Mutual Ignorance

Italian coaching supremo, Sergio Scariolo talks to us about the reasons behind his move from Toronto to Bologna and his hopes for the Olympic games in Tokyo

In your interview with one of radio stations from Malaga you were talking about a clear glass ceiling for European coaches in the NBA. They simply are not trusted to take a head coaching roles. 

Well, I wouldn’t say not trusted but a different perspective how they take advantage of your skills and your talent, but they are not ready for this final step of giving the responsibility to someone who is coming from a different basketball. Unless of course this person has spent many, many years in the American system making this step upwards pretty slowly. Actually, I understand it and don’t blame anyone for this situation. It is a very clear situation; these teams are making so much money and they know how to spend it and how to run their own business. From my perspective I was so happy for this experience I had a great three years there, with an unbelievable organisation and great coaches around me. We won a Championship; I have been a head coach for a few games so I couldn’t ask for more. Having said that after three years I have learnt so much and I had plenty of new experience that was probably the time to move. The opportunity to coach Bologna came up, I thought over it for a while and then decided to take it. 

But why don’t the NBA organisations trust European coaches? 

I will ask you then why top European teams don’t trust American coaches? 

This was going to be my next question. Maybe these two styles of basketball are so far removed from each other that European coaches are not fully trusted in the NBA while American coaches have negligible success in Europe? 

As a person who has been between these two worlds for the past three years the only answer which I can give is that the deep knowledge of European coaches about American basketball and knowledge of American coaches about European system is very basic. Very basic indeed. Both worlds will be looking at the same players to require for their teams and draw a completely different conclusion.  Neither of these worlds is interested in coaches who could do this process far more efficient. The experience of us who went to the NBA has been really good. At least I hope that we have open the door a bit wider for the next generation of coaches, The example of Zalgiris coach Martin Schiller has been really good. If you want me to describe the situation with one word, my choice of word would be a little bit of Ignorance. Or lack of deep knowledge of what kind of experience coaches from G League or the NBA have in comparison with coaches from Europe. Maybe due to this clubs are shying away from making this decision.  

Somehow, I can’t imagine that after winning a World Championship, Olympic Silver medal and 3 European Championships you could be called ignorant. Perhaps you weren’t aware of some small differences but surely after a short period of time you have caught up with them. Surely you didn’t go there completely green when it comes to American basketball. 

Of course not. But from my level of experience to taking a head coaching job in the NBA there is an ocean. We are talking here about American mentality, Not European one. They ask European to come to America to prove themselves, to show what you are able to do. To show in a couple of seasons their confidence and get the respect of the league. They will give you responsibilities, they will give you a plenty of options to help and show your worth to the team. This is a key. They won’t keep you in the corner if they feel that you can contribute to the organisation, they will give you plenty of space and responsibilities. Perhaps I wouldn’t call it freedom, but you have a lot of options to contribute. But when we are talking about power positions, the head coach positions, these positions are going still to Americans. Of course, not all Americans but very carefully selected ones. It is what it is, and it is a waste of time to overthink it. Look you don’t go someone else’s house and tell them what to do or how to act or demand them to make decisions which you are hoping for. It is their place, their house. 

I understand that part. What I don’t understand is what aspects of knowledge you were lacking in comparison to a coach who has coached BBL in the UK? 

I don’t know. I think this more of a question for the NBA’s GM’s and presidents than me. I know that I have done my best. I know that I was highly evaluated, and I had lot of responsibilities. I take a great pride from being a big part of a championship team. I know that when I had to step in as a head coach, I have done my job and people were happy so I’m at peace with myself and the situation which I’m in. 

I remember our conversation from over decade ago when you were offered a job with Armani Milan. You haven’t taken it then because you didn’t want to be involved in a project which is in its infancy stage. Now you are taking over Bologna which is admittedly an Italian champion but is very far from its former glory days. So, what were the reasons behind your decision? 

I would say Bologna is somewhere in the middle of this process and there is a lot of work to do especially in terms of basketball structure of the team. A lot of upsizing but at the same time the team is competitive, and we want to be in Euroleague. The sooner the better. We have a clear ambition to be an ultimate competitor in all competitions which we will take part in. 

Do you think that your job will somehow be easier by the fact that you already have a fierce competitor in Armani Milano and competition always stimulates growth? The entire Italian basketball seems to be enjoying better fortune. Your national team has qualified for Olympic games in Tokyo. 

First of all, we must keep in mind that last year Brindisi was the real winner. They had a horrific outbreak of Covid at the end of the season. There is always a couple of other teams in Italy which are very competitive. A couple of years ago it was Venice or Sassari so there never has been a clear dominance of one team. There are always teams which step up and play at the level of two traditionally dominant teams. Actually, there is one dominant team and the team which has won the championship taking advantage of circumstances at Armani Milano. We must improve fast because the competition in the EuroCup is ferocious. 

So, at what positions you need to mainly strengthen your squad? 

We are looking basically at two positions. We are looking for a point guard and the centre. We also have the situation with Vince Hunter who has a positive antidoping control. We see what the sanctions for this will be.  

Your success with the Spanish National Team is without parallel in international basketball. You are going to the Olympics with a team which combines two generations of Spanish players. What are your ambitions at this tournament bearing in mind that the Americans are far from their previous superiority? 

We have a few veterans who are probably at the end of their career in the national team. We also have a pretty good new generation, which obviously is not as phenomenal as a previous one but still very good one. These players have been developing in a very cohesive and structured way in our programmes starting from U18 and U20 teams and then progressing to the teams competing in FIBA windows games. So, there is history behind this generation of players who are stepping up. Unfortunately, probably the most talented of them Juancho” Hernangómez is not going to make Olympics due to the injury. I’m very optimistic about competing at a high level. How high it is hard to say because without Hernangomez we have a big hole, and we have to figure out how to strategically cover it. We have our ideas, and we know who the guys are who need to step up and count on. We have already planned the next three years of our development and we know what needs to be done. Obviously, the action on the court will be the final verification of our plans. 

While long term future seems to be under control in the immediate term you must deal with the case of Pau Gasol coming back to the team. How does he fit in your plans and how does his return affect the team? 

He fits very well. He has a great personality combined with a great modesty and humility. Obviously, his role is a different than before and the first person who recognises this is Pau himself and he accepts it. How he deals with this role is a big example for our young players. Actually, he is also a great example for our veteran players showing them how to deal with reduced playing time. He is working very hard showing things which I have never seen him doing before. It was a real surprise for me. No matter how much you love and appreciate him, Pau will always surprise you with something good. This is my take from our first 3 weeks of the training camp. 

Many thanks for the interview and all the best in Tokyo 

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