We are less than four weeks away from another Final Four, the summit of the competition. The format was imported, as everything in basketball, from the United States, where it began with the annual NCAA Tournament in 1939. In Europe, the Final Four format saw the light of day in 1966 in Bologna, Italy, with Olimpia Milan, Slavia Prague, CSKA Moscow and AEK Athens taking part. The following year, in Madrid, Spain, the teams were Real Madrid, Milan, Slavia and Olimpija Ljubljana, but FIBA then shelved this format until 1988. This long pause of 21 years is the reason why I do not count those first two editions in today's article, simply because those coaches never had the chance to repeat the success.
It is important to note that this list only includes coaches from the modern era of the Final Four, that is to say, since 1988. That's why you won't find the names of some great coaches like Aleksandar Nikolic, Pedro Ferrandiz and Aleksandar Gomelskiy. To choose this Top 10, I not only counted the titles they won, but also their full careers of Final Four appearances. I also considered the lengths of their careers, their club's size, tradition and budget, and even the development of young players. Reaching a Final Four is a great prize for hard work during a season. The title is the cherry on top, but we must remember the legacy left by coaches.
Here are some general figures:
- - There are 45 coaches who participated in at least one Final Four (counting the 2001 SuproLeague and the EuroLeague semifinals of that same year).
- - There are 14 coaches with at least one title under their belts. All of them deserve to be in the Top 10, but I had to discard six because I included two who never won the title.
- - There have been 29 participating clubs in the Final Four.
- - Those 45 coaches are from 12 different countries.
- - The country with the most Final Four coaches was Italy (7), followed by Serbia and Greece (6 apiece).
- - The largest number of appearances comes from Serbian coaches (35, including this season), followed by Italians (21).
10. Dimitris Itoudis (born in 1970)
The youngest of the elite, but in just his third year coaching CSKA he's already in his third Final Four and won the title in 2016. This season, he has a chance to win another. For 13 years he was more than Zeljko Obradovic's assistant coach at Panathinaikos, where they lifted five EuroLeague trophies together. A physical education teacher and a passionate basketball coach, Itoudis is a modern coach with clear ideas. He has put CSKA back atop European basketball.
9. David Blatt (1959)
The only head coach who worked in big European clubs as well as the NBA (Cleveland). He was EuroLeague champ with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2014 and also won the Coach of the Year award. He also guided Maccabi to the 2002 and 2011 Final Fours, and was assistant coach there for their 2001 SuproLeague and 2004 EuroLeague crowns. He showed his coaching abilities this year with Darussafaka Dogus, a team few counted on being in the playoffs. He also won the EuroBasket with Russia in 2007 and a bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012.
8. Pablo Laso (1967)
He has spent all of his EuroLeague coaching career with Real Madrid. In six years he won a title for Madrid in 2015 and also lost a pair of finals (2013 and 2014), but he has made his presence in the elite permanent. As a player he was a great point guard and assist master and his coaching style mirrors his playing style: fast, joyful, with a lot of scoring and with freedom for his players to create. He has established a healthy rivalry with Itoudis, like Nikolic had with Ferrandiz and Gomelskiy in the old days.
7. Aito Garcia Reneses (1946)
A man of basketball who has been in the game for more than 50 years. He is a coach without a EuroLeague title, but won the Cup Winners' Cup, two Korac Cups (with Barcelona), a ULEB Cup and a FIBA Eurocup (with Joventut). For some, six Final Four appearances without a title is failure, but we can look at it another way: he was always there, proving great work over the long term, and especially showing a great ability to find new talents and give them an opportunity. Aito discovered names like Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio and Kristaps Porzingis. He was also an Olympic finalist with Spain in Beijing in 2008.
6. Xavi Pascual (1972)
Another member of the new coaching generation, he's been in the EuroLeague less than 10 years, but already won a title (2010 with Barcelona) and has made five Final Four appearances. After eight years working in Barcelona, he went abroad for the first time this season with Panathinaikos and did rather well. He won a Greek Cup and took the Greens to the EuroLeague playoffs. He's a systematic coach with no big desires to experiment or take risks, but always willing and able to get the best out of his players.
5. Dusan Ivkovic (1943)
A veteran who retired last year after a long and successful career. He won two EuroLeague crowns with Olympiacos (1997, 2012) and made eight Final Four appearances with three teams: PAOK Thessaloniki, Olympiacos and CSKA Moscow. He is the only coach ever to have won all the European trophies, as he also won the Saporta Cup with AEK Athens and the ULEB Cup with Dynamo Moscow. He was also a EuroBasket champ three times with Yugoslavia, with whome he also won a World Championship and made it to an Olympic final.
4. Pini Gershon (1951)
If we count the 2001 SuproLeague, Gershon was a three-time European champ with Maccabi with five Final Four appearances. He is not your usual coach as he had a colorful temperament. His teams always played fast, attractive basketball with lots of fastbreaks. He is also a great motivator and a coach loved by the media because he never minced words and always spoke his mind, usually with a high dose of humor. He took Maccabi to back-to-back crowns in 2004 and 2005, something that only Olympiacos has repeated since.
3. Bozidar Maljkovic (1952)
He's the first coach who repeated as a EuroLeague champ in the Final Four era, in 1989 and 1990, with Jugoplastika Split. He was also a finalist with Barcelona in 1991. He became the first coach to win titles with three different teams when he won the crown with Limoges in 1993 and then again with Panathinaikos in 1996, the first Greek team ever to win the title. He had three more appearances in the Final Four and is a master of adapting to the style of the team and the players he has at his disposal.
2. Ettore Messina (1959)
One of the most charismatic coaches, a four-time EuroLeague champ: two with Virtus Bologna and two more with CSKA Moscow, totaling 11 Final Four appearances. He helped a young Manu Ginobili in Bologna lift the 2001 EuroLeague title and is now coaching him again in San Antonio in the NBA, where Messina is an assistant for Gregg Popovic. He was also the coach who took CSKA back to the top of Europe in 2006, 35 years after it has last won the title. Messina coached in almost 400 EuroLeague games with Virtus, Benetton, CSKA and Real Madrid. He was also a finalist at EuroBasket 1997 with Italy.
1. Zeljko Obradovic (1960)
The record-holder with no opposition: eight EuroLeague titles and, counting this season, 16 Final Four appearances. Obradovic has coached 533 games in European competitions, all of them in the EuroLeague except for 37 in the Saporta Cup. He has won the EuroLeague with four different teams: Partizan, Joventut, Real Madrid and Panathinaikos. Obradovic has also played at least one Final Four with each team he has ever coached. With Benetton he was third in Barcelona 1998 and he is now headed to his third straight Final Four with Fenerbahce Istanbul. If we take into account his two Saporta Cup titles, there are no more fingers on his hands for more rings, but if he takes the title with Fenerbahce he will write history once again, because no Turkish team has ever won the EuroLeague before.