|Among the many remarkable aspects to CSKA Moscow's first continental title in decades was Ettore Messina doing a masterful job as coach despite a medical scare that struck his family in Prague. On the eve of the semifinal, Messina's 16-month-old son Filippo was overcome by viral infection and needed to be revived by emergency measures before spending the next week hospitalized under intensive care. When not actually on-court coaching, Messina was mostly at his son's hospital bedside during Final Four weekend. That he could still lead CSKA to the title was incredible, but as Messina says in this Euroleague.net interview, he only coped under trying circumstances thanks to the support of many people behind the scenes.
Hi Ettore. In Prague it looked like the smile would never leave your face. Are you still smiling?
"I am smiling even more. Now, with my son getting much better, finally my wife and I can think about and enjoy the great things that happened basketball-wise over that weekend in Prague. So, I am even happier at this moment, not only for what we did, but for the great atmosphere in our club the whole time, the great sportsmanship shown to us by the people of Maccabi. This title was a special moment that came in a very special atmosphere for us."
Indeed, watching you coach at the Final Four, few people would have known you were also dealing with the sudden, frightening illness of your son in Prague. Can you tell us what happened and how you were able to balance your responsibilities as a coach and a father under such difficult circumstances?
"What happened was, just the day after we arrived, he was not feeling well. My wife and my son came with me to the press conference, near the hotel, and when they went back, his temperature went up a lot. He was shaking and he kept getting worse. Then he even lost consciousness for about 10 minutes. We were very lucky to be helped by the doctor from Maccabi Tel Aviv at the hotel, and then an ambulance was called and he was taken to the hospital. As we found out later, he was suffering from a very serious viral infection. Once treatment began at the hospital in Prague, he responded little by little. But those first minutes were very, very bad. I have to thank everyone who helped us, the Euroleague, Mr. Jordi Bertomeu, his staff and the team doctors, the doctors at hospital, obviously everyone at my club and the players. But the most important person of all was my wife Laura. She spent the whole weekend in the hospital until Monday evening when I could replace her. I can't say enough about her doing so much in a situation that was very difficult to understand. The fact that she took the entire load on her... I owe here everything. Her effort gave me strength and made it possible to keep doing my job, even though my assistant coaches, Emanuele Molin and Evgeny Pashutin, took a lot on their shoulders. They took responsibility for all the game preparations, preparing practices and videos, in order to leave me just the task of coaching the game. I was fortunate to be surrounded by great people in such a difficult moment."
The whole situation must have been incredible stress and pressure for you. When did you feel you could breath easier?
"It was probably Sunday, but even on Sunday, doctors had to give him general anesthesia in tha afternoon because hewas still running high temperatures and they had a lot of difficulty finding a vein to give him intravenous medication and nutrition. He didn't finally come out of the hospital until Wednesday evening, and after that the club arranged a charter flight to take us back to Moscow. With us throughout all this was Vera Vakulenko of CSKA, who I have to thank also. She stayed with us and coordinated everything until Thursday, when she flew back with us. She was very supportive, not only coordinating everything, but morally supportive, as a friend. So like I said, it hasn't been until now, after all this help, that we are back close to normal and I can say we are fully enjoying what the team did in Prague.
Speaking of basketball, especially for CSKA, which had so much trouble winning the semifinal before, the Final Four in Prague must have been like two title games. Did it feel that way to you, also?
"We felt that Barcelona had a lot of depth and different looks they could give us on the court. In that sense, we had to be extremely ready, myself and my players, to react to everything they did. We had to be ready to recognize a lot of situations, as well as expect a very physical confrontation. It was different in that way from the championship game. Maccabi is known for its beautiful basketball, played with great flow and speed. We found a way to play slow-down basketball against them, forcing them not to play such nice team basketball as they are used to. In the end, we managed to succeed, and it's true that both games were extremely difficult."
In the final against Maccabi, when your team fell behind by 7-0 to start, you called a timeout. From that point on, CSKA played steady and slowly but surely got stronger. What did you tell your guys in that early timeout?
"We wanted to review the things we had said to them while preparing the game. For sure, we knew that Maccabi would come out strong at us. If we panicked then, Maccabi would have done the same to us as they did to the two finalists before us. We told our guys to keep calm and keep doing our things, that if we got out of our way of playing, we would have problems. There was no screaming or nothing like that. My players didn't need that. We reminded them that what we had spoken about before the game we were now seeing, and we had to face it. And as tends to happen, one or two players picked us up them, Matjaz Smodis with a three-pointer and David Vanterpool with a jump shot. It was 7-5 then and our confidence came back. Theo Papaloukas then came in and played terrific. Alexey Savrasenko gave us a big moment with his block of Nikola Vujcic and run to the other end for a dunk. A lot of little things started coming together then, and we found our team chemistry."
When we saw you sitting on the bench at some point near the end, was that a sign that you knew your team had it?
"A little earlier, after another three-point shot by Matjaz followed another that Trajan Langdon hit, I saw we were taking control. Theo and the other guys knew what to do, so I felt confident. I later saw myself sitting on the bench in the video of the game. I was not afraid and my team was not. But to say there was a special moment when I knew the game was ours, not really. Only when Trajan hit the last two free throws could we be really sure."
You have been on top of Europe before this title, of course. Especially now, considering that world opinion about European basketball is maybe higher than ever, what is it like to be back on top?
"It might sound funny, but it's like a dream. More seriously, however, I accepted the offer from Sergey Kushchenko last year, to leave a great club like Benetton, because I told myself I would like to try to win the Euroleague one more time before my coaching career is over. To have it happen after one year has been amazing. And to do it with this club full of great people has made me really, really happy. When I saw people from the club crying after we won, I was so happy, for me and for them - Sergey, Vera and many others who worked hard for that moment. Having left Italy for the first time last summer with my wife and child to go to Moscow, and leaving my elder daughter who's going to graduate in the summer, had already given us a new sensation of experience in life, a great sensation even before Prague. But now, after winning the title, it's just like filling the circle, making the circle complete."