“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!
Sandro Gamba – 70 years devoted to basketball
Alessandro (Sandro) Gamba was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall on April 4, 2006.
He gave his speech in English, and revealed how he got into basketball:
On April 25, 1945, the then 12-year-old Gamba was playing football in the street – in the wrong place at the wrong time. World War II was not over and Italian partisans and German soldiers were still fighting for each house, each street. There was gunfire and a bullet ended up lodged in the boy’s hand. Doctors recommended that he play basketball as part of his rehabilitation therapy. It was an accidental start, but once he got into basketball, he fell in love with the game and that relationship lasted a lifetime.
Gamba was a good player and won 10 Italian League titles with Milan in 13 years, as well as being the Italian national team’s captain at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. There, just like many others, he discovered another basketball brand: that of the USA national team, featuring Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and other great players. And that is when his relationship, almost obsession, with American basketball, took off.
Gamba started his coaching career in 1965 under his former coach and mentor, Cesare Rubini, back then the most celebrated coach in Italy. Gamba said in his book “Il mio basket” that when Olimpia Milan president Adolfo Bogoncelli offered him a contact as Rubini’s assistant, Gamba requested an extra clause: not more money, but two airplane tickets to the United States each season. That even surprised Rubini, who was present at the president’s home. Bogoncelli accepted it and told Gamba: “You will be our United States scout, to send us good players.”
Not even the president himself knew how right he was. In the following years, a lot of good players came to Olimpia and Italian basketball. And Gamba added that some American coaches, Red Auerbach and Dean Smith in particular, had a big impact on his development and coaching philosophy, which was based on certain specific concepts:
Basketball is a team-oriented game. Selfish players win individual awards, but not championships.
There are five players, but just one ball. It has to go through a lot of hands before a shot is taken.
You have to play without the ball, do something – set a screen, move, fake – everything helps.
Moving all the time, with or without the ball, is fundamental.
Then he added more technical and tactical ideas and, above all, excellent physical preparation. His first trophies
Gamba’s first European trophy came in 1971, still as Rubini’s assistant. In the Saporta Cup final, their Simmenthal Milan team beat Spartak St. Petersburg, coached by Vladimir Kondrashin, winning 56-66 in the first leg and 71-52 in the second. The following season, Milan was able to defend its title by downing Crvena Zvezda 74-70 in the single-game final in Thessaloniki.
Gamba started his career as head coach at Ignis Varese in 1973-74. He arrived at Varese when it already had a great team, previously built by Aleksandar Nikolic, which had claimed the European crown in 1970, 1972 and 1973. In his first season, Varese made it to the EuroLeague championship game again, before losing 82-84 against Real Madrid, coached by Pedro Ferrandiz. Varese had led 39-34 but couldn’t stay ahead because Madrid had a deeper bench with a young Juan Antonio Corbalan, who replaced Carmelo Cabrera in the final minutes once he fouled out and, despite his lack of experience, managed to take good care of the ball. Before that, Varese had eliminated Radnicki Belgrade, which I think was the first time I saw Coach Gamba.
His second try at the EuroLeague crown, in the 1974-75 season, was successful. In fact, Varese did not lose any games, winning all 10 games in the group stage and sweeping French side Berck Basket in the next stage to reach the final against its archrival, Real Madrid. The game was played on April 10, 1975 in Antwerp. Varese trailed 35-38 at halftime but ended up winning 79-66 behind 29 points and 14 rebounds from Bob Morse. Ivan Bisson added 14 points, Sergio Rizzi 13 and Charlie Yelverton 10, while Marino Zanatta and Aldo Ossola each scored 4. The success was even bigger taking into account that a future Hall of Famer, Dino Meneghin, was unavailable; he fractured his hand a week before the final. It was, of course, a great revenge after the loss in the previous year’s final.
Gamba then took Varese to a third consecutive EuroLeague final, this time under the name Mobilgirgi. The final was played in Geneva, on April 1, 1976. The Italian side prevailed again, 81-74. Morse was once again his team’s hero, with 28 points, and this time he got help from Meneghin, who added 23 points and 11 rebounds. Zanatta scored 14 points, Ossola had 9, and ran his team with authority, while Bill Campion scored 7. Walter Szczerbiak led Madrid with 24 points and Wayne Brabender added 22, but it was not enough. This was not another sidelines battle between Gamba and Ferrandiz though, as Lolo Sainz had replaced Madrid’s legendary coach.
Varese’s incredible run in the EuroLeague of the time continued when the team reached the 1977 final against Maccabi. That was Varese’s eighth consecutive EuroLeague final, its fourth with Gamba on the bench, and the streak would reach 10 years in a row, a record that might never be broken, in 1978 and 1979. It was also my first EuroLeague final live. Varese was the favorite against Maccabi, a EuroLeague newcomer, but Ralph Klein’s team pulled out the upset, 78-77.
Silver medal in Moscow
After four years with Varese, which delivered two EuroLeague titles and two Italian League crowns, Gamba decided to move to Turin. He helped his new team gain promotion to the Italian first division before the Italian federation signed him for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Just 20 years after playing the Rome Olympics, he returned to the big event as a head coach, leading a solid Italian national team of Meneghin, Pierluigi Marzorati, Fabrizio Della Fiori, Meo Sacchetti, Mike Sylvester, Enrico Gilardi, Marco Bonamico, Renato Villalta, Roberto Brunamonti and Pietro Generali.
After a tough loss against Yugoslavia, 81-102, in the group stage, Gamba’s team had to fight against the hosts, the Soviet Union, for a place in the title game. In a dramatic battle, Italy won 97-95 behind 21 points and 6 rebounds from Villalta, the man of the game. Sacchetti, who has coached Dinamo Banco di Sardegna Sassari in the EuroLeague and is now the Italian national team coach, had 13 points, as did Della Fiori, while Marzorati scored 12. It was a team win, Gamba-style, with a lot of players moving without the ball, a lot of passes before every shot, and extreme physical strength. Italy went on to beat Spain 95-89 and reach the final where it lost against Yugoslavia, 86-77. Italy could not beat Yugoslavia’s first golden generation, but a silver medal was still a great success.
Soon after the Moscow Olympics, Gamba attended an NBA game at Madison Square Garden. When he was introduced as “the man to beat the Soviet Union in Moscow,” he was given an ovation. The United States had boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow due to political reasons.
The Olympics merely marked the start of Gamba’s great work with his national team. Italy came in fifth at EuroBasket 1981, which was a bit of a disappointment, especially because his team lost some games by a lot of points – 69-79 vs. the Soviet Union and 83-100 vs. Czechoslovakia.
Italy did not play at the 1982 FIBA World Cup in Colombia, but bounced back at EuroBasket 1983, winning the title by overcoming seven opponents, including five at the group stage in Limoges, plus Netherlands in the semifinals and Spain in the championship game, 105-96. Villalta had 22 points, Gilardi 16, Sacchetti 15, Renzo Vecchiato 12, a young Antonello Riva 8, Meneghin and Carlo Caglieris 7 each, while Marzorati and Brunamonti scored 6 apiece. Ten players scored, typical Gamba. Alberto Tonut and Ario Costa completed that team.
“My kids played a perfect game, I am very proud. We have created an extraordinary group of players who are able to find answers. We have three point guards, very quick shooting guards, great defenders, big men, bench players,” Gamba said about his biggest success with the Squadra Azzurra. Oddly enough, no Italian player was chosen to the all-tournament team, which featured Corbalan, Nikos Galis of Greece, Juan Antonio San Epifanio of Spain, Stanislav Kropilak of Czechoslovakia and Arvydas Sabonis of the Soviet Union. But Gamba’s Italy was the best team.
His second EuroBasket medal came in 1985, when Italy beat Spain 102-90 for the bronze. Then he went on to coach Virtus Bologna, but returned to the Italian national team in 1987. He led Italy to a silver medal at EuroBasket 1991 at home, in Rome, where it lost to Yugoslavia 73-88 in the final.
His numbers with the national team speak for themselves: 179 wins in 279 games. If we add 200 wins in 290 Italian League games, that gets us close to 600. Plus Italian Cup, European competitions, friendly games, tournaments … and we are talking about 1,000 games coached! Then factor in 238 games and 1,092 points scored as a player in Italy, plus 64 games and 210 points with his national team, and it is easy to understand how basketball framed his whole life, which was linked to the sport for almost 70 years.
Gamba’s great rival in the Italian League, Dan Peterson, used one word a lot to describe his biggest adversary: “Tough.”
“When you played against a team coached by Sandro Gamba, you knew you were in for a physical game. I don’t mean dirty. I mean, they played hard. They set hard screens, they boxed out hard, they rebounded hard, they played hard-nosed defense, they ran hard. If you were not ready for an intense, physical game, you would lose. Yes, he was a fine technical coach, but his best quality was getting his teams to play with 110% intensity.”
Sandro Gamba, a basketball man, a life devoted to basketball.