Born on New Year's Day of 1952 in Milan, Franco Casalini was the assistant coach at Olimpia Milano from 1977 to 1987. He then took over as head coach for four years, winning the first Final Four of the modern era in 1988, his debut season at the head of the club's bench.
What we will see at the Mediolanum Forum on the evening of May 16 will NOT be the first Euroleague semifinals to be played in Milan.
In actual fact, a semifinal of the top continental competition was played in my city way back on March 30, 1966 when it was still named the Champions Cup, in the glorious Palalido, an older arena of Milan. I know, because I watched it in person myself. The Final Four format was tried that year for the first time in Europe, used again in 1967, but then dropped.
Neither of the two rivals for that 1966 semifinal in Milan was the home team, however. Instead, the Slavia Prague team of the great Jiri Zidek, maybe the best center in Europe then, played AEK Athens and its giant at the time, 2.16-meter Giorgos Trontzos. They were complemented by two more legends, Jiri Zednicek, a talented and solid small forward for Prague, and lethal shooter Giorgos Amerikanos of AEK.
It was the first Final Four in European basketball history, but it was also the only one ever to take place in two cities. The other semifinal, between Simmenthal Milano of the unforgettable Bill Bradley and CSKA Moscow, led by Armenak Alachachan, was to be played the next evening in Bologna, which was the venue for the title game, too.
In our then-narrow circle of Milanese basketball devotees, the event was very big news. Since travel and communications were very different back then, the Prague and Athens teams had to make do without their own supporters - save for a few Greek fans from the Milan community. Still, Palalido attracted a good crowd for the start of their semifinal. Everybody was anxious to see two great teams go head-to-head, and just like now, none of us wanted to miss a great basketball event, in the hope that we would see one of these two teams against our very own Simmenthal in the title game.
Slavia Prague dominated that first and soon-to-be last European semifinal in Milan. Despite having a tooth taken out the night before the game, Zidek scored 30 points in leading Prague to a 103-73 victory. I remember that AEK's most efficient player that night was a small guard, Christos Zoupas, who scored 14 points. We were only that much happier a few days later when Simmenthal defeated Prague 77-72 for Italy's first European basketball title.
There's a famous photo of that memorable day where Skip Thoren, the American center for Simmenthal, who scored 21 points in the final, cuts the net from one of the baskets of the Palazzo dello Sport of Bologna. Well I was there, too, although hidden within the photo by the enthusiastic crowd. I would never have imagined, as a 14 year old boy, that I would one day be seated on that same bench occupied by Simmenthal's coach, Cesare Rubini, in the first Final Four of the new era, in 1988, and would lift the trophy as he did in 1966.
But yes, my friends, life and basketball and Final Fours are marvelous things! Let's enjoy the first "full" Final Four in Milan next month!