“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!
Pierluigi Marzorati – A Cantu legend
When Bennet Cantu rejoined the EuroLeague for a couple of seasons earlier this decade and I saw again the great atmosphere in the arena there, it was time to remember the greatest star ever for that club, Pierluigi Marzorati.
A historic club from a small town near Milan, Cantu has 12 international trophies – two EuroLeagues Cups, four Saporta Cups, four Korac Cups and two Intercontinental Cups – not to mention three Italian Leagues and four Italian Cups. If someone only looks at the list of the winners of the old European competitions, he could become confused by the variety of names beside Cantu: Forst, Squib, Ford, Gabetti, Clear. But all of them refer to the same club, Pallacanestro Cantu. The glory of this humble club, founded in 1936, started with its first Italian League trophy in 1968. Borislav Stankovic, the future Secretary General of FIBA, was on the bench and Carlo Recalcati was the best player. The following season, at only 17 years old, a youngster named Pierluigi Marzorati arrived to the team. He was considered a great prospect for Italian basketball, and with his arrival, a golden era of Cantu basketball was ready to begin.
Behind a skinny body, 1.87 meters tall, one could find in Pierluigi Marzorati, who was born on September 12, 1952, a scorer with great technique and a passer with heavenly court vision. Marzorati was one of those point guards who could score 25 points if necessary or just a couple if, on those nights, his teammates needed only to follow his perfect floor generalship and assists. Upon arrival in Cantu, Marzorati formed a lethal guard duo with Recalcati. Over the next years, many good foreigners arrived to help build the great Cantu, but that Marzorati-Recalcati tandem, backed by several more good Italian players, was the key to success. The foreigners came and went, but Marzorati and his Italian teammates were always there.
The first big success for the humble club was the 1973 Korac Cup. Under the name Forst Pallacanestro, the team from Cantu beat Maes Pils of Belgium in two games, with Recalcati (30 points) and Bill Drozdiak (24) as the stars, but Marzorati was already an important player. The following season, Forst defended the title by beating Partizan Belgrade in the final. In Cantu, they won 99-86 and in Belgrade, Cantu prevailed again 75-68. That was the first time I saw Marzorati live. In 1975, Forst took its third straight Korac Cup, this time against FC Barcelona, winning 71-69 in Barcelona, with 16 points from Marzorati, and then by 110-85 at home as the great guard scored 27 points. That same year, at the EuroBasket played in Yugoslavia, I saw Marzorati with the Italian national team and I remember a close, 69-65 defeat to the USSR despite his 14-point effort. I saw him again in March 1977 on neutral ground in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, when Forst won its first Saporta Cup, beating Radnicki Belgrade 87-86 despite a great game by Srecko Jaric, the father of Marko Jaric, who scored 30 points. Radnicki’s second-best scorer in that game was the late Milun Marovic (29 points), an engineer like Marzorati, who died in 2009 in a car accident in Libya.
We met again at the 1977 EuroBasket in Liege, Belgium, where Italy reached the semis; at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow (the final was an 86-77 Yugoslavia win over Italy); and at the 1981 EuroBasket in Nantes (Italy’s first win against Spain by the score of 105-96 featured 12 points from Marzorati). Between 1977 and 1981, Cantu – under the names Forst, Gabetti and Squib – played five Saporta Cup finals and won four of them, losing only to its archrival, Varese, by 90-88 after overtime. In all of those finals, Marzorati had a protagonist’s role, together with Recalcati, Antonello Riva, Fabrizio Della Fiori, Renzo Bariviera, John Newman, Tom Boswell and Bruce Flowers. In the 1981 final, Cantu defeated the Barcelona team of Juan Antonio San Epifanio, Joan Creus, Nacho Solozabal, Chicho Sibilio, Jeff Ruland and Mike Phillips.
But the best years for Cantu were yet to come. After a first failed attempt in 1975-76, when the team reached the semifinals but lost to its nemesis Varese, and after having just lifted its third Italian League trophy, Cantu managed to win the EuroLeague in 1982 by beating Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final 86-80 on March 25 of that year. Charles Kupec and Bruce Flowers were the best scorers, with 23 and 21 points, respectively, but the man of the game was Marzorati, who scored 18 points and won his particular duel with Maccabi playmaker Motti Aroesti.
In the 1982-83 season, Ford Cantu played the EuroLeague as the defending champion. Milano had won the Italian League that year, so two Italian teams were in the competition and they happened to meet in the title game. After a 40-minute drama, Cantu escaped with a 69-68 victory after a missed shot by Franco Boselli with 3 seconds to go and a legendary block by Jim Brewer on Vittorio Gallinari after his own offensive rebound. Cantu was the back-to-back continental champion. Cantu’s list of trophies was completed with two Intercontinental Cups, in1975 and 1982. The pictures of the great captain Marzorati with the trophy have a privileged spot in the club offices nowadays.
Comeback at 54 years old
Pierluigi Marzorati played with Pallacanestro Cantu from 1969 to 1991. He won 12 trophies, played 692 games and scored 8,659 points. He also scored 2,209 points in 278 Italian national team games. Looking at the calendar, he played for the club of his life during four different decades. In October of 2006, for the 70th anniversary of the club, Marzorati came back to play against Benetton Treviso at the age of 54. He spent less than 2 minutes on the court, but Cantu won 70-69 and its gesture to the great captain remains as a curiosity for the history books.
After his retirement, Cantu had suffered a lot and even descended into second division in 1994. The recovery was slow, but eventually, Bennet Cantu managed to reach two finals in Italy and earned the right to return to the EuroLeague. Marzorati blamed the problems of Cantu on the Bosman ruling and the excessive number of foreign players, which closed the door for many national talents. When I spoke to him not long ago, he had no doubt that the best players of his era could have played in the NBA with no problems. He didn’t want to give me any names, but he highlighted his great rivals Dragan Kicanovic and Juan Antonio Corbalan. While he was still playing, Marzorati finished his degree in engineering. Upon retirement, he formed his own company. He did not have any role in the club, but he never misses a Cantu game, if he can help it.
Perluigi Marzorati, a Cantu legend.