“31 Masterminds of European Basketball” was released in 2019 to profile the greatest coaching minds the game has seen on the European continent. The limited-edition book, written by EuroLeague historian Vladimir Stankovic—who began covering many of those greats in 1969—and published by Euroleague Basketball, pays tribute to the stars on the sidelines who have led teams to countless titles. Stankovic tells the stories and digs into the strategies of each of the 31 profiled coaches and in doing so paints the path to trace greatness among European basketball coaches to the 1950s. However, it’s not just about the history of European coaches; five of them will coach in the EuroLeague this season. Enjoy!
Cesare Rubini, The two-sport Hall of Famer
He may not be the only one, but he is surely the one I know best.
Cesare Rubini is a member of the Hall of Fame in two different sports: basketball and water polo. This honor is due to his double life as a sportsman who played basketball and water polo at the same time – and, to say the least, was rather successful at both. He was an international player for Italy and won medals in important competitions, but when his playing days came to an end, Rubini found even more success on the bench in basketball.
Let’s take this step by step. Rubini was born on February 11, 1923 in Trieste and grew up playing both basketball and water polo. After World War II, at age 23, he was part of the Italian national team that won the silver medal at the 1946 FIBA EuroBasket in Geneva. He wore jersey No. 8 and was the third-best scorer of the team, with an average of 7.0 points, but all 21 of his points came against Luxembourg. In the title game, Italy lost to Czechoslovakia by a tight 34-32 for what would be the first of his many medals.
The following year, Italy placed only ninth at the 1947 EuroBasket in Prague, and Rubini had similar numbers (6.4 ppg.). But before long he was European champ – in water polo – as Italy won the gold medal at Monte Carlo in 1947.
His second golden moment came at the 1948 London Olympics, also in water polo. Italy’s squad, which was later dubbed “Settebello d’oro”, won the tournament by beating the Netherlands in the medal rounds.
In the years to come, Rubini lent his talent to both sports. He played with Italy at EuroBaskets in Paris (1951) and Moscow (1953). He also won an Olympic bronze in water polo in Helsinki (1952) and European Championships bronze in Turin (1954). Additionally, he was a six-time Italian club champ in water polo with Camogli (3), Naples (2) and Milan (1). All told, he played 84 games with Italy’s national water polo team, including 43 as team captain.
As a basketball player for Olimpia Milano, he also won six Italian leagues between 1949 and 1957, some of them combining roles as a player and a coach. He was labelled as a tough player who was better on defense than offense, and despite lacking some fundamentals, he had great heart and a winning character. Starting in 1957, at 34 years old, Rubini devoted himself exclusively to coaching.
His “double life” as a sportsman was rather unique, but so was his loyalty. He spent his entire coaching career, from 1957 to 1972, with Olimpia Milano. It was during his tenure that Olimpia’s club name became a brand, a powerhouse, a winning machine. Olimpia was an attraction on the court, especially due to the “scarpette rosse” (red shoes), which were imported from the United States. But the attraction also came off the court, with their elegant suits.
The first Italian Euro champ
After dominating the Italian championship, the great goal for Rubini was the EuroLeague of the time. Milan was among the 23 teams to contest the first edition of the tournament. After playing the elimination rounds against the Amsterdam Wolves and Honved Budapest, Milan faced the Hungarian team again in the quarterfinals, but was surprisingly ousted despite having won the home game. The second attempt came in 1958-59, but Milan was eliminated due to refusing to play outdoors against Al Gezira. Milan had won 72-47 at home and it was clear that they would advance, but the team did not travel to Egypt and was banned from the competition for one year.
Milan’s next attempt came in 1962-63, but reigning champ Dinamo Tbilisi proved to be an unsurmountable obstacle in the quarter-finals. In 1963-64, Milan reached the semis, but Real Madrid was the better team. Those were the years during which the great coaching rivalry between Rubini and Pedro Ferrandiz was born. At first they were rivals and known enemies, but later they became great friends.
For the 1965-66 season, Rubini, always paying attention to his stars, formed a great team with several Italian internationals (Gulio Iellini, Gabriele Vianello, Gianfranco Pieri, Massimo Massini and Sandro Riminucci) and two great foreign players, Duane “Skip” Thoren and Bill Bradley, the future American senator.
In the first round, Milan eliminated Giessen of Germany, then Hapoel Tel Aviv, both with 2-0 sweeps. In the quarterfinals group, Milan was second behind Slavia Prague on a tiebreaker after all four teams went 3-3. Racing Mechelen of Belgium was third and Real Madrid fourth. In the head-to-head games against Madrid, the Spanish side won the first game as Clifford Luyk scored 30, but in the second Milan was better as Vianello scored 40 and Bradley 27. CSKA Moscow and AEK Athens claimed the top two spots in the other group. That year, however, FIBA experimented with a new format, the Final Four.
On March 30, 1966, Slavia defeated AEK 103-73 in the first semifinal in Milan. The next day, Milan topped CSKA 68-57 in the other semi in Bologna. After a tough battle in the final, played on April 1, Milan defeated Slavia 77-72 to win the trophy. Thoren and Vianello scored 21 apiece and Bradley 14; for Slavia, Jiri Zidek scored 20. Milan broke the game open at the start of the second half to take a 53-39 advantage in the 25th minute. Slavia reacted with a 12-0 run to get within 53-51, but lacked the strength to complete the comeback, and Milan became the first Italian team to ever lift the EuroLeague trophy.
Five years later, Rubini would add a second crown to his resume, the Saporta Cup. In the 1971 final against Spartak St. Petersburg, coached by Vladimir Kondrashin, Milan lost the first game 56-66, but then won at home, 71-52. Art Kenny, the American big man, led the team with 19 points, while Massini added 18. For the Soviets, Alexander Belov led the way with 14 points. The following season, Olimpia Milan defended the trophy successfully in a single-game final against Crvena Zvezda Belgrade, winning by 74-70 in Thessaloniki, Greece, in front of 8,000 fans. Kenny scored 23, Renzo Bariviera added 14 and Massini 12. Zvezda, coached by Bata Djordjevic (Sasa’s father), had the great trio of Zoran Slavnic (12), Ljubodrag Simonovic (18) and Dragan Kapicic (16) as main contributors, but it was not enough for a first European title. With the game tied 69-69 in the 38th minute, Rubini ordered all passes to go to Kenny, who won the game. Milan also won the Italian Cup that season, beating Aza Nikolic’s Ignis Varese 81-77 behind 24 points by Giuseppe Brumatti.
As a coach, Rubini was practical. He was not in love with the chalkboard, drawings and other “American inventions”. His main weapons were his instinct, feeling and an ability to read the game and make the right decisions at the right moments.
For tactics he had Sandro Gamba, first as a player and later as an assistant in Milan. Rubini was also a great speaker, motivator and psychologist, who knew how to find the “soul” of the player. He always strived for his team to play an exciting, fast and entertaining game for the fans. He earned the nickname “The Prince” because he excelled at everything.
Rubini believed in his stars to the point of fighting against the Italian federation. Once, in the 1963-64 season, he was mad because Alessandro Riminucci had not been called to the national side. Riminucci, the captain of the Italian squad at the World Cup in 1963, was being taught a lesson of sorts by the national selectors because they blamed him for the team’s seventh-place finish. So, for a game against Treviso, Rubini asked his team to play for Riminucci, who ended up scoring 77 points and setting an Italian League record. Carlton Myers would score 87 points in 1995, but that was in the second division.
Boss in the federation
When Rubini left Milan, he left behind 501 wins in 601 games, or a winning percentage of 83.3%. He also went 21-8 in the Italian Cup and 68-21 in European competitions. Then, in 1976, he became the sports director of the national team. At the Moscow Olympics in 1980, his best pupil, Gamba, won the silver medal as coach, but much of the credit went to Rubini himself. It was his second Olympics success, some 32 years after he medaled in 1948 in water polo.
At the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes, the duo of Gamba and Rubini led Italy to the gold medal and a first crown for Italy, which would get the bronze two years later in Germany. His last trophy was silver from the 1991 EuroBasket in Roma, with Gamba still as the coach.
In 1994, Rubini received well-deserved recognition when he was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. Six years later he received the same honor from the International Swimming Hall of Fame. In 2006 he was inducted into the Italian basketball Hall of Fame and, in 2013, posthumously, into the FIBA Hall of Fame.
Rubini passed away on February 8, 2011. However, as is always the case with great individuals, his work and his results will always be remembered.