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Italy, then and now
Veteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. For the new 2010-11 season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!
Montepaschi Siena was the protagonist this week, in the Playoffs opener against Olympiacos, of several negative records in the Euroleague. Two days after losing by 48 points (one such record), however, they managed to find the strength, more mental than physical, to bounce back and win by 17 in the same court to bring the series to a 1-1 and take it home to Siena with more optimism. If Siena manages to make the Barcelona Final Four in May, it will improve a rather bad season for Italian teams. AJ Milano didn't make the Top 16, Lottomatica Roma did but could not make the Playoffs. The last Euroleague champion from Italy was Kinder Bologna in 2001, which defeated Tau Ceramica in a Playoff series (3-2) in the first edition of the Euroleague as we know it today. Since then, three Italian teams have lost the title game: Kinder in 2002, Benetton Basket in 2003 and Skipper Bologna in 2004. Since then, there has been only one more Final Four appearance, Siena at Madrid 2008. If to that we also add the failures of the Italian national team, unable to qualify for the last two Eurobaskets, I think it's clear that Italian basketball, on all levels, is enduring a deep crisis. Montepaschi Siena is the last hope.
The Golden Years
The current situation is totally the opposite of that which spanned the years between 1966, when Simenthal Milano won its first European title, and 2001, when Kinder won the last one. In those 35 years, teams from Italy won 13 titles (Ignis Varese 5, Squib/Ford Cantu 2, Tracer Milano 2, Banco di Roma 1) and lost 11 finals! Very few were the years without an Italian team in the title game. Great national players and excellent foreign additions formed teams for the ages which inspired both envy an admiration across Europe. Ignis Varese, with Cantu the smallest cities to ever produce a European champ, played 10 straight finals and won 5 of them between 1970 and 1979. The start of the eighties belonged to Cantu, with two titles and then Banco di Roma confirmed the Italian dominance a couple of years later.
The peak of this domination was the final of the 1982-83 season, played on March 24, 1983 in Grenoble, France between the European champ Ford Cantu and the Italian champ Billy Milano (fomer Simenthal and future Tracer). It marked the third time that teams from the same country played for the title (after ASK Riga vs. Dinamo Tbilisi in 1960 and CSKA Moscow vs. ASK Riga in 1961) but it was the first time two teams from Italy did so. It happened because, for that season, FIBA had changed the rules and allowed the European champ to defend the title even if it had not won its previous national championship. Cantu had lost the Italian League in a strange playoff series. It ended fourth in the regular season, and fell in quarterfinals to the fifth-place team, Synudine Bologna. On the other hand, Billy Milano, third in the regular season, and coached by Dan Peterson just like today, got rid of Cideno Brescia in quarterfinals (2-1), Berloni Torino in semis (2-0) and then Scavolini Pesaro, the regular season champ, in the finals (2-0). Milano had a great team, with veteran Dino Meneghin after his 14 seasons in Varese, but he was only slightly older than 30. With Mike D'Antoni, Roberto Premier, Vittorio Ferrachini, Franco Boselli, John Gianelli... it was a very powerful team, with D'Antoni also playing as the 'extended hand' of Coach Peterson on court. It's favorite defensive system was a 1-3-1 zone press. Meanwhile, Cantu had undergone unexpected change on the bench due to unusual circumstances: it is said that Valerio Bianchini left the team because his wife, an actress from Rome, could not adapt to the everyday life of such a small and industrial city as Cantu. Bianchini signed for Roma and won the Euroleague in 1984, but Cantu also did well in his absence. They signed Giancarlo Primo, who then was 58, a man with a long history in the Italian national team.
Brewer's historic block
In the first eliminatory rounds of the 1982-83 season, the Italian teams didn't have any problems. Fort Cantu defeated Dudelange of Luxembourg (99-51 and 104-46) while in the eighthfinals it was better than Olympique Fribourg of Switzerland (112-75 and 108-79). On the other side, Billy Milano eliminated Eczacibasi Istanbul (86-82 and 104-72) and later Le Mans of France (85-64 and 86-79). In the next stage, with six-team groups, Cantu finished first (7-3), Billy was second (7-3 also but losing the tiebreaker with Cantu). After them came Real Madrid (6-4), CSKA Moscow and Maccabi Tel Aviv (5-5) and Cibona Zagreb (0-10). In the first group game, Cantu won by 69-63 while in the second, Billy won in Milano by 71-66. The big final in Grenoble would solve the question of who was the better team. The relative proximity of the French city, allowed for a massive exodus of Italian fans to the game. More than 3,000 arrived from Cantu while Milano brought in about 2,000. The referees were Ian Mainini of France and Ljubomir Kotleba of Czechoslovachia. Mainini is the current president of FIBA World since last September while Kotleba has been Sports Director and Referees Director at the same organization for many years.
The big problem for Cantu was an ankle injury to its great leader, Pierluigi Marzorati (7 points in the final), who played almost limping. The foreigners were the ones that had to pull the team: Jim Brewer (14 points) and Wallace Bryant (18) and young Italian talent Antonello Riva (18) were the ones. The game was exciting, excellent and very balanced. Cantu was leading by 7 at the break (29-22) but Milano fought hard until the end. With a 69-68 on the scoreboard, with 13 seconds to play, the ball was in D'Antoni's hands. Instead of trying to penetrate, he chose to pass the ball to Franco Boselli (for the trivia lovers, his twin brother Dino was also on the team), a great shooter. But this time, the ball didn't go in. On the rebound, John Gianelli (20 points) grabbed the offensive rebound, and when everybody was sure of another basket by him, Brewer's hand came out of nowhere for a huge block, the most famous one until in 1996 Stojan Vrankovic blocked Jose Antonio Montero's shot in the polemic Paris final between Panathinaikos and FC Barcelona. That's the way Cantu won its last Euroleague title to date. Meneghin and Premier got stuck at 6 points each and maybe that was the reason why Ford Cantu could win the title.
As of today, according to the Italian League standings, Cantu, under the new name Bennet, is second with AJ Milano and right now it could be back to the Euroleague in 2011-12. It's never too late to get back on one's feet.
Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net
Saturday, March 26, 2011
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