“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!
Pablo Laso, Coaching DNA
Pablo Laso, born in Vitoria, Spain on October 13, 1967, has met three conditions, at least, to become a coach: he was a player for 19 years, his position on the court was point guard, and his father, Pepe Laso, was also a coach. With these factors, it’s no wonder that the bench was his destination after a long and successful career as a player. Of course, I cannot guarantee 100% that point guards have more chances of becoming good coaches, but facts seem to confirm this unproven theory.
It’s only logical. The point guard is usually the right hand of his coach on the court, the main executor of the plays learned in practices, and during games, the player who sets the tempo, controls the ball, passes it or even scores himself, if the circumstances call for it and allow it.
If a coach has been a player, it is said that his philosophy mirrors that of his game when he was on the court. Pablo Laso is no exception. He was a passing guard and he’s still the Spanish League’s assists king with 2,896 total, having averaged as many as 10 per game some seasons. His basketball as a coach has the mark of his style as a player: basketball that is joyful, fast, with many assists, and with the point guards dominating, but always supported by good shooters and big men inside for rebounds.
The path of coach Laso was not as stellar as the one of Laso, the player. After 11 seasons in Baskonia, his good performances took him to Real Madrid in 1995. As a coach, he would have to travel a longer road, full of obstacles and complications. He started in the Spanish third division at Castello in 2003-04. Signing for Valencia in 2004-05 was a big step ahead, but his next two stops — Cantabria 2006-07 and Guipuzkoa 2007-08 — would not be considered additional steps forward. With the latter team, he won promotion to the Spanish first division, which was his first success as a coach.
Someone at Real Madrid had a good eye when, in the summer of 2011, they decided to sign Laso as head coach. The news happened on June 21, and for many, it seemed a risky bet. Nobody doubted Laso’s talent, but the pessimistic argued that he did not have the experience for a great club and had not won anything at that point. As always, time was the best judge. During eight seasons, after more than 500 games, Laso has won 16 titles: two EuroLeagues, four Spanish Leagues, five Spanish King’s Cups, four Spanish SuperCups and one Intercontinental Cup. He’s the third-most-crowned Real Madrid coach ever, after legends like Lolo Sainz and Pedro Ferrandiz, who are also featured in the book.
At an individual level, he won the Aleksandar Gomelskiy Trophy, awarded to the season’s best EuroLeague coach as voted by his fellow coaches, in 2015 and 2018. He has also been chosen the best coach in the Spanish League four times. In his eight EuroLeague seasons, his worst record was in 2015-16, with 12 wins and 15 losses, but several times his total number of losses in a season was just six.
His two brightest moments, not taking domestic titles for granted, were the two EuroLeague titles. The first one arrived at home in Madrid in 2015. In semis, Madrid defeated Fenerbahce by 96-87 with Gustavo Ayon (18 points, 7 rebounds) and KC Rivers (17 points, 5 of 6 threes) as the main contributors. Zeljko Obradovic was coaching that Fenerbahce team, and he had also been Laso’s master at Real Madrid, while the latter was a player on the team. The showdowns between Real Madrid and Fenerbahce have become a new European classic, with a duel of masters on the sidelines.
Laso himself commented on that game on the EuroLeague website: “We had a big lead at the half, but it was very dangerous. In the second half, we knew that something was going to happen; something was going to change. We were able to control the emotions, move the ball and get a big victory against a great team. I know Zeljko Obradovic, and I knew that they would fight until the end. I am very happy to be in this position again.”
Laso added: “We prepared for the pick-and-roll, knowing how important it would be to defend the pick-and-roll and what would happen after the pick-and-roll. Only in the last quarter were they able to hit some open jumpers.”
Zeljko Obradovic also had his say about that game: “I believe they played an excellent game tonight. I am really proud of my team to make it to the Final Four for the first time in the history of the club. It’s obvious we lost the game in the second quarter. We didn’t have an answer. Any kind of defense, they punished us.” He added: “I was proud of the reaction, but it was too hard to recover from the second quarter. This will help us in the future. And I hope Fenerbahce comes to the Final Four again in the future.”
Fenerbahce had its revenge on Madrid in the 2017 semifinal in Istanbul, a game it won by 84-75. After that, the tiebreaker arrived in 2018 in Belgrade on May 20. The two teams would meet again, but this time it was in the championship game and Los Blancos lifted a new title with an 85-80 win and young star Luka Doncic as a leader and MVP of the tournament. On a side note, Laso had never won a game in Belgrade until that 2017-18 season.
After his second European crown, Laso said: “I always start the press conference and congratulate the players because I think they did a great job. Today and Friday, and if you go back to the first day of practice, you don’t achieve these kinds of goals without working hard since the first day. It’s been an unbelievable year for us. In December we played with seven guys out. The team stepped up in those moments. I am proud of the team for what they did all season. They sacrificed themselves all season, we grew as a team, and finally, we got this on an unbelievable weekend. It was a great game of basketball. The whole weekend was amazing. The four games that we saw, we’re talking about the best basketball in the world. I am very happy and very proud to be the European champions.”
During his eight years so far in Real Madrid, Laso has not only won titles but also shown courage and knowledge to put young players on the court, enduring their mistakes and the pressure of the public opinion. Up to 11 young players have made their debut with him at the helm, among them a star called Luka Doncic. Other “products” of his in the NBA are Willy Hernangomez and Nikola Mirotic.
Laso is a coach with character, but he’s always polite. He hardly ever gets called for technical fouls. His statements are always well measured, respectful towards the rival or the fellow coach. He never provokes anyone. Under his leadership, players like Sergio Llull have become superstars. Veterans like Felipe Reyes and Jaycee Carroll play like youngsters, while Gustavo Ayon and Edy Tavares are like life insurance under the boards. He also got the best out of Fabien Causeur in the 2018 final against Fenerbahce (17 points).
From time to time, Laso can be hard on his players (another lesson learned form Obradovic), but he will always defend his men in public. He will use the drawing board, but he doesn’t get mad if a player on the court breaks the system and makes up some play. He is among those coaches who believe that a good coach must always learn from good players.
Despite his many successes, Laso does not live in the past. He always looks forward, and his philosophy is based on being able to look ahead whenever you win and whenever you lose. He is a practical man, and he knows that everything has already been done. He does not try to invent anything, but he does apply, in the best possible manner, whatever already exists and works. Some coaches can do that, others less so. Pablo Laso belongs in the first category, by all means.