“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!
Carlo Recalcati – Owner of two European three-peats
It was in 1963 when somebody at FIBA had a great idea: organizing continental tournaments for the junior category. The first edition of the FIBA European Championship for Junior Men was in 1964 in Naples, Italy with only eight teams: USSR, France, Yugoslavia and Spain in Group A, and Bulgaria, Italy, Poland and Czechoslovakia in Group B. From that first edition came many future stars: Modestas Paulauskas and Zurab Sakandelidze (USSR), Jiri Zednicek (Czechoslovakia), Aldo Ossola and Carlo Recalcati (Italy) and Vicente Ramos (Spain). The Yugoslav team included a future prominent head coach, Bogdan Tanjevic, just like Recalcati would also become.
The top scorer of that tournament was Paulauskas with 21.2 points, including 36 points against Yugoslavia. The first champ was the USSR, a 62-41 winner against France in the final. Italy won the bronze against Bulgaria, 73-72. Recalcati’s point column was empty in that game and his biggest contribution was in the game against the USSR, with 8 points.
That first tournament was played in early April. Carlo Recalcati, who was born on September 11, 1945, was 18 years old and had a bright future ahead. He was a shooting guard who, standing 1.84 meters, could also play at point guard, depending on his team’s needs. He started in Pavia and at 14 years old he was already in Cantu with a clear idea of making a living in basketball. He was taken to Cantu by Gianni Corsolini, one of the three men whom Recalcati himself considers most important to his career as a player.
The other two men are coaches Arnaldo Taurisano and Borislav Stankovic. In an article written by Recalcati, he explained that he learned “technical things” from Taurisano, “political things” from Stankovic and “the relationship with teammates” from Corsolini. Stankovic, the future FIBA secretary general, had been a Yugoslav champion coach with OKK Belgrade, starring Radivoj Korac, and had reached the semifinals of the EuroLeague. In 1967-68, Stankovic coached Orasonda Cantu and became the first foreign coach to win the Italian League title. Cantu won 18 games and only lost four, and it had a balanced team. Recalcati was its top scorer, with 18.5 points, 10th best in the league. When I spoke to him 47 years later, Stankovic had these memories of that season and of Recalcati:
“It was a team that won the league with, essentially, six players. There were more, but six played all the time: Recalcati, [Antonio] Frigerio, [Carlos] D’Aquila, [Alberto] De Simone, [Bob] Burgess and [Alberto] Merlati. Carlo was a confident shooter. He didn’t waste too many possessions. He was a very ‘economical’ player, with high precision. He was lacking a bit in the physical aspect and a couple more centimeters would have helped him become a superstar. But despite all that, he was a great player.”
Stankovic says that back then, he could not see the coaching potential in Recalcati:
“He showed interest in basketball. He liked to discuss the theory of the game, but I never realized he wanted to be a coach. But he was very young. He would play for 10 more years and discovered his talent for the bench a little further down the road.”
The legendary Stankovic was very proud of that title in Italy:
“Cantu was a small town and our title was a big sensation. However, it established the foundations for a great team in a small town that would later become European champion. We played with three big men – Merlati, Burgess, who had arrived from Real Madrid, and helped us a lot on defense, and De Simone – and that was new. The Italian press called these three players the ‘Cantu Wall’. In the backcourt were two smaller men, one of them always Recalcati, who ran a lot. And it worked.”
The league title in 1968 was the first in a successful career for Carlo Recalcati. Before he retired in 1981, he would win eight more: another league crown in 1975, three Korac Cups, three Saporta Cups, and the Intercontinental Cup of 1975. With seven titles in international cups, he is one of the most decorated players in European history.
Before that unforgettable 1967-68 season, Recalcati had made his debut with the Italian senior national team as well. On May 13, 1967, he played his first game in Naples against Poland. That same year he played at his first World Cup, in Uruguay, and scored his first 3 points with the national jersey against Mexico. He ended up with an average of 7 points in that tournament. That fall, still in 1967, he played the EuroBasket in Helsinki (9.1 points) and in 1968 he represented Italy in the Olympics in Mexico (9.1 points). In 1969 he was back to Naples to play another EuroBasket (10.0 points) already as a national team leader.
Recalcati’s career in the national team came to an end in 1975 after 166 games and a total of 1,239 points. He had won two bronze medals, in the 1971 and 1975 EuroBaskets, and played in the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana. I am sure I had seen Recalcati during those EuroBaskets or the Mexico Olympics, but my first memory of him is from that Ljubljana tournament. In a tense game between Italy and Yugoslavia, the latter won 66-63 thanks only to the genius of Kresimir Cosic, who had 27 points and 22 rebounds. Recalcati shined for the Italian team with his 22 points including 4 of 4 free throws. His average in Ljubljana was 11.2 points.
Three-peat in the Korac Cup
After a discreet EuroBasket in 1971 (2.3 points but with a bronze medal) Recalcati won his first international trophy, the Korac Cup, in 1973. In a two-leg final, Cantu defeated Maes Pils of Belgium 106-75 at home with 21 points by Pierluigi Marzorati and 20 from Recalcati. In the second game, the Belgian team won by just 9 points, 94-85, as Recalcati netted 30 points.
The following season, Cantu reached the final again in the same competition, and this time the opponent was Partizan Belgrade, coached by Ranko Zeravica, with Dragan Kicanovic and Drazen Dalipagic as its main weapons. It was a great showdown between probably the best duos in Europe at that moment: Marzorati and Recalcati against Kicanovic and Dalipagic. In the first game, Cantu won at home 99-86 with 24 points by Recalcati, 22 by Bob Lienhard, 20 by Fabrizio Della Fiori and 18 by Marzorati. Kicanovic led Partizan with 24 points and Dalipagic added 22. In the second game, Partizan won 75-68, but it just couldn’t make up the point difference. Dalipagic (25) and Kicanovic (22) were not enough as Cantu had a better team and distributed points more evenly: Marzorati and Antonio Farina had 18 points each while Recalcati and Lienhard both scored 12.
The Korac Cup three-peat for Cantu and Recalcati came in 1974-75. The opponent in the final was FC Barcelona, with Zeravica on the bench. In Barcelona on March 18, Cantu defeated Barça by the score of 71-69 with 20 points by Lienhard, 18 by Della Fiori and 16 from Marzorati. Recalcati got stuck at 4 points in that game. The second game in Cantu turned into an offensive festival for the hosts, who won 110-85. Marzorati led the way with 27 points, Lienhard had 18 and Recalcati contributed 14.
The year 1975 was golden one Recalcati and Cantu. After winning that third Korac Cup, their second league title followed. Cantu and Ignis Varese were tied with 22-4 records after the regular season, but in the phase for the title, Cantu was best. Recalcati, already 30 years old, was the top scorer of his team with 19.7 points.
In the 1975 EuroBasket in Belgrade, Italy won the bronze medal, the second in Recalcati’s career, as he averaged 6.0 points. To top that year off, Cantu was also Intercontinental Cup champ. In a six-team tourney, Cantu was the host. The decisive game was on the fourth day against Real Madrid. After 40 minutes, the score was tied at 86-86. In overtime, Cantu won 96-94. Despite having lost to Varese in the previous game, Cantu became champ by defeating Madrid, with whom it shared a 4-1 record, in their direct duel. Marzorati scored 21 points, Lienhard had 13 and Recalcati added 10. The 1976 Olympics in Montreal was Recalcati’s last big competition at the international level.
Luca Chiabotti, a prestigious journalist at La Gazzetta dello Sport in Italy, highlighted Recalcati’s offensive style as follows:
“Carlo was an offensive player, a shooter, a natural scorer. He had good technical foundations. His style resembled that of the Americans in the 1960s and the 1970s. On top of that, he understood the game and you could see he could be a great coach.”
Three-peat in the Saporta Cup
In the 1976-77 season, Cantu played the Saporta Cup, the second European competition, reaching the final in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. The opponent was Radnicki Belgrade, whose golden generation had been Yugoslav champion in 1973. I was at this dramatic game, which Cantu won 87-86 thanks to 21 points by Recalcati and 18 by Marzorati. On the other side, Srecko Jaric – the father of Marko Jaric –nailed 30 points and big man Milun Marovic had 29. On a negative side, I remember also having to write from Palma about the tragic airplane accident that occurred two days before that final on another Spanish island, Tenerife, where a collision between two planes on the runway caused more than 500 deaths.
The following year, Cantu repeated the Saporta Cup title by beating Synudine Bologna in the final 84-82. Della Fiori (26 points) and Recalcati (14) were the top scorers. The three-peat occurred in 1979 against Den Bosch of the Netherlands in the coastal town of Porec in Croatia. Cantu won 83-73 with a team that still had Marzorati (6 points) and Recalcati (2), but already with new names like Renzo Bariviera (16 points) and Americans Johnny Neumann and David Batton, each with 20 points. It was the sixth European trophy for Recalcati. Cantu would go on to win two EuroLeague crowns, in 1982 and 1983, but by then Recalcati was no longer on the team, having left in 1979 and then retired in 1981 from Pallacanestro Parma. He had scored 6,396 points in the Italian first division. He is still among the top 50 scorers of all time in the competition.
The same year he retired, 1981, Recalcati started his brilliant career as a coach. He won three Italian League titles (Varese 1999, Fortitudo Bologna 2000, and Montepaschi Siena 2004). Only Recalcati and Valerio Bianchini have won three Italian championships with three different teams. Recalcati brought Siena to its first EuroLeague Final Four in 2004, as well, but lost the semifinal 102-103 in overtime to Skipper Bologna. Between 2001 and 2007 Recalcati was the Italian national team coach, highlighted by a brilliant silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, another reward for a basketball lifer who never stopped collecting hardware.