“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!
Sergio Scariolo, A EuroLeague pioneer
When you examine Sergio Scariolo’s career highlights, you will see an Italian League title won in 1990, a trip to the EuroLeague Final Four a year later, and three FIBA EuroBasket gold medals at the helm of the Spanish national team, the most recent of which came in 2015.
One might think those numbers could only come from a seasoned veteran, which Scariolo surely is. To then learn that he is only 57 years old, however, puts his accomplishments into context, and teaches us that he is still a coach with many years ahead of him; years full of challenges, the will to win more, improve and learn.
“I steal from everyone, even my son’s coach or the younger teams’ coaches,” Scariolo told me a couple of years ago. “There’s always some detail at any given moment that can help you a lot.”
Scariolo was born in Brescia, Italy, on April 1, 1961. The first important person in his life was his father, a high school and university teacher, but not just because he was his parent. His father also injected passion for basketball into a young Sergio. He took him to games in Brescia, which is where Scariolo started to play.
But instead of seeing his talent as a player, local coach Ricardo Sales saw the gift of coaching in Sergio. He understood all the coach’s lessons faster than the rest of players and was able to teach things to his teammates. That’s how Scariolo soon made his way to an assistant coaching position on Brescia’s bench for the Italian first division. He was only 22 years old. At that age, he also got his degree in law, so he had to make his choice. I think we are all lucky (himself included) that choice leaned towards basketball. In 1985, he became a world champion … at the military level. He was in charge of the Italian team and that was his first title.
With Coach Sales, Scariolo learned the basics: methodology, systematization, theory. His next step would be Scavolini Pesaro, where he met his second master, Valerio Bianchini. From him, Scariolo learned management, psychology, motivation and how to manage relationships with his players. When Scariolo was presented with the opportunity to succeed Bianchini and become Scavolini’s head coach in 1989, he didn’t hesitate and took the job despite being younger, at 27 years old, than some of his players.
At the end of that very same season, Scavolini, with its young coach, won the Italian League. The team was the regular season champ with a 22-8 record and in the playoffs disposed of Il Messaggero Roma (2-1), Phonola Caserta (2-1) and then, in the finals, Ranger Varese (3-1).
Scariolo had a few great Italian players like Walter Magnifico, Andrea Gracis, Ario Costa and Alessandro Boni, but the soul of that team was a duo of Americans, Darren Daye and Darwin Cook. Daye averaged 24.0 points and Cook 19.8. The team average was 98.4 points! Scavolini played fast, attractive, efficient and joyful basketball. Of course, that had to be credited to the new coach who, despite his young age, learned something that some coaches never grasp in their whole careers: all players are different. The coach has to support and take care of his stars, but never allow them to abuse that confidence. The lessons learned that season with Cook, Daye and Magnifico were always taken by Scariolo wherever he subsequently worked, with Sasa Djordjevic at Fortitudo and Real Madrid, Jorge Garbajosa in Vitoria and Malaga, and even Pau Gasol in the Spanish national team.
In the 1989-90 season, Scariolo made his debut with Scavolini in the Korac Cup. The first game was in Tel Aviv against Hapoel, and Scavolini lost by a single point, 78-79. Then at home Scavolini rolled, 105-88. It was just the first step of a great season that ended in the final game against Joventut Badalona. The teams met first in the group stage, with Joventut winning in Spain, 108-92 (Jordi Villacampa, 25 points), and then Scavolini getting revenge in Pesaro, 90-77 (Daye, 28 points). Both teams advanced and Scavolini eliminated Cholet in the quarterfinals, before overcoming CSKA Moscow in the semis.
Then, on 21 March 1990, the first game of the two-legged final took place. Joventut managed to pull out the road win 98-99 behind a great Villacampa (29 points), who also had help from Jose Antonio Montero and Lemone Lampley, with 21 points each. Daye and Magnifico netted 27 each for Scavolini, and Cook added 25 of his own. A week later, Joventut celebrated the title at home after a 90-86 win in which Montero stood out with 28 points. Scavolini played well and tied the game 3 minutes into the fourth quarter, 67-67, but when Lampley blocked Boni on a fastbreak, Montero scored a basket-plus-free throw. The duo of Cook (28 points) and Daye (26) was again excellent, but it was not enough to win the title.
With that Korac Cup experience under its belt, Scavolini took its chance in the 1990-91 EuroLeague. In the final group of eight teams, Scavolini placed third with an 8-6 record. The first four teams (FC Barcelona, Pop 84 Split, Scavolini and Maccabi) made it to the Final Four in Paris. But the Italian dream was over in the semis when Pop 84 won 87-93. Daye (29 points) and Cook (24) played at their usual level, but the Split team had the likes of Zoran Savic (25), Velimir Perasovic (20) and Toni Kukoc (14) to advance to the final, where they would win their third straight title, while Scavolini fell to Maccabi, 83-81, for third place.
It’s well-known that the famous “Professor” Aleksandar Nikolic worked as a counselor for Bogdan Tanjevic in Stefanel, Boza Maljkovic in Jugoplastika, Slobodan Subotic in Iraklis, and Zeljko Obradovic in Partizan. But it is not too widely-known that Scariolo also called Nikolic for advice while coaching Fortitudo Bologna. Nikolic spent two or three weeks monitoring Scariolo’s practices, but Scariolo highlights the long talks they had together. He proudly mentions one particular detail: before one game, listening to his analysis and preparation, Nikolic congratulated Scariolo by saying he had never heard such a precise and detailed preparation. “That was like a diploma for me,” Scariolo said.
Going to Spain
When Baskonia president Josean Querejeta – a true talent with his sense to sign players and coaches – decided to call Scariolo to manage Tau Ceramica in 1997, the coach didn’t hesitate for a second. He accepted the challenge and, with his impressive ability to adapt to any new environment, soon learned Spanish and started doing a great job. In his first season, Tau was a runner-up in the Spanish League after eliminating Unicaja and Barcelona 3-0 in the quarters and semis, respectively. However, in the finals, Tau fell to probably the biggest surprise champ ever in Spain, TDK Manresa, 1-3. Garbajosa, Elmer Bennett, Juan Espil and Miroslav Beric led a solid team that season.
In his second season in Vitoria, Scariolo won his first Spanish trophy: the national cup. In Valencia, Tau defeated Joventut first, then Real Madrid in the semis and Caja San Fernando in the title game, 70-61. Beric led the way with 19 points, Stefano Rusconi added 15 and Espil had 13.
Scariolo’s work in Vitoria caught Real Madrid’s attention and, in 1999, he moved to the Spanish capital. He led the team to the league title by defeating Barcelona in the finals 3-2, without home-court advantage. On October 16, 2000, Scariolo was the protagonist, together with fellow coach Ioannis Ioannidis and the players of Real Madrid and Olympiacos, in the first and historic game of the new EuroLeague. Scariolo was also the first winning coach in the competition thanks to the 75-73 victory over the Reds. That is another thing to make Scariolo proud.
His next stop was Malaga in 2003. Scariolo stayed with the club for five years and won the Spanihs Cup in 2005 in Zaragoza against his former team, Madrid, plus the Spanish League in 2006, also against a former team, Tau Ceramica, by sweeping the final series. Then in 2007, he guided the team to its first and only EuroLeague Final Four, in Athens.
After that, Scariolo started the 2008-09 season as a TV commentator who came to be much appreciated thanks to his observations and predictions. He spoke clearly with a wide vocabulary, as one might expect from such an educated and smart human being.
In December of 2008, he received an offer from Khimki Moscow Region of Russia and was back to the bench. He stayed at Khimki for two seasons, but while coaching there, Scariolo got a call from the Spanish federation to be coach of the national team. He combined the jobs with no problem and his appointment as national team coach in Spain proved to be the right decision.
At the 2009 EuroBasket in Poland, Spain won the gold medal and then did the same in 2013 in Lithuania. At the 2012 London Olympics, Spain played the gold medal game against a very powerful USA team and lost by a very respectable 100-107. Between 2011 and 2013, Scariolo had a brief return to his native Italy to coach Milan, but it seemed clear that he was meant to stay in Spain. He was back to Vitoria for 2013-14 and also returned to the Spanish national team bench. At EuroBasket 2015 in France, Scariolo managed to win his third gold medal.
A bronze followed at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, before Scariolo continued to broaden his experience by heading across the Atlantic for the first time, taking an assistant coaching role with Toronto Raptors in the NBA, while maintaining his position with the Spanish national team.
Sergio Scariolo is a man with charisma who projects authority and transmits security. Players believe in him because he knows what he is talking about. He is a person that can be talked to, and the players also know that. He doesn’t have any problems in saying that Pau Gasol is the best player he has ever coached, but he always knows how to handle all his stars for the good of the team. He also likes dialogue, even though he always has the last word.
His principles are to have the most information about his own team and the opponent. After that, he wants to make the game plan clear to his players and to use that tactical information to combine it with the physical aspect. He likes “smart defense”, often saying, “If you try to guard it all, you end up guarding nothing.”
His favorite formula is a mix of “smart defense and tactical wisdom.” He deems transition important, and likes to find solutions on offense against a set defense. Ball circulation is paramount because “the ball is a protagonist, just like the players.”
Even if he has reasons to be satisfied with his career, as with any other ambitious man, Scariolo still has new challenges in mind. Most recently, he became an assistant coach in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors.
Scariolo has reached the Final Four with both Scavolini and Unicaja, but in both cases his teams got there as outsiders and played that part. In the future, he would still like to coach a team with the potential not only of reaching the Final Four, but also winning it.
I am convinced that chance will eventually present itself.