“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!
Dino Meneghin – The eternal champion
In a hypothetical quiz of European basketball history knowledge, these could be 10 questions:
1. What player spent 28 years in a very competitive league?
2. What player won 10 European trophies?
3. What player reached 10 straight EuroLeague finals and won five of them?
4. What player won four Intercontinental Cups?
5. What player played against his son in a league game?
6. What player and his 16-year younger son played together and became European champions with their national team?
7. What player and his son were national club champions with the same club?
8. What player was the first European to be chosen in the NBA draft?
9. What player was a member of the national team, a national team manager and president of his country’s federation?
10. What Italian player is featured both in the Springfield and FIBA Halls of Fame?
I could add some more to the list, but the answer would always be Dino Meneghin. His brilliant career cannot be compared to anyone or anything. He is an unprecedented example in the history of our sport and probably of any sport. Nobody, be it as a player or as a director, has ever lasted so long and given so much to basketball as Dino “Nacionale”.
Debut at 16 years old
The sporting career of a young, tall and strong Dino Meneghin started in the late 1950s, when the young man was with his older brother Ren-zo on the athletics track at Varese stadium. Renzo was a middle-distance runner while Dino, because of his physical build, was to choose between the shot put and discus. But destiny, as so many other times, changed a life forever. In 1963, there was a basketball tournament among a few schools in Varese. The physical education teacher at Dino’s school was Nicola Messina, who also happened to be collaborating with Ignis Varese, the local basketball club. As he was looking for players for the team to play in the tournament, Messina took a long look at Dino, a tall kid with broad shoulders.
“Have you ever played basketball before?” was the question from Messina to Dino. “No, never” was the answer. “Run back and forth and do some moves,” the coach’s said next. A couple of sprints were enough for Messina to recognize a talent. His next words were: “Come to practice tomorrow with a pair of basketball shoes.”
In his autobiography, “Passi da Gigante”, Meneghin joyfully recalls how he went to his mother to ask for “scarpe da basket” (basketball shoes) and the answer he got from his mom was: “Dino, what is basketball?”
Only three years later, on November 20, 1966, in a game between Ignis Varese and Cassera Bologna that his team won 76-54, Dino Meneghin’s name appeared for the first time on a box score. He was 16 years and 11 months old. Not even Dino himself could have imagined then that a brilliant career that would last 28 years and earn him 36 trophies was just beginning.
Dino Meneghin is not, by any means, the biggest natural talent that I have ever seen. But nobody ever earned so much respect due to his professionalism, sacrifice, desire to win, character, charisma, leadership or indisputable authority. At “only” 2.04 meters, he was not a pure center, not even during his time, but he always played close to the boards and battled against men bigger than him. His body was like the statue of a Greek god: broad shoulders, long hands and a natural strength that allowed him to fight and prevail over bigger rivals.
The long list of records
If I remember correctly, I saw Meneghin for the first time in the 1969 EuroBasket, played in Caserta and Naples. He was younger than team-mates Aldo Ossola, Carlo Recalcati, Enzo Bariviera, Massimo Masini, Marino Zanatta, Giuseppe Brumatti and Ivan Bisson. But the first game I vividly remember with him was between Italy and Yugoslavia at the World Cup 1970 in Ljubljana. It was the first game, very tense, and only decided on the final plays thanks to the genius Kresimir Cosic, who authored 27 points and 22 rebounds. Meneghin finished with 10 points in his first duel with Cosic, who was two years older. Their rivalry would last for another 13 years, until the final of the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes, France, with a win for Italy, 91-76. But above everything, there was always the maximum respect between the two big men, the best of their era. It’s not by chance that Meneghin remembers with respect and love his biggest rival, Kresimir Cosic.
In the same year of 1970, Dino Meneghin also became the first Europe-an player to be selected in the NBA draft. Yes, he was chosen in the 11th and final round by the Atlanta Hawks, but he never played in the NBA because, at the time, that meant giving up playing for the national team. Dino’s world was Europe and for many years he played in his first club, Ignis Varese. From his debut in 1966 until 1980, he played there and won seven Italian Leagues, four Italian Cups and five EuroLeagues while reaching an unprecedented 10 consecutive finals in the top European competition. There were also three Intercontinental Cup and a pair of Saporta Cup titles, too. Truth be told, Meneghin did not play the 1975 final against Real Madrid, a 79-66 win for Varese, because he broke his hand one week before the big game, but the win was also his. In the nine EuroLeague finals he played with Varese, he scored more than 20 points six times.
When Dino decided to sign for Olimpia Milano in the 1980-81 season, he was already a veteran. However, in the following nine years he would extend his résumé by winning five more Italian Leagues, two Italian Cups, two EuroLeagues, another Intercontinental Cup, and his first Korac Cup. In 1990, at age 40, he accepted the call from Bogdan Tanjevic, then the coach of Stefanel Trieste, who was starting to build a great team by signing future stars like Gregor Fucka, Claudio Pilutti and Alessandro de Pol. All that was missing was an expert hand, and Dino Meneghin, despite his age, was the perfect solution. The following year Tanjevic would also have Dejan Bodiroga on the team, and a great team finally jelled to win the double crown in Italy – the league and the cup – in 1995-96. Dino did not play on that team, having retired at the end of the 1994-95 season, but the triumph had a lot to do with him, too.
Behind him were 28 Italian League seasons spanning 836 games, 8,560 points (10.3 per game) and 5,588 rebounds (6.7 per game). For the Italian national team, he played 271 and scored 2,947 points. Only the great shooter Antonello Riva scored more. I was lucky to see Meneghin’s biggest successes with Italy: a bronze medal in the 1975 EuroBasket in Belgrade; a silver medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics; and, most of all, the gold medal at the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes. He was part of a great Italian team that year with Pierluigi Marzorati, Marco Bonamico, Ario Costa, Renato Villalta, Antonello Riva, Romeo Sacchetti, Roberto Brunamonti, Alberto Tonut and Renzo Vecchiato. Meneghin finished in the tourney with 11.3 points per game, but he was a player whose real importance could never be revealed by stats alone. He was a leader and an authority for his teammates, rivals, fans and even the referees.
The most emotional moment of his career was probably on November 15, 1990, when, playing for Trieste, he had to face his former Varese team, where Andrea Meneghin, a 16-year old kid, was playing. It was a father-and-son duel. The father won 93-89 as Dino scored 6 points and pulled down 4 boards while Andrea didn’t score in 7 minutes on the court. Andrea made his debut in the first team at the same age as his father did and scored 15 points when Varese won the Italian League title on May 6, 1999, with a 77-71 victory against Benetton Treviso. That same year, Italy won its second gold medal in a EuroBasket in France, with Andrea Meneghin playing a key role, averaging 11.2 points in more than 30 minutes per game. Dino was on the bench as the team manager and the coach was Tanjevic, an important man for the two Meneghins.
In 2003, Dino Meneghin entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield and thus became the second Italian to achieve that honor, after Cesare Rubini. In 2010 Meneghin was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame. He has also served as president of the Italian Basketball Federation in an effort to take Italy back to the level it had been at when he was playing, when he was as great as a basketball Dino-saur!