“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Antonello Riva – The Italian bomber
It was April 9, 2000, a game between Bipop Reggio Emilia and Canturina Cantu. The hosts won 97-80 but that date went into the record books of Italian basketball because that’s the day when Antonello Riva, who was born on February 28, 1962, in Rovagnate, scored 19 points to surpass Oscar Schmidt and become the leading scorer of all time in the Italian League. That day, Riva reached 13,965 points, 8 more than “Holy Hand” Schmidt, but he ended up finishing with a total of 14,397 points. The game was interrupted due to a standing ovation from the home crowd, which lasted for two full minutes! It was a great and deserved homage. Riva played 25 seasons in five different first-division teams. He added two more seasons at humble Rieti in the lower divisions, and when he was already 40 played with son Ivan, who then was 19. Antonello Riva finally retired on November 21, 2004.
It was the final period of a brilliant career that broke many records in Italian basketball, both in the league and with the national team. Riva wore the Italian senior national team jersey 213 times while scoring 3,795 points (17.6 average), more than 900 points higher than the second-best scorer, legend Dino Meneghin.
A born scorer
Valerio Bianchini, the legendary Italian coach, said that the great talent of Antonello Riva could already be seen in his junior years in Cantu. What drew the most attention was Riva’s physical potential and his excellent shot. By height (1.96 meters) he was a shooting guard, but as the great shooter he was, he could play any position in the backcourt. His body allowed him also to fight for rebounds inside, too, but he liked to stick to shooting – from any distance or spot on the court. He needed only minimal space or a momentary loss of concentration by the player guarding him to shoot and score.
Sometimes, his defenders did everything well, but Riva was still able to shoot over them, even while being fouled. He was one of those shooters who are almost impossible to stop. Bianchini highlighted Riva’s physical and mental strength, his cold blood in crunch time, and the courage he had in taking responsibility. “Already, at 17 years old, he had a perfect jump shot,” remembers Bianchini.
Luca Chiabotti, the prestigious Italian journalist and basketball director at La Gazzetta dello Sport, described Riva as follows: “Using football talk, Riva was a ‘9’, a pure center forward. At just 19, he exploded in Cantu with Bianchini, and he was a great novelty in Italian basketball. He was a fast shooting guard, very strong and superior in one-on-one situations. And of course, his shot. He shot threes when they didn’t even exist in Europe. He didn’t have great ball-handling, he was not a great passer, but he was a great finisher backed by his exceptional physique, which allowed him to play until he was 40. He was the perfect professional, always concentrated and obsessed with points, but through the years his defensive game improved a lot. His explosion coincided with two EuroLeague titles for Cantu and the Italian gold [at EuroBasket 1983] in Nantes. As all the great scorers, he needed a good playmaker by his side and he had that in Pierluigi Marzorati, forming an almost flawless duo. In Milan, after his record buyout, he didn’t find a partner of that level.”
I have seen Riva many times, among them his best moments with the Italian national team, at the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes (gold), the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 (where he was chosen for the all-tournament team) and the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome (silver). However, I like to think of him at the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb because of the offensive festival held there by five great scorers. Nikos Galis of Greece finished the tourney with 35.6 points per game. Drazen Petrovic of Yugoslavia averaged 30.0, Stephane Ostrowski of France poured in 24.4, Riva had 23.3 and France’s Richard Dacoury averaged 22.0. In Italy, Riva was nicknamed Bomber and also Nembo Kid, an Italian version of Superman. Both are accurate because he “flew” over the court and “bombed” the rim of the rival.
His first trophy, even if he did not take part in the final, was the Saporta Cup of 1978, won by Cantu in Milan on March 23 against Virtus Bologna, 84-82. Riva’s name is on the deep roster but still without a jersey number. One year later, in the title game of the same competition in Porec, Croatia, he didn’t play in an 83-73 win against Den Bosch of the Netherlands, either, but he was already wearing his number 12. In the summer of 1979, Riva took part in the first FIBA World Championship for Junior Men in Brazil together with Walter Magnifico, Alberto Tonut, Denis Innocentin and Ario Costa. Italy finished sixth, but the 13.4 points averaged by Riva showed signs of a great future.
His first great season was 1980-81. He and Cantu won a third consecutive Saporta Cup in Rome, beating FC Barcelona 86-82. Riva had 16 points and Barcelona’s Juan Antonio San Epifanio scored 28. Some months later, Cantu also won the Italian League title by defeating Billy Milano in the final series 2-1. On March 3, 1981, Riva made his debut with the Italian national team in an exhibition game of Italy vs. Italian all-stars, but his first official game in blue was on April 20 in Rimini against Germany. He had a scoreless debut in a 68-62 defeat, but after that he went on to win many games and scored those 3,785 points, starting with 16 in Tel Aviv against Israel on May 12, 1981.
The following year, 1982, Riva won the EuroLeague with Squibb Cantu against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Cologne by the score of 86-80. Riva scored 16 points, Marzorati had 18, Bruce Flowers scored 21, CJ Kupec tallied 21 and Innocentin chipped in 6 points in a game in which the starting five of Cantu scored 84 of the team’s 86 total points. The other 2 were scored by Giorgio Cattini. Fausto Bargna played but was scoreless. Cantu won using seven players. In October of that same year, Cantu won the Intercontinental Cup against Nashua Den Bosch (70-68) with 22 points from Riva. However, I am sure that the favorite year in his memories is 1983. That year, his son Ivan was born and he repeated the EuroLeague title with Ford Cantu, this time against Billy Milan in Grenoble, 69-68. Riva scored 18 points. The culmination of that golden year came at the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes as Italy defeated Spain in the final game 105-96 with Riva hitting for 8 points.
From then until 1992, Riva never skipped a beat with the national team and he always had good numbers. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, he averaged 23.4 points to be on the all-tournament team, together with Michael Jordan and Drazen Petrovic. At the 1986 World Cup in Spain, Riva scored 19.2 points per game. He averaged 26.8 points at the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens, while in the 1989 edition in Zagreb he posted 23.3 points per game. Riva averaged 30.2 points at the 1990 World Cup in Argentina and then scored 14.0 points a game at the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome before tallying 22.1 points at the 1992 Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
If you talk about Antonello Riva, you have to talk about points and records. He set many records and some of them are still standing today. For instance, both his 797 games in the Italian League and his 23,269 minutes played are still records.
His only trophy not won with Cantu came with Philips Milan, the team he joined in 1989 after 12 years in Cantu. Riva was the most expensive transfer in the history of Italian basketball at the time. With Milan, he won the 1993 Korac Cup in Rome, against Virtus Bologna, by the score of 95-90. Milan had a great trio with Riccardo Pittis (31 points), Sasha Djordjevic (29) and Riva (18 points). One year before that, Milan and Riva had been at the 1992 EuroLeague Final Four in Istanbul but lost in semis to eventual champ Partizan Belgrade, led by Djordjevic and Predrag Danilovic. In the domestic league, Milan lost the fifth game of the final series in 1991 against Caserta, 88-97, despite playing the decisive game at home.
After Milan, Riva played two years in Scavolini Pesaro and two more in Pallacanestro Gorizia before going back to Cantu from 1998 until 2002. After that, he went to Rieti. Since retiring, Riva has more time for his family and his passions: mountain climbing, motorbikes, movies, books, skiing…
Antonello Riva, the Italian bomber.