“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!
Mike D’Antoni – The NBA’s first “European” head coach
As 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 head coach in the NBA. After all, he also holds an Italian passport. Plus, his having played in Italy with Olimpia Milano between 1977 and 1990 and started his coaching career in the same country between 1990 and 1997, at Olimpia Milano and Benetton Treviso, left some traces in D’Antoni’s development as a coach. I am sure his American foundations, which started with his father, a long-time coach, were at least influenced by the European school of basketball. When he went back to the United States to join the Denver Nuggets in 1997, getting promoted to the head of the bench for the strike-shortened 1998-99 season, D’Antoni was a rookie coach in 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 doubt. Only a few years later, D’Antoni was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2005, because of his great season with the Phoenix Suns. However, this is a story dedicated to the player in D’Antoni, one of the best Americans to ever grace European courts.
After having played at Marshall University, D’Antoni was drafted in 1973 by Kansas City. He played there for two seasons and nine games of a third one. He spent the rest of that third season with the St. Louis Spirits of the ABA and then returned to the NBA for the next one with the San Antonio Spurs, but played little. When, in the summer of 1977, he landed in Milan to play with Olimpia, D’Antoni was literally unknown in Europe. His arrival was all due to the fact that Olimpia general manager Cesare Rubini and coach Filippo Faina – both backed by president Dr. Adolfo Bogoncelli – had positive reports of 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, had this 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.”
Peterson’s wish was granted fast. Olimpia Milan called Peterson to coach in 1978-79 and he stayed there until 1987. If anyone can describe Mike D’Antoni best, it’s Peterson:
“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 those players with a natural gift for 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 scorer, but if points were what the team needed, he was there to score 20 or more. In 1990, he was chosen as the starting point guard on a 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 Italian 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 he won: in 1987 against Maccabi in Lausanne (71-69) and one year later in Ghent, Belgium in the first Final Four of the new era, once again against Maccabi, 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 super team. In Ghent, D’Antoni played all 40 minutes. He scored 17 points with no two-point shots, making 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 the occasion of the 50 Years of European Club Competitions celebration 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 92-85. I also saw D’Antoni in the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb. At some point before that, using his Italian heritage, he obtained an Italian passport and accepted playing for the national team. The Zagreb EuroBasket, with only eight teams, was rather short. In the semis, Yugoslavia (the eventual champ) beat Italy 97-80 with D’Antoni being held scoreless. 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 also had good shooting percentages: 45.7% on two-pointers and 40.0% on threes.
As a coach, first in Milan (1990 to 1994) and later in Benetton (1994 to 1997), D’Antoni won two Italian Leagues, one Italian Cup, a Saporta Cup and a Korac Cup. He had 212 wins in 306 games (69.2%) to rank among the best coaches all-time in the Italian League. He was an assistant coach to Mike Krzyzewski for Team USA at the World Cup 2006 in Japan, winning a bronze medal, and also at the 2012 London Olympics, winning the gold.
To end this entry, I’d like to quote once more Dan Peterson, who gives us some more details and insight into 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, Lewis, 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.