“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!
Pini Gershon – Coach and showman
Every coach has his best qualities. It may be his knowledge of the game, experience, or maybe his gut feeling. It could also be his relationships or ability to communicate with the players, his capacity of motivating them or making decisions. And of course, there is character as an inseparable part of personality. For most coaches, character is very important, but I think it was never more relevant than in the case of Pinhas “Pini” Gershon.
Gershon was born on November 13, 1951 in Tel Aviv. His childhood was marked by the absence of a father who abandoned the family when Pini was a small boy. Gershon’s relationship with his mother was always very close, to the point where after winning the Israeli Cup in 1996 with Hapoel Jerusalem, he shrieked into the television cameras: “Mother, I’ve brought the Cup.”
Gershon played football with Hapoel Tel Aviv and basketball with Maccabi Darom, a club related to Maccabi Tel Aviv, but his playing career came to an early end due to injury.
Already infected by the basketball bug, he chose this game and the only way to stay close to it was coaching. The road was long and slow, but he wasn’t in a hurry. Gershon started at age 25 with Betar Tel Aviv in 1976-77, and after that he moved to Hapoel Holon for two seasons, then Hapoel Gan Shmuel until 1981. He ended up coaching as many as 12 Israeli teams, a complete league! His whole career is marked by comings and goings. He was fired and signed like no other coach. When he was with a club, he was normally deemed a “problem” because of his big mouth, but when he was not there, the problem was even bigger!
Coach and showman
Gershon was always a great coach, but he had an unusual reputation because of his temperament and many of his statements. He never held back on what he said. Sometimes he would cross red lines and had to suffer the consequences, but many times, what he said was just part of “the Pini show”. Nobody stayed indifferent to Pini Gershon.
Before a game against a team coached by another well-known Israeli coach, a journalist asked Pini about the duel between the two brains. Pini’s reply was a question: “Who’s the other brain?” Another time, after losing a Korac Cup game with a very talented but very young Hapoel Galil Elyon squad, he said of his team’s effort: “Sometimes when you go to sleep with babies, you wake up wet.”
After coaching Galil Elyon from 1981 to 1983, Maccabi Haifa (1983-85), Hapoel Tel Aviv (1985-86), Maccabi Haifa again (1986-87), Betar again (1987-88), Maccabi Haifa yet again (1988-89), Hapoel Haifa (1989-90) and Ironi Ramat Gan (1990-92), Gershon returned once more to Galil Elyon. And then a miracle happened: The Gershon-led Galil squad became the Israeli champion and broke Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 26-year domination! In the final series, Galil Elyon defeated Hapoel Tel Aviv 3-1 and that was Gershon’s big moment. The one in which he entered, once and for all, into the elite of Israeli basketball.
When Gershon was coaching humble teams, he often criticized Maccabi and accused them of anything, even of buying referees. The last thing he expected, surely, was that he one day would coach Maccabi – but it happened. In the 1998-99 season, Maccabi got off to a very bad start, Gershon was free and their paths crossed for the first time.
The first thing Gershon said was that he had played for Maccabi Darom, as if the Maccabi colors had been his forever. He had good results and brought Maccabi to the Final Four in Thessaloniki, with David Blatt as his assistant coach. In the semifinal, Maccabi defeated FC Barcelona convincingly, 65-51, with great defense, but the team fell to Zeljko Obradovic’s Panathinaikos in the final, 67-73.
Ironically, one of Maccabi’s executioners in that final was homegrown guard and fan-favorite Oded Kattash, who scored 17 points. Maccabi’s roster was top-notch, too, with Ariel McDonald, Derrick Sharp, Nadav Henefeld, Gur Shelef, Doron Sheffer, Doron Jamchi and Nate Huffman, who led the team with 18.2 points and 9.4 rebounds.
Triumph in Paris
In 2000-01, the year of the “two EuroLeagues”, Maccabi chose the SuproLeague organized by FIBA. The team won its group with a 15-3 record and in the eighthfinals defeated Slask Wroclaw 2-0. In the quarterfinals, Maccabi swept Scavolini Pesaro 2-0 to reach the Final Four in Paris.
The semifinal against CSKA Moscow saw Maccabi prevail 86-80, with McDonald and Huffman scoring 17 points apiece. In the title game, Maccabi got big revenge from the previous year as it defeated Panathinaikos 81-67. Huffman posted 21 points and 9 rebounds, and McDonald recorded 21 points plus 9 assists. Dejan Bodiroga’s 27 points were not enough to stop the Yellow tide.
Flying back into Tel Aviv, Maccabi was received with full honors. After four EuroLeague title-game defeats, the club’s third European trophy and first since 1981 had finally arrived, and Gershon was pretty popular … but still far from the heights he would reach years later.
After that big success, Gershon took a break from coaching, but in the summer of 2003, he returned, because the 2004 Final Four would be played in Tel Aviv. Maccabi managed to advance to make it to the event thanks only to a miracle three-pointer by Derrick Sharp against Zalgiris Kaunas, which forced overtime when it looked like Maccabi was going to be eliminated and have to watch the Final Four on its own court. Winning the Final Four proved to be much easier. In the semifinal, Maccabi ousted CSKA 93-85 and then, in a title game for the ages that broke several records, it blasted Skipper Bologna 118-74.
Maccabi had an amazing team: Saras Jasikevicius (18 points, 5 assists), Anthony Parker (21), Tal Burstein (17), Maceo Baston (9), Nikola Vujcic (9), Sharp (9) and Yotam Halperin (7). They created an offensive spectacle.
It’s hard to say who was more popular at the time, the players or Pini. In the official press conference after the championship game, sitting by my side, Gershon started talking about the game, but it quickly became a dialogue between him and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who called to congratulate Gershon. The coach even answered the call in the Prime Minister’s distinctive voice. And it was all live on TV. We had to listen to a live conversation, in Hebrew, for about 10 minutes before we could continue the press conference. And Gershon was having a blast.
If anyone thought that Maccabi had only won because it was playing at home, the following season Gershon and the guys made it clear that was not the case. Maccabi won its regular season group with a 10-4 record, and in the Top 16 it was even better: 6-0 against Ulker, Siena and Cibona. It then swept its quarterfinal playoffs series with Pesaro, 2-0, advancing to the Final Four in Moscow.
The semifinal was another duel between Panathinaikos and Maccabi, a new Obradovic-Gershon classic. Maccabi prevailed 91-82 to meet TAU Ceramica Vitoria in the title game. The Spanish team had shocked everyone in the other semi by defeating mighty CSKA, which had a 19-1 record until then, by 78-85 in its own city.
On May 8, 2005, Maccabi confirmed its domination with a 90-78 victory to claim back-to-back crowns for the first EuroLeague repeat in 14 years. Jasikevicius shined with 22 points and 5 assists. Baston scored 18 points, Vujcic 13 and Parker 12. At the end of the season, Euroleague Basketball presented Pini the Alexander Gomelskiy Coach of the Year award, deservedly.
In 2006, Maccabi made the championship game for a third consecutive season, in Prague, but Ettore Messina’s CSKA finally managed to take the title with a 73-69 win, killing the three-peat opportunity for Maccabi and Gershon.
Gershon himself has told me several times that his main motto as a coach is “scoring one more point than the opponent”, but in several seasons his teams also showed great defense. For instance, in the 1999-2000 season, Buducnost, Pau-Orthez and Caja San Fernando were all held to between 50 and 60 points by Maccabi. And in the quarterfinals, a powerful PAF Bologna side with scorers like Gregor Fucka, Carlton Myers, Arturas Karnisovas, Marko Jaric and Gianluca Basile only managed 62 and 64 points in two of three games.
Assistant coach in the end
After those glorious years in Maccabi, Gershon moved to Olympiacos in 2006. The first thing he said when he arrived in Athens was that his sporting career started with him playing football dressed in red, the same color as Olympiacos, with Hapoel Tel Aviv. In 2007, he accepted the offer from the Bulgarian federation to coach its national team. He once explained to me that it was for sentimental reasons, because his ancestors had come to Israel from Bulgaria. He managed to guide the team to the 2009 FIBA EuroBasket in Poland.
He was back at Maccabi in 2008 and stayed there until 2010. The two following years he coached Hapoel Holon, but in 2014 he was back to “his” Maccabi – as an assistant coach! He was an assistant to Guy Goodes, who had been the assistant to Blatt when he was the head coach. Goodes had much less experience than Pini. However, Gershon didn’t mind his secondary role at all.
When he didn’t coach, he was a TV commentator. And of course, with his own style, not holding back and not very diplomatic, which was very popular among viewers. Pini has always been one of those people who speaks his mind. His enemies also add to that “…and sometimes without thinking”, but Pini has his own style and uses it every day. Most respect him for his accomplishments, but a few don’t because of his words, and not his work. However, nobody can say he’s not a successful coach, with great personality and a unique style.