Mike D’ Antoni: The NBA’s first “European” head coach

Mike D’ Antoni: The NBA’s first “European” head coach

s you know, that title is not 100 percent accurate because Michael Andrew “Mike” D’Antoni is American by birth, since he was born May 9, 1951 in Mullens, West Virginia, United States. But it’s also not a mistake to say that he is the first European coach in the NBA. After all, he also holds an Italian passport. And it is sure that the fact of his playing in Italy with Olimpia Milano between 1977 and 1990 and developing his coaching career in the same country between 1990 and 1997 in Olimpia Milano and Benetton Treviso, left some traces in his development as a coach. I am sure his “American foundations” were at least influenced by the European school of basketball. When he was back to the States to coach the Denver Nuggets (1997-1999) D’Antoni was a rookie in the benches of the most powerful league in the world, but his formation, skills and knowledge of the sport made him eligible to work in the NBA without a question. Only eight years later he was named Coach of the Year in the NBA (2005) because of his great season with the Phoenix Suns. However, this is a story dedicated to the player side of D’Antoni, one of the best Americans to ever grace the European courts.

After having played in Marshall University, D’Antoni was drafted in 1973 by Kansas City. He played there for two seasons. After that, he spent a year in the St. Louis Spirits of the ABA and then the San Antonio Spurs, now back in the NBA. However, when in the summer of 1977 he landed in Milan to play with Olimpia he was literally unknown here. It was all due to the fact that Cesare Rubini, Olimpia’s general manager and coach Filippo Faina, both backed by president Dr. Adolfo Bogoncelli, had positive reports from this player, who by then was 26 years old.

 Dan Peterson memories

Dan Peterson, the famous American coach who worked with D’Antoni during many years in Milan, sent me an e-mail this week with the memory of his first time meeting Mike:

“The first thing I did when I took over Olimpia Milan in 1978 was confirm Mike D’Antoni as one of my two allowed ‘foreign’ players. I was still coaching Virtus Bologna in 1977-78 and Olimpia came in and beat us by 15 points in Bologna, 104-89, as Mike D’Antoni stopped my top scorer, John Roche, and just simply tore us apart with his play-making ability, his quick hands, his defense, his steals, his leadership. That was a guy I wanted on my basketball team.”

His wish was granted fast. Olimpia Milan called Peterson to coach in 1978-79 and stayed there until 1987. If someone can define Mike D’Antoni, that’s him:

“We were together all nine years I coached Olimpia, 1978-87. He was, as they say, a ‘coach on the floor.’ I designed the offense so that Mike could run it without calling hand signals or voice signals, using only ‘automatics’ to ‘indicate’ the play. This let him dribble without any concerns. I also put in the ‘L’ play (Pick & Roll) to use his great dribbling-passing skills. Finally, I put in our ‘3’ defense, the 1-3-1 half-court zone trap, which became Mike’s ‘signature’. Mike led us to a historic era of success and I conferred with him often, off the court, during timeouts, or at halftime.”

As Peterson mentions, Mike D’Antoni was always an extension of his coaches on the floor. He was one of the players with the natural gift of seeing the game, reading the plays, improvising and getting the best out of his teammates because he always fed them the ball at the right moment or ran plays that made it easier for his team to score. He was not a natural born scorer, but if points was what the team needed, he was there to score 20 or more. In 1990 he was chosen as the starting point guard in an hypothetical all-time Italian League team.

 Two-time European champ

As a player, D’Antoni won five Italian Leagues (1982, 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1989), two cups (1987, 1988), one Korac Cup in 1985 and one Intercontinental Cup against Barcelona (102-91) in 1989. However, his biggest moments were the two European titles in 1987 against Maccabi in Lausanne (71-69) and one year later in Ghent, Belgium in the first Final Four, one more time against Maccabi by 90-84.

In Lausanne, Peterson was coaching the team. In 36 minutes on the floor, D’Antoni contributed 7 points, 6 rebounds, 4 steals and 1 assist. In charge of scoring were Roberto Premier (23), Bob McAdoo (21 plus 9 rebounds) and Ken Barlow (18). A superteam. In Ghent, D’Antoni played all 40 minutes. He scored 17 points with no two-point shots: 4 of 11 threes and 5 of 6 free throws. He added 2 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 assists. He formed a great duo, again, with McAdoo (25 points).

“The big thing was it being the first Final Four,” D’Antoni told Euroleague.net on occasion of the 50 Years of European Competitions in 2008. Of course, he was among the 35 best players of all time in Europe, as chosen by a panel of experts put together by Euroleague Basketball. “There was a lot of excitement. We played the Greeks from Aris in the first game, and they had been our rivals for a long time. That was an exciting game, as was the final with Maccabi. The new format made it exciting and a good atmosphere. The kinks still had to be worked out. The floor was bad, the dressing rooms horrible. But they had it in Belgium, as I recall, because they wanted to promote basketball there. Of course, a lot has changed since then.”

I can’t exactly pinpoint the first time I saw Mike D’Antoni, but I am sure it was on TV. I’d say it was in the Euroleague in 1987-88. In Belgrade, Partizan won by 92-85. I also saw D’Antoni in the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb. Some time before that, and using his Italian heritage, he took the Italian passport and accepted playing in the national team. The Zagreb EuroBasket, with only eight teams, was rather short. In the semis, Yugoslavia (the eventual champ) beat Italy by 97-80 with no points by D’Antoni. His career in the blue jersey of the national team didn’t last long. He only played 11 games and scored 27 points. His numbers in the Italian League were radically different though: 452 games and 5,573 points. That averaged out to 12.3 points per game to go with 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. He had good shooting percentages: 45.7% in twos and 40.0% in threes.

As a coach, first in Milan (1990 to 1994) and later in Benetton (1994 to 1997) he won two Italian Leagues, one Italian Cup, one Supercup, a Saporta Cup and a Korac Cup. With 212 wins in 306 games (69.2%) he ranks sixth all-time in the Italian League. In 2005, in the prestigious coaches clinic of Belgrade, I was able to listen to his presentation. He was assistant coach to Mike Krzyzewski in the Japan World Championships of 2006 and also this year in the London Olympics, winning the gold medal.

To end this entry, I’d like to quote Dan Peterson once more, who tells us about some more details and the basketball roots of D’Antoni:

“Yes, I knew Mike was going to be a successful coach. For one thing, he came from a family of great coaches, as his father, Louis, won the West Virginia high school state championship with Mullens HS in 1955. Then, his older brother, Danny, was a successful high school coach at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But, most of all, I knew Mike had a genius quality about him. In fact, his super-fast play with the Phoenix Suns was the subject of a book, “Seven Seconds or Less.” So, his success in the NBA, Coach of the Year in 2005, came as no surprise to me. I knew all this back in 1978.”

Mike D’Antoni, a great player pre-destined to be also a great coach.

(November, 2012)