“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!
Lolo Sainz, An ‘African’ multi-champ in Europe
Due to life circumstances, Manuel Sainz Marquez – widely known as “Lolo” – was born in Tetuan, Morocco, on August 28, 1940, but he was raised in Madrid, Spain, and lived there ever since. First, he was a very good player on the great Real Madrid teams that dominated Europe in the 1960s, and later he coached his lifelong club, though he also subsequently showed his skills on the Joventut Badalona and Spanish national team benches.
When all his successes are counted, Lolo is one of just three people to have won the top continental titles as both a player and coach, and the only one to have done so in both capacities more than once.
Curiously, the first to do so, Armenak Alachachian of CSKA Moscow, who won twice as a player and once as a coach, was also born in Africa – Alexandria, Egypt, to be exact. The third such winner, Svetislav Pesic, lifted EuroLeague titles one time each as a player and a coach. Lolo did so four times as a player and twice as a coach. All told, he was a continental champion more often than all but two people: Zeljko Obradovic, who has won nine times as a coach; and Dino Meneghin, who did so seven times as a player.
During his playing days, Lolo appeared in the finals of the former EuroLeague on five occasions. After losing his first in 1963 against CSKA Moscow, he won the next four. In 1964 against Spartak Brno, after Madrid lost the first leg of their two-game series, 99-110, he scored 8 points in the second leg, an 84-64 victory that was good for the trophy. The next season, against CSKA, he scored 9 in an 81-88 loss in Moscow and another 9 in the second leg, a 76-62 victory in Madrid. Sainz was scoreless in the 1967 final against Olimpia Milano, a 91-83 victory, and scored 6 points in the 1968 final in Lyon against Spartak Brno, which Madrid won 98-95.
Pedro Ferrandiz, the great Real Madrid coach, considered Sainz a gift and started grooming him as his heir. Those were huge shoes to fill, but Lolo was willing to listen, learn and wait for his moment. He started with the Real Madrid youth teams from 1969 to 1971, and in 1971-72 he already became Ferrandiz’s assistant with the senior team. In 1972-73 he moved to Vallhermoso Madrid for his first job as a head coach, but by the following season he was back with Los Blancos to assist Ferrandiz for two more seasons.
Lolo himself readily recognizes Ferrandiz as the most influential person in his coaching career, but he also revealed a detail that was not widely known until recently.
“In 1973, or maybe it was 1974, I spent two months in the United States at the University of Southern California. My eyes were opened there and I started looking at basketball another way,” Lolo told me a couple of years ago.
Among other European coaches who had an influence on him, he cites Dan Peterson and Aleksandar Nikolic, whom he calls “the revolutionary”.
Lolo’s true coaching career started in the summer of 1975 when, well prepared at the age of 35, he stepped up to the Real Madrid first team. He would stay there for 14 years. During this period, Lolo would become one of the winningest coaches in European basketball. With him at the reins, Madrid won EuroLeague crowns in 1978 and 1980, Saporta Cups in 1984 and 1989, and a Korac Cup in 1988. If we also add three Intercontinental Cups (1976, 1977 and 1978), that makes eight international titles. And if you think that wasn’t enough, he also won 10 Spanish League titles – eight with Real Madrid and two with Joventut (1991 and 1992) – plus four Spanish Cups with Madrid.
Lolo was also just a few seconds short of winning another EuroLeague title with Joventut, but the famous three-point shot by Sasa Djordjevic gave the continental crown to Partizan in Istanbul in 1992. Even today, Sainz admits that was the most bitter moment in his coaching career, but he also highlights that
his team managed to recover from that loss and come back to win the Spanish League.
If Istanbul was his toughest moment as a coach, the titles he took with Madrid in 1978 and 1980 are his sweetest memories. Both were won in Germany; the first in Munich against Varese, 75-67, with Walter Szczerbiak scoring 26 points; and the second in Berlin against Maccabi Tel Aviv, 89-85, with Rafael Rullan as the main player with 27 points.
The two Saporta Cups were won against Milano in 1984 and Snaidero Udine in 1989, while the Korac Cup came over Cibona, despite Drazen Petrovic’s 47 points in the second game in Zagreb. The following season, Petrovic was a Real Madrid player.
Between 1993 and 2001 Sainz was the Spanish national team head coach, winning a silver medal at the 1999 FIBA EuroBasket in France. After that he worked as a coordinator of national teams for the Spanish federation, and in 2002 he was back where he started, Real Madrid, to become general manager of the basketball section until 2005.
This, of course, is just a brief bio overview of a great coach who, between his coaching and playing days, took more than 30 titles. And behind that there was total dedication to basketball.
I don’t remember Sainz as a player, but as a coach I will never forget his passion. He lived the games with intensity and he hardly ever sat down on the bench. Always standing on the sidelines, running up and down to show his players what he wanted them to do on both ends of the court.
The game played by his teams was always joyful, fast, fun to watch and offensive-minded, with the idea of scoring one more point than the opponent. This doesn’t mean he didn’t care about defense, of course, but Lolo was old school like that. And he followed the first unwritten rule of coaching: a coach must adapt to the players he has, never the other way around.
Since he always had great players and scorers in all the teams he coached, it’s only natural that Lolo paid more attention to offensive play. He was fortunate to play alongside Clifford Luyk and Wayne Brabender – and then to coach them in later years. In his 14 years on the Real Madrid bench, he coached many greats, including Szczerbiak, Rullan, Petrovic, Mirza Delibasic, Drazen Dalipagic, Juan Antonio Corbalan, Brad Branson, Wendell Alexis, Juanma Iturriaga, Larry Spriggs, Brian Jackson, Fernando Martín, Chechu Biriukov, and Johnny Rogers. At Joventut, he worked with Jordi Villacampa, Rafa and Tomas Jofresa, Corny Thompson and Harold Pressley, while with the Spanish national team he coached Juan Antonio San Epifanio, Alberto Herreros and Andres Jimenez. In other words, Sainz was blessed to work with great players, who were capable of turning his ideas into results and titles.
His philosophy could be seen best in the Saporta Cup final on March 14, 1989, when Madrid and Petrovic played in Athens against Snaidero Caserta, which was led by another great scorer, Oscar Schmidt.
It was an unforgettable duel between two amazing scorers: Petrovic netted 62 points by playing all 45 minutes (overtime included), while Schmidt finished with 44 points in 44 minutes. Lolo only used eight of his players –really seven, because Jose Luis Llorente played just 4 minutes. The game ended 117-113 for Madrid, with Petrovic and Schmidt combining for 106 points.
Even if the style of his teams was more offensive, Lolo himself says that basketball needs balance, 50-50 between offense and defense. He laughs at the famous sentence uttered by Nikolic: “The winner is not the team who scored the most points, but the one who received the least.”
Sainz believes that is a great saying, but also that a game will be determined by the qualities of the players. He believes, for instance, that his Real Madrid defended better because it had players capable of playing great defense, while in Joventut offense prevailed over everything.
He always demanded that his players take responsibility but also joy in the game, and that they know how to handle pressure. He taught his players, but as with any great coach, he was willing to listen to – and to accept – ideas presented by his players.
Lolo has been retired for nearly 15 years now, but he is still a coach at heart. In an interview a couple of years ago he said: “You cannot erase that itch. I am a coach and I will always be. I see a lot of games on TV and I am so into them. The only difference here is that nobody listens to me!”
He also has an interesting opinion about basketball “then and now”.
“What does ‘modern basketball’ even mean?” he asked. “It has always been a modern game to me. Today I see systems and plays I already used with Real Madrid. And I didn’t invent them, by the way.”
However, he admits there have been some changes in the role of coaches. For example, the coach used to also be the sports director and his word was gospel when it came to signing players. Now, sports directors take care of that side of the business themselves.
Lolo was named Coach of the Year three times in Spain, in 1977, 1985 and 1991, and he also was awarded silver and gold medals for the Royal Order of Sports Merit in the country, but his biggest achievement is his basketball heritage – not to mention an endless number of friends in Spain, and everywhere else, because he has always been an open and kind human being: a friend forever.