‘I was blessed to work with great players’

Italian maestro, Ettore Messina reflects on his time with Bologna, ruthless dominance of CSKA, NBA experience and the challenging uncertain times.

I can’t imagine starting any conversation without mentioning the dramatically developing situation with the CoVid-19 pandemic. How are you and your club are coping with this crisis?

First of all as a family we are doing well. Everyone is healthy. However, the situation in Italy and the rest of the world is extremely serious and very concerning. People are dying. Doctors and Nurses are fighting in the hospitals to save human life. I think some people still don’t understand how serious this situation is. They can’t comprehend that the only way is to be respectful of the rules, to stay at home and maintain distance. The other thing is that we underestimate the news coming from the far East that the Virus is re-establishing itself with a second wave of infections in China, Singapore and Hong Kong. It is a very dangerous situation.

You are living in the European epicentre of the Covid 19 virus, Italy. You are seeing first hand what devastating effects this has on all aspects of life. How do you think sport , sporting competitions and Euroleague in particular could cope with this unprecedented situation?

I understand that there is hope that somehow it will be possible to restart our competition. I understand that both European football and basketball are hoping to compete again soon under strict measures guaranteeing safety for everybody so that it will be possible to play. Honestly, and this is my personal opinion I see it as an extremely difficult thing to do.

I understand that this is a highly speculative question. Do you think that this could be a form of catharsis for sport and that sport will emerge in a new form, one that is much healthier in terms of finances?

This is a very tough question. I think that at every level our society will never be the same after this. First of all it will take a long time before we can get back to our way of life. Even simple things like going to the theatre, going out for dinner or going to a sports game will take time to see how this can be done with social distancing the main factor determining how we relate and interact as human beings. I don’t have a precise answer to your question but I know that in our future, hopefully in the very near future we will have a lot of issues to address. The most important thing right now is that the people have means of surviving, they have enough food, they have a job and are paid on time, everything else will come after this.

Sport is rapidly moving downwards in the hierarchy of our needs.

Well sport is a very important part of our society. Not only for us, actively competing but most importantly for people watching sport. People want to watch football, basketball, tennis. I’m a huge tennis fan and I’m sorry that we have seen Wimbledon being cancelled this year. But this is not important right now. I’m much more concerned about people who will struggle to eat because the economy will take a major hit. The most important challenge that we will face as human beings and entire countries is to be connected and support one another. This is the only way we can overcome this situation. This is more serious I believe that the Great Depression or the period following the Second World War. We have never seen a situation when almost the entire economy is shut down and businesses collapse. Basketball is just a small part of this, there are many issues that our society is going to face.

The current situation is absolutely unprecedented. In the absence of sport, could we move back in time to the beginning of your career and revisit your time in Bologna. The City of Bologna was a true heart of European basketball with Virtus and Fortitudo almost equally strong and fiercely competing in both Italy and Europe. Could you reflect on the time in Bologna when you have won your first Euroleague crown with people like Antoine Rigaudeau, Sasha Danilovic, and Rasho Nesterović?

This was a team with tremendous talent but even more importantly was unbelievably mentally tough. This was a group of players who were extremely close to each other and able to compete under pressure. I remember many close games which we won down the stretch. We overcame Fortitudo in an extremely tough Play Off series thanks to this mental power.

Would you say that it was a completely different breed of players? Tougher and more connected with their clubs than modern stars?

I wouldn’t say that. If we put it this way it looks we are complaining about attitudes of modern players. What was different then it was the fact that the players stayed much longer with their clubs. It was the beginning of the Bosman era, so each country had a huge group of good domestic local players. We were in transition from a scenario when teams had ten domestic players and two foreigners, mainly Americans to a situation when we could have more European players on the team. I remember players like Danilovic who was in Bologna three years during his first spell with the club and four years during his second spell with the club. So he has spent seven years in Bologna in total. This is a long period in sporting career. This was an environment when it was much easier to build continuity. Even nowadays when we look at very successful European teams like Real Madrid or CSKA Moscow they are relying on a core group of players who has been with their clubs for a long time.

I presume also the fact that movement of players between European clubs and NBA clubs was not as frequent as the present time helped to build consistency.

Absolutely yes. But at the same time the NBA has played a tremendous role in developing basketball all over the world. At the beginning of my career, FIBA competitions for national teams were very important, than we could see more and more NBA on videos and finally a lot of international players went to play in the NBA. The game become really global and became bigger and biger. Now the dream for every player, even if he is 19 years old is to play in the NBA. Some of them get drafted and go there very early and try to develop their game in the G-League instead of European clubs .Is that the right way? Is that the wrong way? I don’t know. As a coach I always have the regret that the NBA and Euroleague has never reached an agreement when young drafted players would be allowed to stay in European clubs to develop further for a couple more years before they make a jump to the NBA. This process happened to Nestorovic, Danilovic, Manu Ginobili or Marko Jaric and they became very successful in the NBA. Unfortunately, such an agreement was never reached. I understand the position of NBA clubs. They draft the young player, they are paying a lot of money for him and they want to develop him in the G League by their own coaches. It is very difficult to send such a player back to Europe. Ten years ago when there was no G League there was a real chance to establish proper regulations between Euroleague and the NBA. Now it is very difficult.

Continuing the topic of continuity as a deciding factor for successful teams I would like to ask you about your first spell with CSKA Moscow. In 2006 you broke Maccabi’s grip on Euroleague by beating them in the Final Four in Prague. On that team you had Matjaz Smodis and David Andersen who followed you from Bologna. These guys were joined by people like Trajan Langdon, J R Holden and perhaps most importantly Theódoros Papaloukás. You created a legendary team which has reached four consecutive Euroleague Finals. Could you share your thoughts on this outstanding team?

During my career I was blessed with an opportunity to work with truly great groups of players. All groups which you have mentioned were extremely talented with tons of personality and mental toughness. This mental toughness allowed them to go through so many difficult situations. They also trusted each other very much. Of course there was an incredible amount of talent there. You don’t win without talent.

Well, you have put these groups together. Surely a big proportion of credit must go to you.

Well I made a lot of mistakes too, believe me. Going back to your question I must say that I had a privilege to work with great owners. In that time achieving success was very difficult and required huge investments. It was combination of great owners and a crowd supporting us. Even in times of Bologna we had eight or nine thousand season ticket holders., which was unbelievable. We had a tremendous sponsor with Ferrero Group. At CSKA we had sponsorship from Norilsk Nickel, and Mikhail Prokhorov who later became the owner of the Brooklyn Nets. These people have to take credit because without their investment we wouldn’t be able to sign all these players.

Your first spell with CSKA was the stuff of legend. However your return to Moscow was not equally successful. You have just mentioned making a fair share of mistakes, so perhaps it was then when you committed some of them?

Well you always commit mistakes even when you are winning. You can imagine what must be going on when you lose some important games, I would like to point something which is a very common factor in many successful organisations. After so much previous success at CSKA we were taking qualification for the Eurolegue Final Four for granted. In this situation losing in the semi final was seen as a big disaster. Of course I don’t want to find excuses here or undermine the gravity of these defeats here. Especially against Maccabi in Milan we blew a huge lead and committed a turnover in the final possession and Maccabi ended up winning that title. We came very close but we failed. We were not close enough to each other and not mentally tough as we should be to win these titles. And of course, I made some mistakes. I repeat again, usually you make mistakes when you are winning so for sure I made even more mistakes when we lost.

In 2014 you have moved to San Antonio Spurs which seemed to be a very logical sensible move. You were joining a perfectly run organisation, playing a very team oriented basketball, heavily relying on players  from outside the USA, They have just won the NBA title and were run by the legendary Gregg Popovich. How did these years with Spurs affected you as a coach and human being?

Spurs and Pop has hugely influenced me despite the fact that when I joined them I was already 54 years old. They tremendously influenced me and my family as a person. The way they do things, the way they carry themselves, the way they plan the programme, the care they have for people is tremendous. It has been a tremendous experience for me. Even in thses days when I’m very happy with what I’m doing in Milan, I miss San Antonio and Coach Pop a lot.

I fully understand that but I thought, and I think that many other people thought the same that you will be a natural successor for Gregg Popovich. That has never materialised and you have left Spurs after six years.

Well, Coach Popovich is still there so there is no need for a successor. Secondly, I fully understand that because I was there for six years and had a tremendous relationship with Spurs and Pop for people from outside it may seem that there is a plan for me to replace him as head coach. But I understood from day one that there is no plan. I just have enjoyed my work there. I repeat once more, I understand how it may be seen by people from outside but I understood the situation very clearly from the beginning and knew what was going on. There was no surprise for me whatsoever.

You have explained the situation at San Antonio perfectly well. However you had interviews with several other NBA clubs. One of them was Toronto Raptors. Don’t you have some hint of regret that you didn’t get this job? The job went to someone who didn’t have even a fraction of your experience and he became tremendously successful winning the NBA title

You are putting things together which are not here. When I went to the US to work with Spurs it was not to pursue an NBA head coach position for one simple reason. I was already 54. I knew it would be very difficult and I was there not to pursue anything. I was there to get experience with the San Antonio Spurs because they embodied what I always thought were principles on how to do sport in the right way. When it comes to interviews of course I would have been extremely happy if someone offered me a Head Coach job. When I went through all these processes and five or six times I was among the final two candidates and jobs went to some other colleagues, was I frustrated? Yes, I was. But after 48 hours I was back with the Spurs and I was very happy with the Spurs.

It’s very simple, If you asked me if I regret that I didn’t go to the NBA when I was 42, 43 or 44 the answer is maybe yes. If I had an opportunity then that would have been a smart decision if I wanted to pursue the head coach position and to be the first European head coach in the NBA. Obviously, there was no guarantee that this would happen because it is very difficult to be European Head Coach in the NBA.I will repeat again, yes I do have some regrets and frustrations but I was very happy at Spurs. I hope I have clearly answered your question.

Totally. You have moved to Milan tempted by combining both Head Coach and GM position. What is your plan for Milan and how would you assess the project so far?

We would like to become a consistent franchise in terms of values, in terms of respect which we are receiving from Europe, from players, fans ,executives and agents. The simple fact that we could have attracted players like Sergio Rodriguez tells me that we are on the right track in terms of the respect which we are gaining. We have Giorgio Armani world class personality at the helm of the club. We have to give this club the structure in terms like how we practice, how we select people, how we assist players who play for us, how we handle ourselves on the court and how we handle winning and losing. I think we are on the right track. We have competed against every Euroleague team. We had some wins and some loses but I think next year we will be even better.

Is building a world class junior programme part of your strategy?

We have a very good youth programme. In the next few years we have to decide whether we want to open this programme to the players from outside of the area of Milan and Lombardy. This is an important decision because that involves taking proper care of their educational and sporting provision. We must build these young people not only as players but also as well rounded human beings This is a massive responsibility and you have to have a very strong structure behind you to achieve it. That requires a large investment.


Photographs courtesy of FIBA.Basketball