“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!
Valerio Bianchini, The Prophet
No history of Italian basketball can be written without mention of Valerio Bianchini.
His titles, his career, his quotes, his way of thinking and talking, and his deep knowledge of the game guarantee him a special spot in the history of pallacanestro, but also in the European game because of his three continental trophies and 210 games coached. Thanks to his ideas and his original sayings, he earned the nickname of Il Vate – or, The Prophet – in Italy, and that defines his character and foresight perfectly.
They say there are two kinds of coaches: those who build a team for the center and those who build it for the point guard. The former is normally related to American coaches and the latter to European coaches, especially those from the so-called “Yugoslav School”, in which all bosses first look for the floor general who will conduct the game. Bianchini definitely belongs to the latter. For him, the playmaker was also the key player.
The start of his career was not easy. He was 31 years old when, in 1974, he sat on the bench of a Stella Azzurra team ranked 12th out of 14 teams in Italy. But that was a success for such a humble team with a first-time head coach. He was coaching against great masters like Alessandro Gamba (Varese), Arnaldo Taurisano (Cantu), Dan Peterson (Sinudyne Bologna), Aleksandar Nikolic (Alco Bologna) and Tonino Zorzi (Venice). In that context, Stella Azzurra’s 8-18 record can be called a worthy result. The following season, those numbers improved to 12-10 and his player Dave Sorenson was the third-best scorer in the league with 27.3 points per game, behind Chuck Jura of Milan (35.8 ppg.) and John Sutter of Cagliari (31.3 ppg.).
By the 1978-79 season, Bianchini was coaching Rome and placed fourth to make the playoffs for the first time. Even though his team fell in the first round to Milan 0-2, the work was already done. Rome was a humble club, as was its young coach. After five seasons, his overall Italian League record was still negative, 56-62, but he had earned the most difficult things: recognition from fans, sympathy from the media, and the respect of his peers.
The call from Cantu for the following season was no surprise. It was just a matter of time until one of the biggest clubs in Italy knocked on Bianchini’s door. Of course, he accepted the challenge. Cantu had finished fifth the previous season but had managed to eliminate Arigoni Rieti 2-1in the first playoffs round and later Peterson’s Milan, the regular season champs, 2-0 in the semifinals. The rivalry between Bianchini and Peterson had already started in previous years, but it got hotter when Bianchini took charge of a team capable of opposing Peterson’s. In his first season, Cantu made it to the final where, of course, the opponent was Dan Peterson, with Bologna. Peterson’s men swept the series in two close games (91-88 and 94-89). It was Bianchini’s first final and confirmation of the unwritten rule: to win a final, you must first lose one.
His second attempt was successful on two fronts. In the 1976-77 season, Bianchini had made his debut in Europe and managed to reach the Korac Cup semifinals with Stella Azzurra but fell to eventual champ Jugoplastika Split by 4 points over two games.
Now, in his second season in Cantu, his team played in the Saporta Cup and won all six games in its quarterfinals group with Cibona Zagreb, Zalgiris Kaunas and Le Mans. Then, in the semis, Cantu defeated fellow Italian team Varese. The title game was played on March 18, 1981 in Rome, where Bianchini’s team defeated FC Barcelona, 86-82. Tom Boswell netted 18 points, Antonello Riva 15, Pierluigi Marzorati 14 and Bruce Flowers 14. The 28 points by Juan Antonio “Epi” San Epifanio didn’t save Barca.
In the Italian League, Cantu finished third with a 22-10 record, but in the playoffs it disposed of Turin (2-1), Milan (2-1) and then Bologna (2-1) after a 93-83 victory in the third game to secure the Italian title. That was a great team, with Marzorati at point guard, Riva at shooting guard, Renzo Bariviera at forward, and Flowers as the main rebounder and scorer. This team’s average in the Italian League was 88 points per game, which was in line with Bianchini’s love of the offensive game.
Double European champion
In the 1981-82 season, Bianchini’s Cantu advanced easily from the first group stage in the EuroLeague with UBSC Wien and Partizani Tirana. In the final group stage, with six teams, Maccabi was the leader (9-1), Cantu followed (7-3) and behind them came Partizan, Barcelona, Naschua Breda and Panathinaikos. The final was scheduled between the top two for March 25 in Cologne, Germany. The two previous meetings between Cantu and Maccabi had been split, but Maccabi had won at home by one point (87-86) whereas Cantu had won by 19 (100-81).
The final between them in Cologne was a great game, with many stars on the court and two masters on the bench: Ralph Klein for Maccabi against Bianchini, a new star in the coaching sky. Cantu dominated most of the game thanks to excellent floor generalship by Marzorati. Maccabi tried it all, from zone defense to tough man-to-man, but to no avail. The best it could do was get as close as 3 points, but there was no comeback. Cantu won 86-80 with a balanced attack: Charles Kupec (23 points), Flowers (21), Marzorati (18) and Riva (16). Maccabi was led by Mickey Berkowitz, Aulcie Perry and Earl Williams (16 points each). The small city of Cantu was the champion of Europe. In the Italian League, Cantu fell in the quarte-finals against Bologna, but the season was already a success.
At the end of the season, Rome called Bianchini again to start a new project. He decided to go back home, but under one condition: the signing of a point guard. At that time, most teams signed big men for the two spots allowed for foreign players. But Bianchini was different. In Cantu he had Marzorati, but it was impossible to bring him to Rome. Bianchini once told me how he found his ace, Larry Wright.
“I had great reports about Larry and through Daren Dale, a well-known American agent at the time, we offered him a contract. He was hesitant though, and I had to go to Monroe [Louisiana], his hometown, to convince him.”
With Wright on board, Rome won the Italian League regular season with a 22-8 record and then rolled to the title with a 2-0 series win over Gorizia, before knocking off Cantu 2-1 in the semis and Milan 2-1 in the finals with a 97-83 victory in the third game, played on April 13, 1983 in front of 14,348 fans, which remains a record to this day in Italian basketball. Dan Peterson called his Milan the “25th team in the NBA”, but he would have to acknowledge defeat against Rome. In the Korac Cup, Bianchini could not take Rome past the quarterfinals, where it was second behind Limoges. But the first goal, the Italian League, had been achieved, and another one was set for 1984: the EuroLeague.
The long EuroLeague road started with easy duels against Dudelange Luxemburg and Partizani Tirana. In the six-team final group stage, Barcelona and Bianchini’s Rome led with 7-3 records. Cantu, Bosna, Maccabi and Limoges would have to watch the title game from the sidelines.
The final was played in Geneva on March 23, 1984, with Costas Rigas and Mikhail Davydov officiating. Barcelona was the favorite, but only a slight one. Coach Antoni Serra had a great team with names like Nacho Solozabal, Chicho Sibilio, Mike Davis, Epi and Juan Domingo de la Cruz. On the other side, aside from Wright, Bianchini had the great rebounder Clarence Kea and several very good Italian players in Enrico Gilardi, Marco Solferini, Fulvio Polesello and Gianni Bertolotti.
At halftime, Barcelona led 32-42, and the game didn’t look too good for Rome. Bianchini himself later told me the story about what happened during the break.
“In the corridor to the locker rooms, Barcelona big man Mike David made a mistake,” he recalled. “The players from both teams were walking together and David told Wright something like ‘Hey man, there’s no prize for you tonight.’ Wright walked into the locker room completely mad. He started to shout, demanding his teammates wake up. He stepped on that court like a madman in the second half and almost won the game single-handedly.”
In the second half, Wright made good use of his best weapon: his speed in one-on-one situations. When he didn’t penetrate, he shot well. In the 31st minute, Rome jumped ahead for the first time, 57-56, and even though Barca had a chance in the final seconds, an offensive rebound by Kea sealed the game for Rome, 79-73. Wright ended up with 27 points and, of course, was named MVP.
At the start of the 1984-85 season, a new trophy arrived: the Intercontinental Cup. Rome ended up first in Sao Paulo, Brazil, ahead of Obras Sanitarias of Argentina, Sirio of Brazil, Barcelona and Marathon Oil of Chicago. Luca Chiabotti, a prestigious writer for Gazzetta dello Sport, described Bianchini following that win.
“Valerio was the cultural revolution of Italian basketball. He was famous for his interviews and his duels against Peterson in the press. He was the first one to bring history, literature or the current political situation to basketball. He used that to explain his basketball philosophy.”
As a coach, Bianchini is famous for his ability to have great soloists or strong players with “difficult” personalities, and he was a creator of competitive teams around winning talent: players like Wright, Boswell, Darren Daye and Darwin Cook. As for his philosophy, offense was his best weapon and he paid attention to motivating the individual players, giving freedom and responsibility to the strongest and most spectacular of them.
After those titles at the club level, Bianchini’s next step was the logical one: the Italian federation offered him the job of national team coach.
He made his debut at the 1986 FIBA World Cup in Spain, with a solid team: Roberto Premier, Ario Costa, Walter Magnifico, Enrico Gilardi, Fulvio Polesello, Roberto Brunamonti, Renato Villalta, Augusto Binelli, Riva, Sandro Dell’Agnelo, Marzorati and Romeo Sacchetti. Italy finished sixth. One year later, at the EuroBasket in Athens, Italy improved by one place after falling to eventual champion Greece in the quarterfinals. He introduced several new players: Nando Gentile, Piero Montecchi, Alberto Tonut, Massimo Iacopini, Riccardo Morandotti and Flavio Carrera.
Two years later, Bianchini returned to club competition with Scavolini Pesaro and soon won the title from fifth place. First, he eliminated Reggio Emilia, and later Caserta and Varese followed. In the finals, Scavolini faced Milan, the European champion, and won 3-1. Bianchini was the first coach to win three titles with three different teams, something that Carlo Recalcati would match years later.
Something strange happened in 1998, when Fortitudo Bologna was 21-5 before the start of the playoffs but Bianchini was dismissed. A few months before, the team had won its first trophy ever, the Italian Cup, by defeating Benetton Treviso in the final, 73-55.
After Scavolini, Bianchini coached Rome again (from 1989 to 1991), Mens Sana of Siena (1992-93), Pesaro again (1993 to 1996), Fortitudo (1996 to 1998), a short span in Rome again (1999), Varese (1999-2000), Milan (2000), Virtus Bologna (2002-03), Blue Stars Beirut (2005-06) and Varese again (2007-08). His career boasted 448 wins in 787 games (56.8%) plus a 52-17 record in the Italian Cup and 134 wins from 210 games in European competition.
Bianchini is now very critical of modern basketball. He says that many clubs are “hostages to agents” and doesn’t like the policy of buying foreign players instead of looking to the young talents of the club. He also gets mad at colleagues who do not have patience with young players (“That’s why Italy has lost importance in the basketball stage,”) but he doesn’t believe that everything was better in the past. He always says that “nostalgia is the worst shelter.”
Valerio Bianchini must be listened to. You can always learn something from a prophet.