Born in Forlì (Italy) in 1955, no doubt he is one of the men who is still writing basketball history in Europe and overseas.
His career started in his beloved Libertas Forlì, as a player, then assistant coach and finally as GM. Moving to Benetton Treviso in 1992 was just the key to start competing in major basketball. 14 years with the “verdi” and 4 italian championships, two Eurocup (Saporta), seven Coppa Italia and three Supercoppa. In 2006 he became vice president of the Toronto Raptors where he spent several seasons before moving to OKC. In 2014 he came back to Europe as GM of Fenerbahce, to reunite with Obradovic, 17 years after they worked together in Treviso.
So let’s start from his experience in the italian Serie A with the Benetton family.
– Treviso was your first love at a very competitive level of basketball. 14 years with so many great players but basicly with four extraordinary head coaches: Mike D’Antoni, Zeljko Obradovic, Ettore Messina and David Blatt. Do these guys have something similar in their approach to the game?
«First of all Treviso was an unbelievable experience, from any point of view. These four coaches, you look at them and you realize they are huge basketball minds, they live basketball any single moment of their life, they always try to create something new that could land their team to success. They are not afraid to work “out of the box” to find the best solution possible for their team. They handle human resources in a different way, as long as they are different one another».
– As about Mike (D’Antoni), is he finally ready for a ring?
«Everybody now gives to Mike the credit he deserved since a very long time in Phoenix. That kind of basketball which basics you can see in Golden State too. His mind is creative, he is definitely ready. As a side thought, it’s very interesting the fact NBA is thinking of reviewing the Playoff system: GS and HOU could be a memorable Final, but the actual system, with the best teams in the West, does not allow it».
– As for your experience, lived on both side os the ocean, you can truly explain which is the real difference between NBA and Europe, basicly meaning Euroleague. Someone says NBA regular season is just show, someone says talent and physical game played overseas will never be matched by the old continent one. Which is your opinion?
«It’s always hard to compare. NBA is still at the top and thinking of the regular season as something easy and soft is a big mistake. Euroleague format is actually very interesting, giving to the fans a new way to follow basketball. So many big games, so many great players and that huge feeling all games are played 101%. It’s a league that keeps on improving and it’s correct to follow the example of NBA».
– Recently Adam Silver reflected about the High School players and the “one and done”. If we add this to the growing G-League, to the new “two-way contracts” and to the hard times NCAA is living due to scandals and so on, is that possible that the historical role of college basketball could be reduced?
«It’s hard to change a system like that but it’s true there is a big need to clarify most situations. It’s all about business and business, as money, runs fast, denaturalizing many aspects of the game. As for me I’d be more concerned about the players we will have in the future available for european teams: it’s about the financial gap with the NBA and it’s about that G-Legaue and the growing salaries».
– 2006 draft and Andrea Bargnani. I don’t want to go back to a question you answered probably a million times, but just would like to understand how a team works on the options and finally makes its selections in a draft. You know, it’s so hard sometimes to understand, especially years later when it’s easier… In that draft we had Andrea as a first pick, Aldridge as second, then JJ Redick #11, Rondo #21, Lowry #24, Millsap #47 (just before Veremeenko #48…), but even Rodriguez #27, Freeland #30 behind Pecherov #18 and Marquinhos #43 four calls before Millsap…
«It’s a matter of different things all together. First of all you analyze what your team needs and the available profiles for that role. Then, even more important, there are many analytics you cannot share publicly. As an example the physical reports are fundamental. In that drat I clearly remember some profiles of players about which the negative physical reports were so important. I don’t want to lower in any way my responsibility for the number one pick of Andrea, but I landed in Toronto just a few days after completing our season with the championship in Treviso, a hard playoff during which we defeated Milano, Roma and Fortitudo Bologna. Then I’m very happy for the Raptors now being a true contender, since I was part of some picks and trades that brought Valanciunas, Lowry and De Rozan».
– Well, about 2018 draft, maybe a draft to remember, is Ayton going to be number 1? You can’t but select a center like that…
«I don’t know who will be the first pick but I’m sure there is so much talent. I’m more curious about Doncic and his selection, since I’m pretty sure he can make the difference in NBA too».
– Finally back to Europe, in 2014 you landed to Fenerbahce. Before the club started to win so many important trophies can we say you had important lessons from big losses as 2015 in Berlin with CSKA? Is that a kind of experience any great team has to live?
«I see it a bit differently. I came when no turkish team made a trip to the F4 previously. Final 4 to me sounds like excellence and means a winning season. Winning or losing is something you can experience only when you compete in that kind of games and finals. If you lose to CSKA in a memorable final, you don’t have to feel like being defeated since you were part of the path to glory. You just have to feel like having lost to a great team and you need to stay together and work to make the final step you need to win. My main satisfaction was one year later when I could see basicly the same group with a trophy after one year of hard work all together».
– Playing in a domestic tournament as competitive as the Turkish League (or the Spanish one) can be seen as an advantage compared to the Euroleague teams that play in national tournament of lower level? Can it help to keep you focus level so high, something that being coached by Obradovic naturally helps?
«Yes, it definitely helps. I like to play so often and I like to play hard games. It would be nice to have some rest sometimes, but this is the right way to compete. You need 15/16 real players to be a contender in two high level tournaments and this is what we try to do season by season».
– A 18/7 record only two games away from CSKA, hosting the russians on friday and having defeated them in the first leg: are you thinking of the top spot of Euroleague?
«Right now the most important focus is the home court advantage in the Playoff, so the main thing is to stay in within the first 4 spots. You can’t make any different calculations actually. We know how hard it is to win a playoff series playing away games like we did last year in Oaka».
– Obradovic, but this is totally true for Gherardini too, is winning trophy since the beginning of the ’90s. Which is the secret to remain as competitive as you both are through at least three different eras of basketball?
«Passion, love of the game is the way. Passion is the reason why you live and talk about basketball 24/7. It’s about men, it’s about planning and decisions and all of them are just about trying to make your best to improve your team and try to win. You’ve got to solve problems about any possible challenge. Zeljko is about that for 24 hours any given day. If you work with him as a GM you are a lucky man, he’s a facilitator and this is the same story for the other coach like Mike, Ettore and David you mentioned».
– Talking about Obradovic, no need of any anecdote, but can you explain me one of the basic reason why is that kind of extraordinary coach?
«It’s about taking care of any single details. There is nothing he is missing. And this is something all the players understand and that’s why they always give their best with him. As a former coach, you’d truly love to follow a practice lead by Zeljko: everything is perfectly organized and there is not a single moment different away from a high level profile and organization. But you’d be surprised by his unexpected humanity : yes, he is a great man from that point of view too. He is the only world champion as a player as well as a coach and this is something really unique. You know, there is something I want to tell you… We lost to Efes in the turkish cup quarterfinal, it was an unexpected and hard to manage loss. After the game all the players were sure about the fact that the following day the practice would have been particularly hard with a lot of pressure. Zeljko booked the best club in town and invited all the staff and players with their families for dinner. “It’s time to stay together, no need to practice today”. Can you imagine the positive impact on all they players? That’s why he is number one».
– Is Jasikevicius the next Obradovic? Is he the chosen one to lead european basketball in the close future? I hardly saw your team facing difficult moments as it happened in Kaunas: at the end you won since the best team on the court, but what Saras is doing is simply remarkable…
«He is certainly the best young coach in the business. There’s great respect between them, they have a strong relationship and so many things in common. Saras too was a great player and now a great coach: this brings you so many advantages, you know why? You live the game from the bench understanding what’s going on one second before your opponent. It’s about being more ready and more responsive. There are so many similar things in Saras and Zeljko, they handle situations in so many common ways».
«I’m sorry but actually I have to leave for the gym, it’s practice time. We just landed in Izmir from Kaunas (conversation was registered last saturday) and after a very short break we have to prepare for the next game. We found an unbelievable atmosphere here, even from people that are not Fenerbahce fans. That’s the best part of our job».
It the name of the passion and love for the game, the key to everything.