1979, Varese set a record that will be hard to top: it played its 10th straight European final. The great novelty this time was the rival. It was not the usual Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow or Maccabi Tel Aviv, but a young and ambitious Bosna Sarajevo. Led by a great Mirza Delibasic on the court and a young coach in Bogdan Tanjevic, the team had gone from the second division to the continental final in just seven years. Bosna took the title 96-93 in an offensive festival. Zarko Varajic scored 45 points – an individual record still standing to this day – Delibasic had 30 and Ratko Radovanovic 18. The guard on that team, who didn’t play much due to injury, was a young Svetislav Pesic. Morse had his numbers with 28 points and Charlie Yelevrton had 27, but the 75 points scored by the Delibasic/Varajic tandem was a tough match.
Eleven years later I met Morse in the Buenos Aires World Championships.He was a promoter of an organization for players shorter than 2.00 meters. During our talk, on the other end of Luna Park, Varajic, who was a member of the Yugoslav national team expedition, walked by.I asked Morse whether he knew who that “tall man” was. He was not sure. I told him: “That is Zarko Varajic, the guy who scored 43 points against you in the final.”
“No, he scored 45” Morse corrected. He proved that he had not forgotten that day.
His stint in Varese ended like it had started, with a triumph. In the 1980 Cup Winners’ Cup final in Milan, an Italian duel between Varese and Cantu took place. Two former European champs. Varese won 90-88 after overtime. Bruce Sales scored 26 points and Morse 22.
From Italy to France and back
During nine seasons in Varese, Morse won four Italian Leagues titles (1973, ‘74, ‘77 and ‘78), one Italian cup (1973), three European Leagues (1973, ‘75 and ‘76), an Intercontinental Cup (1973) and a Cup Winners’ Cup (1980).He was the best scorer in Italy for six years with a total average of 26.5 points over 259 games. His personal record of 62 points took place during a 108-86 win over Napoli. With 9,785 points, he is ranked the No. 4 scorer in Italian League history, but his 302 games played are far less than the players above him – Antonello Riva, Oscar Schmidt and Carlton Myers.
For the 1980-81 season, Morse decided not only to switch teams, but also countries. He joined Olympic Antibes of France. Curiously, in a competition theoretically inferior to the Italian one, Morse never won the award for best scorer despite similar numbers to his Italian stint. With 23.0 points in the first year, he was the seventh best scorer. The following year he improved to 24.7 and was fourth. In his last season there, 1983-84, he averaged 26.9 points, but was third behind Limoges’s Ed Murphy (32.3 ppg.) and Lyon’s Miles Patrick (30.1 ppg.).
At the end of the season Morse decided to travel back to Italy and signed for Pallacanestro Reggiana. He was just in time to score the first three-pointer ever in the Italian League after the regulations change established by FIBA that season. At the end of the season he became the first best three-point shooter ever in Italy with impressive numbers – 46 of 77 (59.7%)! He was also great in free throws – 100 of 108 (92.6%). Can you imagine Morse’s numbers with three-pointers from 1979, when they were introduced by the NBA, instead of 1984? His main weapon was his shot from anywhere and he was a nightmare to guard, but a joy for basketball lovers to see. Today he is an Italian teacher, a language he learned, one could say, in Varese’s locker room.
Bob Morse, the Varese legend.
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