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May 22, 2013
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50 Years interview: Bob Morse, Varese
He had a long-distance shooting style that was as mellifluous as the name of his native city, Philadelphia. But when Bob Morse came to Varese, Italy in 1972, he knew little about European basketball and vice-versa. He was booed by the home fans early in his first game in the uniform of Varese, which had won two of the previous three continental titles. Then he started hitting nothing but net for most of the next seven seasons. In the middle years of European basketball's biggest dynasty - 10 consecutive finals and five trophies in seven seasons - Morse was Varese's top scorer in its last two title-game victories, dropping 30 and 28 points, respectively, on Real Madrid in 1975 and 1976. He did it all before the three-point shot, too. Now a university professor teaching Italian in the United States, Morse is headed to Madrid for the Final Four after being voted one of the greatest contributors to the first 50 Years of European Club Basketball. "We already had the sense that what we were doing was historic," Morse recalled for Euroleague.net. "Three out of four was pretty impressive already, but to go along and make the final again and again through to 1979 was unheard of. Year by year, that just impressed me and the team's fans that this was something that had never been done before."
Hello, Mr. Morse. As someone who was part of European pro basketball's biggest dynasty ever, Varese in the 1970s, what is your biggest memory of that time?
"I played in seven out of the 10 finals, and the one that really stands out is the 1975 one in Antwerp, when we played Real Madrid. They were the defending champions and had beaten us the year before. Unfortunately, in the game before the finals, in the Italian championship, Dino Meneghin broke his hand and was out for that game. We had a good team. I think we won every game up until then, even on the road in those double-match series. We approached the game positive. Charlie Yelverton matched up against Wayne Brabender and did a great job until he got in foul trouble. Without Dino and going against a great Real Madrid team, were 15- or 20-point underdogs in that game. I remember playing against Clifford Luyk because I was playing center on defense, and I was not used to that. I played shooting forward mostly, but with Dino out, we had a big hole there. We just came up with really good game and shut down their two biggest scorers, Brabender and Walt Szczerbiak, and went on to win by 13 points, which was just huge for us. I remember that game distinctly, in that small gym in Antwerp. Definitely, that's the European Cup final that stands out most in my mind, because they were so favored to beat us."
You arrived to Varese in 1972, after the team had already won a couple European titles. How did your expectations of European basketball while arriving compare with what you learned as you became a part of it?
"I didn't really know that much when I first tried out for the team back in May of 1972. I got to know city of Varese, the team members and our coach, Aleksandar Nikolic, especially. He was impressed enough to sign me to a two-year contract. My real education came when I first arrived for training camp. We didn't go to Varese, but instead to a bunch of exhibition tournament games, which were most outdoors at time, 10 or 11 on the road at different resorts around Italy. I was impressed by Nikolic's coaching. He was really strong on physical conditioning, and had a special coach for that, which at the time was unusual. The emphasis was so much on physical conditioning that we went for 10 days to a mountain resort and didn't touch a basketball the whole time. Instead we did cross country running, calesthenics, weights, time trials on a track in the afternoon. I got in the best shape I had been in until that time. I think that was the key for me in that first season, in which we won the European Cup, the International Cup in Brazil, as well as the Italian League and Italian Cup, and I won the Italian League scoring title. I certainly didn't have all those expectations when I arrived, but it became clear after the players form the national team joined us following the Olympics that September, with Dino among them, that we had a strong team that could do good things. I seemed to fit well as a scorer and rebounder.
You mentioned Aca Nikolic. What can you tell us about playing for one of the legendary coaches of all time?
"I mentioned a little about Nikolic's emphasis on physical conditioning. That carried over to the season, as well, when we had practices with only physical conditioning. He was also big on shooting, which was my forte already. But he did some things that I had never experienced in the U.S.. He was big on fundamentals, both individual defense and team defense, help and recover. He had us get up on Sunday morning before games for exhaustive team meetings, more than an hour, with scouting reports for each opposing player, telling us their tendencies, what to expect, their weak points and strong points, how to shut them down. He was an amazing tactician, too, and just really understood the game of basketball. He was very adamant that we had to play the way he wanted. If we ran a play, we had to run it the way it was drawn. He wasn't big on individual improvising. He was certainly a great coach who deserves his place in the hall of fame. I had good coaches in college, one of which was Chuck Daily, a great people manager and motivator. But in terms of tactics and the technical side of the game, I don't think anyone surpassed Nikolic, in my opinion."
You mentioned Dino Meneghin and you also played with stars like Manuel Raga, the "Flying Mexican", during his latter years in Varese. What was that like?
"When Nikolic signed me to the contract, it was not clear who between Manuel and me could play in Italian championship, due to restrictions on foreigners. He had me and Raga play against each other in practice and one-on-one after practices to get a better idea whom he should play, and also to stimulate us to perform at our maximum and develop. He was crafty, so he didn't tell me I would play until a few days before the start of the Italian championship. The first game we played at home, and I think I missed my first six shots, because I was nervous. The crowd started chanting 'Manuel! Manuel!' Then I made my next 10 shots, I think, so they quieted down a little. Those Italian fans, as many in Europe, were so emotional and 'out there' for their teams. They didn't just sit back and watch games, but were an active part of it. That first year, I didn't understand their chants, but I had a feeling they weren't all that decent."
Of course, Varese's top opponent was Real Madrid, as you had a great sports rivalry with Wayne Brabender and Walter Szczerbiak, another natural-born scorer. How big were those games back then?
"We shared a common background in American basketball even though those guys became naturalized Spaniards. We were friendly with each other. We would sometimes get together before games and hang out a little bit. I think that Wayne, Walter and I all appreciated the position we were in. We were on some of best teams in Europe. To play for such organizations like Real Madrid, one of premier organizations in the world, and Varese at that time, despite it being a small city of 80,000 people, being one Italy's top basketball organizations, we had a sense that this was really something to be appreciated. And here I am 35 years later talking about it. It was big."
Varese's five titles in just seven seasons and10 Euroleague finals in a row are hard to imagine now. Did you feel then the historical significance of Varese's run?
"I think we already had the sense that what we were doing was historic, yes. That sense came to me after we won the title in my first year. Nikolic had been there only four years, but had won three titles. Three out of four was pretty impressive already, but to go along and make the final again and again through to 1979 was unheard of. Year by year, that just impressed me and the team's fans that this was something that had never been done before. I definitely had that sense. The final game was always special. Back then, there were only few TV channels, but I heard once - and I don't know if it's true - that there was a final, broadcast Europe-wide on TV, with an audience in the neighborhood of 35 million. So it was a great stage for all of us to be on."
People in Europe still talk about your shooting skills. Of course, Europeans in general have a reputation for great shooting now. Who influenced whom?
"It's not a simple question, but I think there was a back-and-forth relationship. The fact that I was a good shooter might have affected some younger players to concentrate on the game in that way. But when I came, I can remember playing against Yugoslav teams that had outstanding shooters already. Drazen Dalipagic and Kresimir Cosic were outstanding shooters, and the Yugoslav coaches emphasized it, as I said. It was not uncommon to hear of guys shooting 500 shots a day before practice and 100 shots after. That's something we just didn't emphasize as much in college, even with the great coaches we had at University of Pennsylvania. Shooting was important, just not so emphasized. I certainly developed as a shooter after I got to Europe. My percentages kept rising from the first year onward. Even after Nikolic left, we still had shooting practices before games that were enough to make you tired. We had to make 60 jump shots dribbling the length of the court, something tough that I had never done before. They recorded shots taken and how many were needed to make 30. Those exercises helped me. I played with the three-pointer just for two years at the end of my career, but it would have been nice to have that three-point line during the seven European Cup finals I played!"
Looking back, how important was your European basketball experience? Do you stay in touch with your old teammates or go back to visit Varese?
"It has been extremely important to me. I do go back to Italy on occasion. I was in Varese last year and keep in touch with several former teammates. We visit each other when we can. I have always maintained some kind of contact with Italy and certainly with basketball for a long time. I recently made a career change and am now a full-time teacher of Italian, instead of just teaching in my spare time. So every day I speak Italian and teach it. And that comes from my full immersion in Varese, because I didn't start out learning Italian in a classroom. I learned it in the locker room."
Friday, April 18, 2008