“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!
Franco Casalini, The first Final Four winner
Alright, alright. True connoisseurs of European basketball will have already spotted that this chapter’s title is not entirely correct.
In 1966, Cesare Rubini won the Final Four in Bologna with Milan and, the following year, Pedro Ferrandiz did the same with Real Madrid. However, those two tournaments were experiments by FIBA and were soon discontinued, so we could argue that the true history of the Final Four started in 1988 in Ghent, Belgium. And the winner that year was Milan, again, with Franco Casalini at the helm. Coincidentally, it was also his first year as a coach after spending 10 years as an assistant, nine of them to his mentor, Dan Peterson.
Though that was the start of a great coaching career, Casalini always mentioned the influence on him of a few great coaches with whom he worked and from whom he learned a lot.
His path was slow and taken step by step, but always in the right direction. He coached young players for 12 years, with his biggest success coming in the Italian youth championship he won for Milan in 1978, with a generation of 1959-born players.
Even though Casalini already had a bit of American influence at that stage thanks to Peterson, he also learned a great deal from Dean Smith and Jim McGregor, two great coaches who spent summers in Milan. Casalini recalls that Smith taught him how a team must play according to its physical qualities, while from McGregor he learned how a team that wants to run must play.
Casalini also never forgot Rubini, his first great mentor, who taught him a rule he respected all his career: before teaching tactics to a player, one must know his character because psychology is more important than tactics.
From a year with Sandro Gamba, another great Italian coach, Casalini learned the importance of individual work; for instance, focusing on pull-up jumpers instead of layups. The years by Peterson’s side showed him “everything else” as he normally says, especially how to treat players and what it really means to be a pro. As an assistant, he had to fill in for Peterson 24 times and he won 23 of those games. He was ready.
With so much good advice under his belt, it was only a matter of time before Casalini did something important as a head coach – and he didn’t need much time at all.
His European debut took place in Bulgaria against Balkan Botevgrad; Milan won 79-93 and at home did the same, 97-88, to get into the league stage with eight teams. After 14 rounds, Partizan was first with a 10-4 record, while Aris and Milan were tied for second and third at 9-5, and Maccabi was fourth at 8-6. So those were the teams that played the Final Four in Ghent.
Maccabi defeated Partizan 87-72 in the semifinals, and Milan overcame Aris by the same score behind a great game from Bob McAdoo, with 39 points, while Ricky Brown added 28. In the title game, Milan got the best of Maccabi, 90-84, as McAdoo shined again, with 25 points and 12 rebounds.
The fall of that same year, Milan won the Intercontinental Cup, which it played at home. In the final, Milan defeated Barcelona 100-84 with McAdoo and Brown combining for 49 points. Milan also played the first McDonald’s Open in Milwaukee that year, against the Bucks and the USSR national team.
Shortly after being crowned in Europe, Milan failed to win the Italian League title, losing to Scavolini Pesaro 1-3, but the following season, the title returned to Milan.
The next season, Casalini’s team finished fifth in the Italian League regular season and was not the favorite to win the title. However, Desio was its first victim in the first round (2-1) of the playoffs, and then Benetton Treviso followed in the quarterfinals (2-0). In the semis, Milan avenged its loss to Scavolini with another 2-0 sweep and after that, five great duels marked the final series against Enichem Livorno. Milan claimed the crown by winning the fifth and final game in Livorno, 85-86.
Casalini then left Milan and went to coach Virtus Rome from 1992 through 1994. In 1993, the team reached the Korac Cup final, which was a two-legged all-Italian affair between Rome and Casalini’s former team, Milan. In the Italian capital, Milan won 90-95 thanks to amazing performances by Ricky Pittis (31 points) and Sasa Djordjevic (29). For Virtus, Dino Radja was the best man (30 points, 11 rebounds). In the second game, Milan won 106-91 behind an unstoppable Djordjevic, who recorded 38 points, making 6 of 8 threes.
It took Casalini five more years to advance to another European final. And he did so with Olimpia Milan once again, having returned to that bench. But in the Saporta Cup final, played in Belgrade on April 14, 1998, Zalgiris Kaunas managed to win the title 82-67 with Saulius Stombergas as the main figure with 35 points.
When I asked Casalini a few years ago about the most important moments in his career, aside from the EuroLeague and the Italian League titles, he identified a few: his duels against FC Barcelona in the Korac Cup semifinals of 1992-93; the participation of Virtus Rome as the first Italian team in an NBA summer league in 1993, with a win over Portland; and a two-legged battle against Panathinaikos Athens in the 1998 Saporta Cup, when Milan came back from a 19-point deficit from Game 1 to win Game 2 by 27 points.
His basic ideas revolve around offensive basketball and individual technique being more important than athleticism. He doesn’t use these words, but he prefers a 101-100 win to a 58-57 win. In 1987-88, his Milan squad averaged 101 points per game, a record that nobody has ever touched in Italy. Such an attractive style of play was thanks to players like McAdoo and Brown, but also thanks to Mike D’Antoni, a great floor general, but also a good scorer (12.2 ppg.).
Casalini likes running fastbreaks and speedy transitions. He’s not an “enemy” of defense, but he says that he has “always worked more on the player’s pride than on detailed defensive plans.” He does, however, admit that those were “different times, when opponents knew way less about each other than today.”
From the start of his career, Casalini, who was born in Milan on New Year’s Day in 1952, believed that the best players had to play more and play better. He wasn’t keen on rotations and sharing the minutes with all players. His stars used to average 30 minutes or more on the court, and they all posted impressive numbers, like McAdoo and Brown in 1987-88 or McAdoo and Antonello Riva (28.5 and 27.5 points per game, respectively) in 1988-89. Those stars were also given a great deal of freedom. Casalini’s systems were important, but he respected ideas and improvised solutions by his players, as long as they worked.
After his successes in Italy, Casalini continued his career in Switzerland, where he won two national cups with Vaccalo. After that, he retired in 2000, which many people thought was a little premature. He had coached 173 Italian League games and won 92 of them (53.2%).
After he left the sidelines, basketball gained a great new TV commentator. His first experiences came in 1994, when he collaborated with Tele+, but his popularity skyrocketed in later years with Sky Italia. He was a voice with authority, a wise man who not only commented about what happened on the court, but also about what happened before the game started. It’s a coaching thing. And it’s great for basketball.