“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!
Ettore Messina, The first EuroLeague champion
Ettore Messina will always have a place in the history of our game and, for me: he will always be the first coach to ever win the EuroLeague in its new era.
It was May 10, 2001. Kinder Bologna, coached by Messina, and Tau Ceramica Vitoria were contesting the fifth and decisive game of the final series in the Italian city. For its first season, the new EuroLeague – organized and owned by the clubs – had decided to go with a playoff format rather than a Final Four, which returned the following season and remains to this day. The formula for the best-of-five final series was 2-2-1, and Tau had made it out of Bologna with a 1-1 tie. However, it still went to the final game because Kinder also managed to pull off a road win in Vitoria.
The last game ended 82-74 for Messina’s team, Kinder. Antoine Rigaudeau scored 18 points, Manu Ginobili and Marko Jaric netted 16 each, Rashard Griffith 14 and a young Matjaz Smodis 5. On the other side, Elmer Bennett led Tau with 24 points and Fabricio Oberto scored 15. The Tau roster also had names like Luis Scola, Victor Alexander and Saulius Stombergas. That’s what I call two major lineups!
Coach at 17 years old
When they are 17 years old, most basketball people think about their playing careers, but Ettore Messina was already on the bench, coaching young players at Reyer Venezia.
In fact, Messina, who was born on September 30, 1959 in the Italian town of Catania, remembers how his career as a player came to an end. His coach at the time, Tonino Zorzi, was brutally honest with him, saying, “I don’t think you can ever be a good player, but when I see you coaching the young kids, I really think you can be a good coach.” It was a spot-on insight, and the club paid for Messina’s first year at coaching school.
In an e-mail he sent me from San Antonio, where he is working as an assistant coach with the Spurs, Messina remembered all his teachers, right back to those early days. He recognizes that he learned a great deal from Massimo Mangano, Piero Bucchi and, of course, greats Sandro Gamba and Dan Peterson. Messina also highlights an “incredible experience with Kreso Cosic, who was the one that opened my eyes to the importance of smaller players and three-point shooting.”
Messina also wrote that he was fortunate to have been able to talk many times with “Professor” Aleksandar Nikolic, a true wise man who “was very kind to me” and to whom “I owe a lot.”
As the very polite person he is, neither does Messina forget about all the directors who put their money on him when he was still very young. He was the director of player development for Virtus Bologna at 23, head coach at 29 and Italian national team coach at 33.
Messina’s true career started in 1989 when he became head coach at Virtus Bologna, an ambitious club that was expanding. In his rookie season, Messina already won his first title: the Saporta Cup. In the final, played on March 13, 1990, in Florence, Virtus defeated Real Madrid 79-74. Michael Ray Richardson led the winners with 29 points on 4-for-6 shooting from behind the arc. Claudio Coldebella added 16 points and Roberto Brunamonti had a key role in running the team. Real Madrid coach George Karl had to admit defeat, despite strong efforts from Anthony Frederick (21 points) and Mike Anderson (20).
The next goal for Virtus was the EuroLeague, but first Messina and fans would have to wait a little bit and suffer some disappointments. In the 1991-92 season, Partizan Belgrade beat Virtus in their quarterfinal series by winning the decisive game in Bologna. However, that was when Messina discovered a young player by the name of Predrag Danilovic, who would go on to become one of the most important players in Bologna over the next few years.
In Italy, the titles started to arrive: the Italian Cup in 1990 and the Italian League title in 1993. But the fans wanted the European crown. That moment finally arrived in April 1998. Bologna had a fearsome team with great Italian players like Augusto Binelli, Alessandro Abio, Alessandro Frosini, Riccardo Morandotti and Claudio Crippa, plus some good foreigners in Rigaudeau, Rasho Nesterovic, Hugo Sconochini, Zoran Savic and Danilovic, who was back for a second time after a stint in the NBA.
In the first phase, Bologna showed its intentions with a 9-1 record to finish first, and after the second phase its record was 13-3. In the playoffs, Messina’s men swept Estudiantes Madrid 2-0 in the first round. After that, the victim was cross-town rival TeamSystem Bologna, also by 2-0, which was worth a ticket for the Final Four in Barcelona.
In the semifinals, Bologna thrashed Partizan 83-61, with Savic as the leader with 23 points. In the title game, the victim was AEK Athens 58-44 thanks to some fierce defense. The few points scored were shared among many players: Rigaudeau 14, Danilovic 13, Sconochini 10, Savic 7, Nesterovic 6. It was a team success, one of Messina’s features, even though he always liked to have a star on the team to take responsibility in key moments. Danilovic was one: he had a four-point play against Dominique Wilkins on May 31, 1998, to come from 4 points behind and send the game to overtime, allowing Bologna to win the Italian League against Teamsystem.
Eye and courage for youngsters
Messina is a very meticulous coach, preparing games to the last detail. But if one of his features stands out it is a clinical eye to spot talent, along with the courage and patience to believe in youngsters and give them the time to return his trust. There is a long list of stars who reached glory as Messina pupils at one point or another: Nesterovic, Ginobili, Jaric and Smodis in Bologna; Nikita Kurbanov, Alexey Shved and Andrey Vorontsevich at CSKA Moscow; Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez, Ante Tomic and Nikola Mirotic in Real Madrid, to name just a few.
His third and fourth EuroLeague titles arrived in 2006 and 2008 as coach of CSKA Moscow. He came out on top in the 2006 Final Four in Prague against Maccabi Tel Aviv (73-69), and emotions ran high because it was CSKA’s return to the throne after 35 years. The title was dedicated to the great master Alexander Gomelskiy, who had passed away shortly before the start of that season. That CSKA team was a force to be reckoned with, and it had a leader in Theodoros Papaloukas (18 points and 7 assists in the final).
Two years later, Euroleague Basketball celebrated 50 years of European basketball competitions at the Final Four in Madrid, and CSKA defeated Maccabi again, 81-77. Trajan Langdon was named MVP thanks to his 21 points, and he was supported by J.R. Holden (14 points), Ramunas Siskauskas (13), Smodis (13) and David Andersen (13). Messina was named Coach of the Year in the competition, an award bearing the name of Gomelskiy.
After much success in CSKA, Messina moved to Spain to join Real Madrid. For reasons that were never quite clear, his work never produced the desired fruits, and it was the only time in his career that Messina resigned, stepping down in March 2011. The following season he was Mike Brown’s assistant coach at the Los Angeles Lakers before, during the summer of 2012, Messina returned to CSKA and managed to take the team back to two Final Fours, although another title could not be secured: in 2013 in London, Olympiacos was the better team in the semifinals, 69-52; a year later in Milan, also in the semifinals, CSKA fell to Maccabi 67-68 in unbelievable fashion, a game that is maybe the sourest memory of Messina’s career.
In 2014, Messina returned to the NBA, this time to San Antonio to be Gregg Popovich’s assistant. During the pre-season, due to Popovich’s absence, Messina became the first European-born coach of an NBA team in an official game. He was subsequently the coach of record in two regular season games in November 2014, against Indiana (106-100) and Sacramento (112-104), and later against Indiana again (91-99) and Minnesota (116-91). It made for a memorable sight, seeing a European give instructions to stars like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and his former pupil in Bologna, Ginobili.
Messina has won a total of 25 club titles: four EuroLeagues, one Saporta Cup, four Italian Leagues, five Russian Leagues, seven Italian Cups, two Russian Cups and two VTB League titles.
He was also the Italian national team coach between 1993 and 1997, winning the silver medal at the 1997 FIBA EuroBasket in Barcelona. He lost to Yugoslavia by 49-61 in the final against another coaching legend, Zeljko Obradovic, who has been Messina’s greatest rival over the last two decades.
I think Messina’s philosophy could fit into one sentence:
“The coach must be a good person; someone who respects everyone else, but who also must have enough strength to make everyone else respect him.”
These are some of his other statements regarding his job:
“A great player or a great team deliver under maximum pressure.”
“As a coach, you need three consistent players.”
“The best players must have basketball empathy for their teammates.”
And another about ethics and responsibility:
“They do not depend on your salary, but on how you see your life in the gym.”
He once said: “You cannot make everyone happy throughout your life. But if most people respect you, maybe you did something right,”
And he didn’t just do “something”, but a lot for basketball, his country and the clubs for which he has worked.